Masters of the Big House: Elite Slaveholders of the Mid-Nineteenth-Century South

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William Kauffman Scarborough has produced a work of incomparable scope and depth, offering the challenge to see afresh one of the most powerful groups in American history -- the wealthiest southern planters who owned 250 or more slaves in the census years of 1850 and 1860. The identification and tabulation in every slaveholding state of these lords of economic, social, and political influence reveals a highly learned class of men who set the tone for southern society while also involving themselves in the wider world of capitalism. Scarborough examines the demographics of elite families, the educational philosophy and religiosity of the nabobs, gender relations in the Big House, slave management methods, responses to secession, and adjustment to the travails of Reconstruction and an alien postwar world.

LSU Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807131558
  • Publisher: Louisiana State University Press
  • Publication date: 4/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 544
  • Sales rank: 949,857
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

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LSU Press


LSU Press

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Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1 Social and Demographic Characteristics 18
2 Religious and Cultural Characteristics 52
3 Wives, Mothers, and Daughters: Gender Relations in the Big House 90
4 Agrarian Empires: Acquisition, Production, Profits, Problems, and Management 122
5 Toiling for Old "Massa": Slave Labor on the Great Plantations 175
6 Capitalists All: Investments and Capital Accumulation Outside the Agricultural Sector 217
7 Political Attitudes and Influence: The Response of the Elite to the First Sectional Crisis 238
8 The Road to Armageddon: The Role of the Planter Elite in the Secession Crisis 275
9 Days of Judgment: The Demise of a Slave Society 316
10 Postwar Adjustment: The Legacy of Emancipation and Defeat 373
11 Lords and Capitalists: The Ideology of the Master Class 406
App. A Slaveholders with 500 or More Slaves, 1850 427
App. B Slaveholders with 500 or More Slaves, 1860 431
App. C Elite Slaveholders by State of Residence, 1850 439
App. D Elite Slaveholders by State of Residence, 1860 456
Bibliography 485
Index 503
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  • Posted April 18, 2010

    Through letters and contemporaneous writings one is given a glimpse into the world of the the persons profiting from the the large slave based industrial farm system. Like today they could not separate immediate profit and comfort from the obvious.

    The masters of the "Big House" were the actors, carrying out the consequences of the profound failure of the "founding fathers" to come to grips with an acknowledged evil, the slave trade and slavery, which failure led to the tragedy of the civil war. The "owners" of the "big houses" portray themselves as what they are - the beneficiaries of the failure of the union to enforce the 1808 ban on the slave trade. Interesting and insightful, but the author fails to integrate the attitudes of the southern plantation mogul with the larger world. Instead, the author limits the reach and vision of his research by opining against what he perceives as some sort of "Marxist" interpretation of history, including the history of slavery. None the less a must read.

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