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Historians and the Extent of Slave Ownership in the Southern United States

For generations historians have been almost unanimous in emphasizing that black slaves were owned by a surprisingly small minority of whites. Allan Nevins states in his distinguished history of the Civil War era that "from the terms used in the angry discussion of slavery, it might have been supposed that almost the whole Southern population had a direct interest in it. Actually, of the 6,184,477 white folk in the slave States, only 347,525 were listed by the census of 1850 as owners, and even this number gave an exaggerated impression of the facts." Adding members of slave owning families and other involved individuals, Nevins increases the figure but retains the emphasis, concluding that the number of whites directly involved in slavery probably "did not exceed 2,000,000. If so, not one-third of the population of the South and border States had any direct interest in slavery as a form of property. This is a fact of great important [sic] when we attempt to estimate the effect of slaveholding upon the culture and outlook of the Southern people."2

Nevins' conclusion is invariably affirmed by prominent commentators. According to the standard account by James G. Randall and David Donald "the total number of slaveholders in 1850 was only 347,525 out of a total white population of about six million in the slaveholding areas." Donald is even more emphatic elsewhere when he complains that "writers speak of the Southern interest in slavery, even when they perfectly well know that in the 'plantation' South only one fourth of the white families owned any slaves at all."3 Roy F. Nichols and Elbert B. Smith assume the same stances4 as do the authors of practically all the outstanding college textbooks on the history of the United States. Typically these textbooks include such statements as "only a minority of the whites owned slaves," "at all times nearly three-fourths of the white families in the South as a whole held no slaves"; "only one family in four held any at all"; "slave ownership in the South was not widespread"; "not more than a quarter of the white heads of families were slave-owners, and even in the cotton states the proportion was less than one-third"; "in 1850, only one in three owned any Negroes; on the eve of the Civil War, the ratio was one in four"; and slave owners "probably made up less than a third of southern whites."5

While one seldom can quarrel with the statistics presented by these many writers, serious questions can be raised respecting the significance of this degree of slave distribution in the South. Although the constant conclusion has been that the number of whites owning slaves was remarkably small and that the South was therefore an unusually oligarchical society, the comparative basis for such a judgment has never been firmly established. Instead, that judgment appears to have rested primarily on a moral repugnance toward slavery and an exceedingly simplistic conception of the meaning of slave ownership. But was the slave South really more oligarchic, especially in an economic sense, than, say, the nineteenth-century North or the United States today? And precisely how does one determine this? What should the distribution of slave ownership be compared with in nonslave societies? Without considering such questions it is difficult to see how the extent of slaveholding in the antebellum South can be properly evaluated.

The most apparent origin of the accusation that southern slavery was politically and economically oligarchical was, of course, the antebellum antislavery movement. Popular northern concepts of a "Slave Power," a "Slave Oligarchy," and a "Slave Conspiracy" reflected that attitude, and Frederick Law Olmsted directly related this purported lack of democracy in the South to the extent of slaveholding among whites. Speaking of Virginia slave owners, Olmsted concluded that "they are not, I suppose, one to a hundred of the people," although they were in fact about one to four of the people. In Georgia, utilizing census figures, he reported far more accurately, but with the same emphasis, that "only twenty-seven in a hundred of the white families . . . are possessed of slaves."6 Olmsted also correctly pointed to the concentration of most slaves in the hands of a much smaller number of large planters to bolster the oligarchical thesis.

The crucial political endorsement of this viewpoint was provided by the Republican Party. "There is not a State in the Union in which the slaveholders number one-tenth part of the free white population," stated that party's address to the people of the United States in 1856, neglecting to include in its percentage figure, as it should have, all of the members of slaveholding families. Continuing in a similar distorted fashion the a...

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