What Was Southern Culture Like in the Colonial Period?

Tobacco was the primary crop in the Southern colonies before cotton.
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Southern culture of the colonial period differed from that of the 19th century and later. Historically a Protestant Christian culture, the South in the colonial years possessed a higher degree of religious diversity than one would generally believe. The cotton empires of the 19th century were imperceptible at the time, as the cotton gin was unknown, so tobacco remained the dominant crop. Southern aristocrats continued to live in manners reflecting their reverence for British refinement. Last, servitude was not yet exclusive to slaves.

1 Religion in the Colonial South

Colonial Southern society displayed a marked degree of religious diversity. Unlike Puritan New England, the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England, had a central presence. Many people followed the strict Christian traditions of this faith. Maryland, in the Upper-South, was a haven for Catholic settlers. Similarly, Louisiana and Florida remained under the control of either France or Spain, two Catholic nations, during the colonial era. Furthermore, Jews established a presence in the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina.

2 Importance of Tobacco

Most colonial Southerners were involved in agricultural pursuits, especially growing tobacco. It was this shared experience in tobacco growing that created a common Southern culture. Unlike cotton, in which large plantations held a monopoly on the business, almost everyone grew tobacco, if only for personal consumption. Southerners discussed tobacco on an almost constant basis and considered the ability to grow a quality crop a sign of success.

3 Ladies and Gentlemen

Unlike the North, the South imported and preserved from England the idea of the proper lady and gentleman. Among the Southern elite attending school in England was a sign of a genteel upbringing. English goods and fashions were highly prized by colonial Southerners with aristocratic aspirations. Elite men, known as gentlemen, dominated society, relegating most others into positions of social inferiors.

4 Early Slavery

With the cotton kingdom of the 19th century still in the future, the colonial South was not yet a slave society. Slavery, despite being a primary source of labor, was not the central focus of life that it would later become. Indentured servitude, in which a person worked for another in exchange for transportation to the colonies, still existed. British convicts, shipped to the colonies, often had to work as servants for a number of years, as well. Others, especially young males, served as apprentices to experienced craftsmen to learn a trade. The presence of such variety in types of labor made slaves one of many types of workers. Thus, slavery existed but it did not hold the social significance it would in later periods.

David Kenneth has a Ph.D. in history. His work has been published in "The Journal of Southern History," "The Georgia Historical Quarterly," "The Southern Historian," "The Journal of Mississippi History" and "The Oxford University Companion to American Law." Kenneth has been working as a writer since 1999.