In Tony Horwitz' book Midnight Rising about John Brown's raid, on page 23 discusses Calhoun's stance on slavery: he asserted that slavery freed Whites from drudgery and class conflict.

I wonder if at any point in history that was true: That slavery provided for Whites the sort of society that some see will result from the widespread use of robots in the near future although of course some are frightened of this possibility.

I would guess that Calhoun's assertion was propaganda and that in fact there were many poor Whites who indeed experienced drudgery and class conflict -- I am certain that this existed in places and times but perhaps there were small communities in which slaves did all the unpleasant tasks and Whites were able to do what they wanted.

EDIT: I am of course aware that there were poor whites living in the South, who, not owning slaves, had to work for a living, perhaps doing the same sort of work as slaves performed. But again, as I mentioned already, perhaps there were areas where all drudgery was done by slaves -- I think Calhoun grew up on a plantation so he might have been insulated from drudgery, much as a modern wealthy person might be but either he was clueless or being disingenuous when he implied that slavery eliminated drudgery and class conflict among whites -- surely he must have known of poor whites who lived in the South?

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    – MCW
    Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 17:16
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    I'm (obviously) very confused - Can you clarify the question? I see only one question mark in the title, but the title is not phrased as a question. What do you want to know?
    – MCW
    Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 17:26
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    That slavery provided for Whites Slavery did not provide for "whites", slavery did provide for slave owners (who, yes, were white). The benefits of slavery were not shared "socially". In fact I did read that was one of the limiting factors for the expansion of slavery: the settlers of the new territories did not want competence from slave work.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Mar 21, 2019 at 22:23
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    If you're interested in the credibility of Calhoun's claim, you should quote the whole sentence from the book. It says that Calhoun told Congress: "Slaves were secure and well cared for, unlike laborers in northern mills; white Southerners were freed from drudgery and class conflict". Slaves were not well cared for, and Southerners were not freed from drudgery and class conflict. See Poor White on Wikipedia. Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 1:15
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    @releseabe: So do you want us to evaluate the claim that slavery completely freed whites from class conflict and drudgery (which is obviously false), or the claim that slavery incrementally reduced class conflict and drudgery for whites? The latter seems likely to be true but, if true, probably impossible to prove.
    – user2848
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 3:52

3 Answers 3


Tony Horwitz is paraphrasing the speech that Calhoun gave in the Senate in the debate on 6 February 1837 on the Abolition of Slavery.

Calhoun's speeches have also been collected and published, with this particular speech in Volume 2 (a slightly easier to read version of the text is also available on Wikisource).

What Calhoun actually said was:

"I hold then, that there never has yet existed a wealthy and civilized society in which one portion of the community did not, in point of fact, live on the labor of the other"


"There is and always has been in an advanced stage of wealth and civilization, a conflict between labor and capital. The condition of society in the South exempts us from the disorders and dangers resulting from this conflict; and which explains why it is that the political condition of the slaveholding States has been so much more stable and quiet than that of the North".

The rich whites (who provided the capital) were certainly freed from drudgery, but the poor whites of the South (who had nothing to offer but their labour) were clearly not. Even on the plantations, the slave overseers (who were white) had to work, and so were not able to just do what they wanted.

So, to answer your question, no, there weren't any "small communities in which slaves did all the unpleasant tasks and Whites were able to do what they wanted".

It is perhaps worth noting that Calhoun also said in that speech:

"I may say with truth, that in few countries so much is left to the share of the laborer, and so little exacted from him, or where there is more kind attention paid to him in sickness or infirmities of age."

Compare that claim with Calhoun's treatment of his own slaves.

One event mentioned in his correspondence (and noted on his Wikipedia) page illustrates the point.

In 1831, a house-slave named Aleck belonging to Calhoun ran away when threatened with a severe whipping. Calhoun wrote to his brother-in-law James Edward Calhoun (Letter to James Edward Calhoun, 27 August 1831, Correspondence of John C. Calhoun, p300), asking him to keep a lookout for Aleck. Calhoun wrote that if he was taken, he should be "severely whipped and sent home immediately".

Aleck was caught, and Calhound wrote the following to his captor:

"I am glad to hear that Alick has been apprehended and am much obliged to you for paying the expense of apprehending him . . . . He ran away for no other cause, but to avoid a correction for some misconduct, and as I am desirous to prevent a repetition, I wish you to have him lodged in Jail for one week, to be fed on bread and water and to employ some one for me to give him 30 lashes well laid on, at the end of the time. I hope you will pardon the trouble. I only give it, because I deem it necessary to our proper security to prevent the formation of the habit of running away, and I think it better to punish him before his return home than afterwards".

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    In very crude economic terms, one either owns capital, or sells one's labour. As @sempaiscuba points out, most Southerners were not plantation owners, so they had to earn their keep - either as small farmers, artisans, merchants, tradesmen etc. I don't see how the mere existence of slaves could affect their situation - other than by possibly reducing the value of free labour.
    – TheHonRose
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 13:23

This summary of the 1860 Census results shows that the percentage of slave-owning households in the South ranged from 12% in Maryland and 13% in Missouri to highs of just 46% in South Carolina and 49% in Mississippi.

enter image description here

Looking more closely at Mississippi, the most extreme example, we see that the ratio of total slave population to total slave-owning families is 436,631:30,943, or about 15:1. Also slightly more than half of all families (32,072 to 30,943) owned no slaves at all.

A summary of research by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History reveals additionally that, over the South as a whole:

enter image description here

which leaves 100 - (31 + 53) = 100 - 86 = 14% of slaves being owned by families with only 1 to 6 slaves.

So we can rebut Calhoun's claim categorically:

  • Even in the state with the highest rate of slave ownership, more than half of all households owned no slaves.

  • In the South as a whole, ~1/7 of all slaves were owned by families with a small number of slaves.

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    This doesn't seem to have much to do with Calhoun's claim. If the claim was that slavery "freed Whites from drudgery and class conflict" (in the OP's paraphrase), then there is no requirement that white people own slaves. For comparison, the existence of highly automated agribusiness probably does free me from agricultural labor (which the majority of my ancestors had to do), even though I don't own a combine harvester.
    – user2848
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 3:41
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    @BenCrowell I suggest you research 19th century life. Boston only got running water in 1848, New Orleans (the largest city of the Confederacy) not until nearly 1920. Doing laundry for a household with small children was a 2 to 3 day chore: washing one day, ironing the next at least. Wood had to be chopped and split for every cup of coffee or fried egg. Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 3:48
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    @BenCrowell following your analogy, if you are a farmer and you do not have the means to mechanize your farm, now you will have trouble competing with those automated farms. You should not see it from the POV of the consumer, but of the producer. Also, the most lucrative crop was cotton; as it was a money crop to be exported, it left no money except for those directly involved in producing it and shipping it.
    – SJuan76
    Commented Mar 22, 2019 at 5:10

Most Whites during the Slavery era lived in abject poverty and worked hard just to barely feed their families.

Slavery only benefited the rich and the plantation owners.

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