Antebellum means “before the war” — the Civil War. It’s easy for us today to think of the past as a long road leading straight to the present, but people in the past, of course, didn’t see it that way. To them, their time was the end of history. North Carolina in the 1850s was in many ways at the peak of its development, with a complex society, a strong economy based on agriculture, poetry and music, a growing network of railroads, the beginnings of industry, and seemingly a bright future.
Of course, slavery, to a great extent, defined the antebellum South, and slavery — especially on great plantations — defines the way most people today remember that era. By 1850, one-third of North Carolinians were enslaved. The United States had “slave states” and “free states,” and there was no question which North Carolina was.
Only a quarter of free families owned slaves, though, and fewer in the western part of the state. These inequalities — not only between black and white but between rich and poor and between east and west — also shaped antebellum society and politics. People in different circumstances lived and worked in a variety of ways. They had cultures and beliefs that were in many ways similar but often quite different. All their stories are part of the fabric of antebellum North Carolina.
Ultimately, though, it would be slavery that not only defined antebellum North Carolina but brought antebellum society and culture to its end. By the 1850s, the slave South and the increasingly antislavery North were on a collision course. In 1861, North Carolina would join ten other southern states and secede from the Union. Antebellum society would be torn apart, and the state that was built from its pieces would look very different.
A note about sources
Many of the primary sources in this section of the digital textbook address slavery, and some deal with difficult or unpleasant issues, including physical brutality and rape. In addition, some of the historical documents include racist language and demeaning stereotypes. These documents are included to provide an accurate picture of the past. In all cases, the “As you read” section in the sidebar will provide background and guidance to help you learn from them.
As in the rest of this digital textbook, you’ll have the opportunity to explore the experiences of various people firsthand, through a variety of primary sources — letters, diaries, memoirs, oral histories, newspaper editorials, poetry and music, maps, photographs, census data, even recipes and business directories. From these raw materials and background readings, you’ll answer questions like these:
- What was antebellum society like? How was it structured?
- How did white North Carolinians defend slavery — legally, politically, and philosophically?
- What was life like for farm and plantation families?
- What was life like for enslaved people?
- How were industry, technology, and railroads beginning to transform North Carolina?
- What contributions did North Carolinians make to the arts?
- How did North Carolina — and the rest of the South — move toward secession in the 1850s?