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  • Historians and the Extent of Slave Ownership in the Southern United States
  • Otto H. Olsen

In a recent brief and thoughtful volume, David Brion Davis has directed attention to what he calls a "paranoid style" affecting the antebellum debate over slavery in the United States.1 Encouraged by insecurities as well as convictions, this style has remained a lasting as well as distorting force in American thought, and its influence on the posture of the victorious "free" society has had enduring consequences. Then and since, slavery has served as a convenient and perfect enemy. It epitomized evil and became a symbol that has been used to define and justify the social conditions and history of a capitalist, free labor society. A symbol of such convenience obviously would invite distortion; that it has, in fact, done so is suggested by the persistence of certain questionable assumptions about the nature of slave ownership in the antebellum South.

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 [End Page 401] 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 [End Page 402] 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...