The Plantation System

The Plantation System

This article describes the plantation system in America as an instrument of British colonialism characterized by social and political inequality. It links the agricultural prosperity of the South with the domination by wealthy aristocrats and the exploitation of slave labor.


5 - 8


Social Studies, U.S. History


Sugar Cane Plantation

Illustration of slaves cutting sugar cane on a southern plantation in the 1800s.

Photograph from the North Wind Picture Archives/Alamy Stock Photo
Illustration of slaves cutting sugar cane on a southern plantation in the 1800s.

The term plantation arose as settlements in the southern United States, originally linked with colonial expansion, came to revolve around the production of agriculture. The word plantation first appeared in English in the 15th century. Originally, the word meant to plant. However, what came to be known as plantations became the center of large-scale enslaved labor operations in the Western Hemisphere. Historians Peter H. Wood and Edward Baptist advocate to stop using the word plantation when referencing agricultural operations involving forced labor. Instead they suggest calling these places “labor camps” or “slave labor camps.”

The plantation system developed in the American South as British colonists arrived in what became known as Virginia and divided the land into large areas suitable for farming. The land on which these plantations were established was stolen through canceled, disregarded, and deceitful treaties, or outright violence from indigenous nations. Read these Resource Library articles to learn more: Southeast Native American Groups, Native Americans in Colonial America, The United States Government’s Relationship with Native Americans, Indian Removal Act, and Native American Removal from the Southeast.

The plantation system came to dominate the culture of the South, and it was rife with inequity from the time it was established. In 1606, King James I formed the Virginia Company of London to establish colonies in North America, but when the British arrived, they faced a harsh and foreboding wilderness, and their lives became little more than a struggle for survival. So, to make settling the land more attractive, the Virginia Company offered any adult man with the means to travel to America 50 acres of land. At the encouragement of the Company, many of the settlers banded together and created large settlements, called hundreds, as they were intended to support 100 individuals, usually men who led a household.

The hundreds were run as private plantations intent on making a profit from the cultivation of crops, which the economy of the South depended on. The climate of the South was ideally suited to the cultivation of cash crops. Unlike small, subsistence farms, plantations were created to grow cash crops for sale on the market. The plantation system was an early capitalist venture. England’s King James had every intention of profiting from plantations. Tobacco and cotton proved to be exceptionally profitable.

Therefore, cheap labor was used. Initially, indentured servants, who were mostly from England (and sometimes from Africa), and enslaved African and (less often) Indigenous people to work the land. Indentured servants were contracted to work four- to seven-year terms without pay for passage to the colony, room, and board. After completing the term, they were often given land, clothes, and provisions.

The plantation system created a society sharply divided along class lines. The wealthy aristocrats who owned plantations established their own rules and practices. For this reason, the contrast between the rich and the poor was greater in the South than it was in the North. Though wealthy aristocrats ruled the plantations, the laborers powered the system. In the colonies south of Pennsylvania and east of the Delaware River, a few wealthy, white landowners owned the bulk of the land, while the majority of the population was made up of poor farmers, indentured servants, and the enslaved. Enslaved Africans were first brought to Virginia in 1619.

The settlements required a large number of laborers to sustain them. Because these crops required large areas of land, the plantations grew in size, and in turn, more labor was required to work on the plantations. Plantation labor shifted away from indentured servitude and more toward slavery by the late 1600s. Obtaining indentured servants became more difficult as more economic opportunities became available to them. Wealthy landowners also made purchasing land more difficult for former indentured servants. This sharpened class divisions, as a small number of people owned larger and larger plantations. Wealthy landowners got wealthier, and the use of slave labor increased. This led to uprisings and skirmishes with impoverished Black and white people joining forces against the wealthy.

In response, customs changed and laws were passed to elevate the status of poor white people above all Black people. This new class acted as a buffer to protect the wealthy and Black people in the British American colonies were further oppressed. People of African descent were forced into a permanent underclass.

Despite this brutal history, plantations are not always seen as the violent places they were. For some, the word plantation suggests an idyllic past. This is seen at some of the United States plantations themselves with tours and tourists focusing on the wealth and lives of the enslavers, while ignoring those they enslaved.

These romanticized notions largely stem from an ideology called the Lost Cause which became popular shortly after the United States Civil War. The Confederates seceded from the United States to maintain the system of slavery. After losing the war, many Confederates and Confederate sympathizers altered the reason for succession. This switch became known as the Lost Cause. The ideology was named after an 1866 book by Edward A. Pollard, a newspaper editor from Virginia who supported the Confederacy.

The Lost Cause ideology puts the Confederates in a favorable light, according to Caroline Janney, professor of History of the American Civil War at the University of Virginia. She says the Lost Cause claims: 1) Confederates were patriots fighting to protect their constitutionally granted states’ rights; 2) Confederates were not fighting to protect slavery; 3) Slavery was a benevolent institution in which Black people were treated well; 4) Enslaved Black people were faithful to their enslavers and happy to be held in bondage; and 5) Confederate General Robert E. Lee and, to a lesser extent, General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson were godlike figures. None of these claims are true. The Lost Cause perpetuates harmful and false narratives.

Besides Pollard’s book, other works have carried the Lost Cause lie, including the 1864 painting, the “Burial of Latané” by William Washington, Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 novel and play, The Clansman, and Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind. The last two became popular movies; The Clansman became The Birth of a Nation. Lost Cause propaganda was also continued by former Confederate General Jubal Early as well as various organizations of upper- and middle-class white Southern women — the Ladies Memorial Associations, the United Confederate Veterans, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy.

Douglas V. Armstrong is an anthropologist from New York whose studies on plantation slavery have been focused on the Caribbean. In the Caribbean, as well as in the slave states, the shift from small-scale farming to industrial agriculture transformed the culture of these societies, as their economic prosperity depended on the plantation. Until the transatlantic slave trade was abolished in 1807, over 12 million Africans were transported to the ‘New World,’ and over 90 percent of them went to the Caribbean and South America, to work on sugar plantations. Throughout the Western Hemisphere, the plantation served as an institution in itself, characterized by social and political inequality, racial conflict, and domination by the planter class.

Plantation slavery was not exclusive to the Americas. They were also found in Africa and Asia were also based on slavery. However, that discussion is beyond the scope of this article.

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Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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