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The planter class, known alternatively in the United States as the Southern aristocracy, was a socio-economic caste of Pan-American society that dominated seventeenth- and eighteenth-century agricultural markets through the forced labor of enslaved Africans. The Atlantic slave trade permitted planters access to inexpensive labor for the planting and harvesting of crops such as cotton, coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar cane, sisal, oil seeds, oil palms, rubber trees, and fruits.
In the American South, planters maintained a distinct culture characterized by its similarity to the manners and customs of European nobility with an emphasis on chivalry, gentility, and hospitality, the latter becoming a marked trait of modern Southern society.
After the American Civil War, many in this class saw their wealth reduced as enslaved Africans were freed and land was confiscated. Other plantations were converted to sharecropping. Later some plantations became museums, often on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
Planters were prolific throughout the British, Dutch, French, Portuguese and Spanish colonies of North and South America, and the West Indies. Popular characters of this class include William Byrd, Mary Chesnut, Jefferson Davis, Thomas Jefferson, Robert E. Lee, Jacques Villeré, Sallie Ward, George Washington, and the fictional Scarlett O'Hara.
The search for gold and silver was a constant theme in overseas expansion, but there were other European demands the New World could also satisfy, which contributed to its growing involvement in the Western-dominated world economy. While Spanish America seemed to fulfill dreams of mineral wealth, Brazil became the first major plantation colony in 1532, organized to produce a tropical crop – sugar – in great demand and short supply in Europe. The other major powers, England, France and the Netherlands, soon thereafter hoped to establish profitable colonies of their own. Presented with new opportunities, Europeans disenchanted by the rigid social structures of feudalism emigrated to the abundant virginal lands of the colonial frontier.
Arriving through the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, settlers landed on the shores of an unspoiled and hostile countryside. Early planters first began as colony farmers providing for the needs of settlements besieged by famine, disease and tribal raids. Native Americans friendly to the colonists taught them to cultivate native plant species including tobacco, sugar and fruits, which within a century would become a global industry itself funding a multinational slave trade. Colonial politics would come to be dominated by wealthy noble landowners interested in commercial development.
In an effort to reduce the financial burden of continental wars, European governments began instituting land pension systems by which a soldier, typically an officer, would be granted land in the colonies for services rendered. This incentivized military professionals to settle in the Americas and thus contribute to colonial defense against foreign colonists and hostile Natives.
Rise of the Planter
John Rolfe, a settler from Jamestown, was the first colonist to grow tobacco in North America. He arrived in Virginia with tobacco seeds procured from an earlier voyage to Trinidad, and in 1612 harvested his inaugural crop for sale on the European market. During the 17th century, the Chesapeake Bay area was immensely hospitable to tobacco cultivation. Ships annually hauled 1.5 million pounds (680,000 kilograms) of tobacco out to the Bay by the 1630s, and about 40 million pounds (18 million kilograms) by the end of the century. Tobacco planters financed their operations with loans from London. When tobacco prices dropped precipitously in the 1750s, many plantations struggled to remain financially solvent. In an effort to combat financial ruin planters either pushed to increase crop yield or, with the depletion of soil nutrients, converted to growing cotton.
In 1720, coffee was first introduced to the West Indies by French naval officer Gabriel de Clieu, who procured a coffee plant seedling from the Royal Botanical Gardens in Paris and transported it to Martinique. He transplanted it on the slopes of Mount Pelée and was able to harvest his first crop in 1726, or shortly thereafter. Within fifty years there were 18,000 coffee trees in Martinique enabling the spread of coffee cultivation to Saint-Domingue, New Spain and other islands of the Caribbean. The French territory of Saint-Domingue began cultivating coffee in 1734, and by 1788 supplied half the global market. The French colonial plantations relied heavily on African slave laborers. However, the harsh conditions that slaves endured on coffee plantations precipitated the Haitian Revolution. Coffee had a major influence on the geography of Latin America.
Revolution & Abolitionism
An age of enlightenment dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the eighteenth century. Philosophers began writing pamphlets against slavery and its moral and economic justifications, including Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748) and Denis Diderot in the Encyclopédie. The laws governing slavery in the French West Indies, the Code Noir of Louis XIV, granted unparalleled rights for slaves to marry, gather publicly, or abstain from work on Sundays. It forbade slave owners to torture or to separate families; and though corporal punishment was sanctioned, masters who killed their slaves or falsely accused a slave of a crime and had the slave put to death would be fined. Masters openly and consistently broke the Code and passed local legislation that reversed its less desirable articles.
Enlightenment writer Guillaume Raynal attacked slavery in the 1780 edition of his history of European colonization. He also predicted a general slave revolt in the colonies, saying that there were signs of "the impending storm." Sugar production in Saint-Domingue was sustained under especially harsh conditions, including the humid climate of the Caribbean, where diseases such as malaria and yellow fever caused high mortality. White planters and their families, together with the merchants and shopkeepers, lived in fear of slave rebellion. Thus, in the functions of society and efforts to combat dissent, cruelty was noted in the form of overwork, inadequate food and shelter, insufficient clothing and medical care, rape, lashings, castration and burnings. Runaway slaves—called Maroons—hid in the jungles away from civilization, living off the land and what could be stolen in violent raids on the island's sugar and coffee plantations. Although the numbers in these bands grew large (sometimes into the thousands), they generally lacked the leadership and strategy to accomplish large-scale objectives. In April 1791, a massive slave insurgency rose violently against the plantation system, setting a precedent of resistance to slavery.
On 4 February 1794, during the French Revolution, the National Assembly of the First Republic abolished slavery in France and its colonies. The military successes of the French Republic and Napoleon carried across Europe the ideals of egalitarianism and brought into question the practice of slavery in the colonies of other European powers.
The legality of slave ownership under English common law was abolished in 1772, but this failed to abolish slavery overseas. British banks continued to finance the commodities and shipping industries in the colonies they had earlier established which still relied upon slavery, despite the legal developments in Great Britain. In 1783, an anti-slavery movement began among the British population, and that same year a group of Quakers founded the first British abolitionist organization. William Wilberforce led the cause of abolition through the parliamentary campaign. His efforts finally abolished the slave trade in the British Empire with the Slave Trade Act 1807. He continued to campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British Empire, which he lived to see in the Slavery Abolition Act 1833.
A plantation house served to group the owner's family, guests and house slaves within one large structure in a central location on the estate. Often starting as a modest abode, the house was enlarged or replaced with a newer, more impressive home as the planter's wealth grew. Commonly seen is the addition of massive Greek Revival columns, curved stairs, semi-detached wings, and other architectural elements popular at the time.
The French origins of planters in Canada, Louisiana and Saint-Domingue heavily influenced the development of French Colonial architecture, characterized by its wide hipped rooves extending over wrap-around porches, thin wooden columns, and living quarters raised above ground level. Learning building practices from the West Indies, colonists designed practical dwellings for a territory prone to flooding.
A notable loss of plantation homes in Louisiana is attributed to an economic shift from agriculture to industry during the Reconstruction era. Many homes were lost to the predatory lending practices of carpetbaggers in the closing days of the American Civil War, including that of Confederate General P.G.T. Beauregard after his crop of sugar cane was lost to the flood waters of a ruptured levee.
Georgian architecture was widely disseminated in the English colonies during the Georgian era. American buildings of the Georgian period were very often constructed of wood with clapboards; even columns were made of timber, framed up, and turned on an oversized lathe. At the start of the period the difficulties of obtaining and transporting brick or stone made them a common alternative only in the larger cities, or where they were obtainable locally.
A premier example of Georgian planter architecture is Westover Plantation, built in the mid-eighteenth century as the residence of William Byrd II, founder of the City of Richmond. An elaborate doorway, which is recognized as "the Westover doorway," adorns the main entrance and contrasts an otherwise simple construction. During the American Civil War the house served as the headquarters of Union General Fitz John Porter, protégé of George McClellan, who was stationed at nearby Berkeley Plantation, and purportedly had its East wing stuck by a Confederate cannonball fired from the south side of the James River. The wing caught fire and lay in ruin until Mrs. Clarise Sears Ramsey, a Byrd descendent, purchased the property in 1899. She was instrumental in modernizing the house, rebuilding the East wing and adding hyphens to connect the main house to the previously separate dependencies, thereby creating one long building.
Introduced to the continent by George Berkeley in the 1720s, Palladian architecture became popular with American society in the construction of colleges and public buildings, while many houses too were built in the Jefferson Paladian style of Monticello. Andrea Palladio developed Palladianism in the sixteenth century, publishing in 1570 Quattro Libri, a treatise on architecture in four volumes and illustrated with woodcuts after Palladio's own drawings.
Covered and columned porches feature prominently in Palladian architecture, in many cases dominating the main facade. Red brick exteriors and either slanted or domed rooves are commonplace among residential buildings.
Monticello, residence of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, was built in a style unique to Jefferson. This has been emulated in the construction of many colleges, such as The Rotunda of the University of Virginia, as well as churches, court houses, concert halls, and military schools.
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