3.3 The Old South: The Antebellum Period (1831-1861)



(26 states)


(33 states)
















North Carolina





Percent of U.S. population





Key events that shaped law and society:

  • The paths taken by Delaware and Maryland on the one hand, and Virginia and North Carolina on the other, continued to diverge in the years leading up to the Civil War.  Industry and commerce played an ever more dominant role in Delaware and Maryland life.  This was reflected particularly in Baltimore’s continuing role as a leading U.S. port – and in city and state leaders’ determination to preserve that position at all costs.
  • In 1828, city and state leaders created the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in order to attract commerce from the Midwest and the Southern interior to Maryland.  During the next quarter century, the B&O slowly worked its way across the Appalachian mountains to the Ohio River at Wheeling, Virginia; in the process, it became the nation’s first great railroad.  The triumph was not cost-free.  Maryland subsidized the B&O heavily through bond issues, and the depression of 1837-40 nearly destroyed its ability to repay the bonds and forced it to carry a heavy debt burden for decades.  North Carolina also experimented with state-subsidized railroads, with some success; Virginia’s experiment was less successful, due in large part to sectional rivalries between western and eastern Virginians.
  • The Jacksonian revolution had only mixed success in the coastal upper South.  Each state in the region had a substantial Whig faction that favored promotion of commerce and was skeptical of the Jacksonians’ ideal of a decentralized, agrarian society.  Many Virginia and North Carolina planters were skeptical of extending the vote and allowing small farmers and urban residents, their natural political rivals, to gain more power.  The division was particularly deep in Virginia:  residents of the western part of the state forced the calling of two constitutional conventions, in 1829-30 and 1850, at which they challenged eastern planters and made modest political gains.  North Carolina and Maryland also enacted new constitutions in 1835 and 1850 with a modest Jacksonian tinge.
  • In 1831, Nat Turner of southside Virginia led a slave rebellion that resulted in 60 white deaths and shook the entire South.  The rebellion killed all talk in the South of gradual emancipation, resulted in tightened restrictions on slaves and free blacks and led an increasing number of Southerners to defend slavery as a positive good rather than a necessary evil.  Even so, Maryland and Delaware continued their unique path out of slavery:  Maryland did not tighten its slave laws significantly and Delaware continued on its course of gradual emancipation.  During the antebellum period free blacks came to equal or outnumber slaves in both states.   
Frederick Douglas (1847) - the most famous of many slaves whose path to eventual freedom went through Baltimore

Slave auction in Richmond, Virginia, 1856

 The industrializing upper South:  Ellicott Brothers mill complex near Baltimore, Maryland (1852)