The Sugar Masters: Slavery, Economic Development, and Modernization on Louisiana Sugar Plantations, 1820-1860.
Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
William Joseph Cooper, Jr
In this dissertation, I contend that sugar planters in the antebellum South managed their estates progressively, efficiently, and with a capitalist political economy and ideology. By embracing slavery, technology, and a host of improvements, sugar planters strove to create integrated units producing, manufacturing, and marketing sugar on an agro-industrial scale. Despite a century of historiographical debate, historians remain divided over the incompatibility of slavery with industrial and agricultural innovation. Whether they look to Adam Smith or Karl Marx, most historians deem free labor a necessity for technology and growth. This, however, appears inaccurate, as antebellum sugar planters confidently advocated improvement and saw no contradiction between capitalism and slavery. The quantitative and qualitative growth of the antebellum sugar industry remains testament to that fact. In the past twenty years, a group of scholars challenged the notion that slavery and the antebellum South were pre-capitalist. Their work, while underpinning my own study, failed to satisfactorily prove that antebellum planters operated as entrepreneurial capitalists. My dissertation hopefully fills this void as few scholars have systematically analyzed the growth of a single planter class that was so reliant on the synchronization of agriculture and industry as the Louisiana sugar masters. These agricultural magnates responded to a burgeoning market for sugar by spatially expanding their cane crops, adopting modern agricultural techniques, embracing technological improvement, practicing innovative management and shaping the dynamics of slavery to maximize labor productivity. Progressive and entrepreneurial, the sugar planters brought south Louisiana into an age of capitalist modernity. Southern progress, however, differed fundamentally from that of the North because the laborers who transformed the sugar industry and manned the steam engines were African-American slaves who materially advanced the process of modernization. By imposing order and discipline in the work-place, the planters hoped to transform their laborers into industrial workers who toiled at the mechanical pace of the steam age. To a large extent, they were successful, but to obtain the labor they required, the planters adopted both the lash and a complex system of rewards to motivate their workers during the harvest season.
Follett, Richard J., "The Sugar Masters: Slavery, Economic Development, and Modernization on Louisiana Sugar Plantations, 1820-1860." (1997). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. 6540.