Slaves in the South
“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;” “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 ration was one in four;” and slave owners “probably made up less than a third of southern whites.” From the US History textbooks in an elementary school to the Civil War journals of a major university, these lines are reprinted and repeated in an attempt to shape the perception of the public and to ease the insecurities of a nation embarrassed by slavery, an institution that supposedly marred its glorious history, or so says Otto H. Olsen.
In an article that appears in the journal of Civil War History of 1972 entitled, “Historians and the Extent of Slave Ownership in the Southern United States” Olsen attempts to challenge the widely accepted notion that slave ownership was confined to only a few southern white plantation owners and that most of the white population was unaffected by it. The author spends nearly half of his thirty-seven paragraph article displaying the past and present attitudes of the general population through several case studies which he lists chronologically and explains in brief detail. He tries to discredit a handful of them while, at the same time, injecting his own views. In an attempt to persuade the reader he sets up his side of the debate by citing a few case studies that promote his hypothesis and concludes by relating some of his own opinions and findings including a study where he makes a seemingly strong comparison between those of the population who invested in the slave labor market in 1850 and those who invested in the stock market in 1949. In the first half of the article Olsen sets up the arguments he is going to challenge by showing what historians from the antebellum US through the present, believed the distribution of slaves in the South to be, and also by showing the supposed economic and political effects of this distribution. He focuses heavily on the numbers and percentages of white slave owners and the sometimes relaxed, even incorrect manner in which they were accepted. He cites a study done by Allan Nevins in which Nevins says that, “of the 6,184,477 white folk in the slave States, only 347,525 were listed by the census of 1850 as owners.” Nevins then adds family members of slave owning families and other workers involved and states that the final number of whites directly involved with slavery probably “did not exceed 2,000,000. If so, not one-third of the population of the South and border States had any direct interest in slavery as a form of property.”
Olsen uses two more studies to show that these numbers, or very slight variations, are widely accepted...