On Southern Industrialization

If you want to know why a country, region or city functions the way it does, you need to know its history. As a mature foreign student back at school in the American South – who was also likely to end up working there – I knew that I had to learn as much as I could about the region – fast. I usually pass for local until I open my mouth. So for the next two years, every paper I wrote touched on one aspect or another of Southern industrial and economic history.

The following are the books and articles I found most informative:

The Selling of the South: The Southern Crusade for Industrial Development, 1936 – 1990, by James C. Cobb. In his book, Cobb takes the reader on a decade-by-decade look at the how the Southern states developed from the Great Depression forward to present day. Specifically, the book focuses on the efforts of political and business leaders in the South to attract manufacturing companies from the North, and to a limited degree, from other countries. The use of tax breaks, subsidies, open-shop laws, and other economic and political incentives to entice companies to locate south of the Mason-Dixie line is examined, as well as the connections between local politicians and business.

High Tech, Low Tech, No Tech. Recent Industrial and Occupational Change in the South, by William W. Falk, and Thomas A. Lyson.

Alabama’s State and Local Governments, 3rd Edition, by David L. Martin. This printed guide, last updated in the mid-nineties, is the best one-stop orientation I’ve found to Alabama’s state and municipal structure. It’s a pity it isn’t being updated. I can’t find any online equivalent. It needs, needs to be available as a pdf or online site.

Blueprint Birmingham: a Growth Strategy for the Seven-County Region – Competitive Realities., a study prepared for the Birmingham Business Alliance by Market Street Services Inc.


The American South industrialized 50 – 60 years later than the the American North. But it pioneered industrial (organized) agriculture in North America. It was immensely profitable for the plantation owners – thanks to slavery. 

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist. I recently finished listening to the audiobook version of this economic history of slavery – and am still a bit stunned. I was left with a lot to think about, a lot of history which has been carefully buried or not written about in most histories of the United States – or North America.

Key things I was left with:

  • After the Louisiana Purchase, New Orleans was running close to New York in terms of banking and financial deals. Not only was it was becoming the banking center of the American South – it was also a banking center for the Caribbean, with a strong focus on Cuba. That role began to diminish after the bank failures of the late 1830s and a widespread failure within the Southern cotton industry to repay loans during the subsequent credit crisis. At that point, New York, with ties both to London and Amsterdam, and a stronger regional manufacturing economy, began to take the lead.
  • The strong hand of the planter elite – especially in Louisiana – and their resistance to being forced to repay loans is what lead to the non-renewal of the governing legislation of the first US central bank.
  • Mortgage-backed derivatives are not a new concept of the 1990s – they were used to raise cash based on the value of chattel slaves owned by the planters. Slave mortgage-backed derivatives (based on the anticipated value of the cotton a given field slave could harvest) were sold – and held both in the northern United States and by many investors in Great Britain and Europe. These were sophisticated investment instruments – and they came into existence in 1828.
  • The world price for cotton peaked in 1830 and then, due to the increase in available cotton planted to meet the demand of the northern Lancashire spinning and weaving mills, slipped into a long gradual decline.
  • One of the side effects of declaring Confederate independence was that many planters were able to refuse to repay operating loans from northern banking interests. This had a side effect of allowing plantation owners to not plant cotton for two years (done in an attempt to drive the world price back up and to better finance the war). British cotton mill owners were having none of that, and worked to make arrangements to open up new cotton plantations in India and in the Egyptian Delta. When the American Civil war ended, these additional plantations ensured that the American South would never again have a stranglehold on the world cotton supply. At this point, the American South entered the colonial resource supplier arrangement with northern industrial interests, an arrangement from which portions of the South have worked for sixty years to exit. Except that without some population unity and greater investment in education, it’s been difficult to do. The society elites have been quite happy to invest in their own children, but not those of the greater society around them. Especially not African Americans (or poor whites). Hence the delay in regional industrialization as compared to the northern part of the country.

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