America holds onto an undemocratic assumption from its founding: that some people deserve more power than others.

tags: slavery, activism, 1619 Project

Jamelle Bouie is a New York Times columnist. 


The plantations that dotted the landscape of the antebellum South produced the commodities that fueled the nation’s early growth. Enslaved people working in glorified labor camps picked cotton, grew indigo, harvested resin from trees for turpentine and generated additional capital in the form of their children, bought, sold and securitized on the open market. But plantations didn’t just produce goods; they produced ideas too. Enslaved laborers developed an understanding of the society in which they lived. The people who enslaved them, likewise, constructed elaborate sets of beliefs, customs and ideologies meant to justify their positions in this economic and social hierarchy. Those ideas permeated the entire South, taking deepest root in places where slavery was most entrenched.

South Carolina was a paradigmatic slave state. Although the majority of enslavers resided in the “low country,” with its large rice and cotton plantations, nearly the entire state participated in plantation agriculture and the slave economy. By 1820 most South Carolinians were enslaved Africans. By midcentury, the historian Manisha Sinha notes in “The Counterrevolution of Slavery,” it was the first Southern state where a majority of the white population held slaves.

Not surprisingly, enslavers dominated the state’s political class. “Carolinian rice aristocrats and the cotton planters from the hinterland,” Sinha writes, “formed an intersectional ruling class, bound together by kinship, economic, political and cultural ties.” The government they built was the most undemocratic in the Union. The slave-rich districts of the coasts enjoyed nearly as much representation in the Legislature as more populous regions in the interior of the state. Statewide office was restricted to wealthy property owners. To even qualify for the governorship, you needed a large, debt-free estate. Rich enslavers were essentially the only people who could participate in the highest levels of government. To the extent that there were popular elections, they were for the lowest levels of government, because the State Legislature tended to decide most high-level offices.

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