- Industrial Development and Manufacturing in the Antebellum Gulf South: A Reevaluation by Michael S. Frawley
Asserting that southern industry was well developed before the American Civil War, Michael S. Frawley contends that historians who compare northern and southern industry miss the mark. In fact, industrial development in the South lagged behind the North by a decade. Nevertheless, southern industry, when evaluated on its own merits, represented a viable industrial base by 1860. Debunking traditional views that slave labor compromised the basic tenets of free enterprise, Frawley posits that slaves “served as both labor and capital for antebellum southern industry” (p. 92). The combination of plantation-based [End Page 470] agriculture and industrial production constituted “pure and simple” capitalism (p. 95). Consequently, entrepreneurs invested money in whatever would earn a profit.
Citing DeBow’s Review, Frawley notes that the slave population eventually exceeded the number of agricultural jobs, thus creating the need for industry. Cotton production generated profits, and planters invested those proceeds in land, slaves, and manufacturing. Although industrial output always ran second to “King Cotton,” the development of southern industry proved significant. Addressing several historiographical arguments, Frawley confirms that former studies tended to corroborate preconceived notions—the institution of slavery was incompatible with industrial development; industry disrupted the agrarian way of life; and industry was not integrated into southern society. In contrast, he argues that the Panic of 1837 prompted planters to invest in industry to counter agricultural slumps, thereby leading to a diverse southern economy.
Frawley examines A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy by Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss (Chapel Hill, 1981), one of the first cliometric studies of southern industry. This work, grounded in the 1860 manufacturing census, arrived at conclusions that Frawley describes as inconclusive and unrepresentative. He argues that census marshals failed to record approximately 20 percent of all manufacturing firms in the Gulf South. Therefore, in addition to the 1860 census, he considers “all available sources” using a “geographic perspective” (p. 17). For example, applying Geographical Information System (GIS) software, he charts and maps the combined effects of physical environment, technology, and social institutions. Moreover, he consults newspapers and journals, city and county directories, R. G. Dun and Company credit reports, and local histories to determine that industry was more widespread in the South than previously thought.
Having created a vast database of Gulf South industrial firms operating in 1860, Frawley concentrates on Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas, three states that constituted the richest part of the Gulf South region. He also presents five major themes: location, organization, and ownership; resources and raw materials; transportation and markets; capital and labor; and production and scale. As the southern economy expanded, a growing transportation network connected roads, rivers, and railroads. Rivers were the dominant transportation routes, facilitating trade both upstream and downstream. Railroad construction complemented river traffic by connecting remote areas to outside markets and by linking interior points to nearby rivers or to the coast. Consequently, southern industry developed along railroad lines and in areas rich in raw materials.
Ultimately, Frawley constructs a convincing argument. Refusing to evaluate southern industry by looking backward through the lens of the Civil War, he uses maps, tables, and charts to present data in digestible form. Too extensive for publication in book form, his Appendix C (located on a personal website) provides 140 additional pages of pertinent information. Although he seems to ignore the reality of nonstandard gauges, he concludes properly that southern railroads were designed to support local and regional trade, not to provide logistical support for a major war. Configured for a peacetime economy, much of southern industry was “worn out or destroyed” by the Civil War’s end [End Page 471] (p. 125). In summary, Frawley suggests that southern industrial development before the Civil War might have represented “the beginning of the ‘New’ South” (p. 127).