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The plantation era was a period in the history of the Southern United States, from the early 18th century until the start of the American Civil War in 1860 (which ended slavery and destroyed much of the economic landscape of the South), marked by the economic growth of the South, based on slave-driven plantation farming of tobacco, and the later cash crop, cotton.

The leading historian of the era was Ulrich Bonnell Phillips who studied slavery not so much as a political issue between North and South, but as a social and economic system. He focused on the large plantations that dominated the South.

Phillips addressed the unprofitability of slave labor and slavery's ill effects on the southern economy. Phillips systematically hunted down and opened plantation and other southern manuscript sources. An example of pioneering comparative work was "A Jamaica Slave Plantation" (1914). His methods inspired the "Phillips school" of slavery studies between 1900 and 1950.

Phillips argued that large-scale plantation slavery was inefficient and not progressive. It had reached its geographical limits by 1860 or so, and therefore eventually had to fade away (as happened in Brazil). In 1910, he argued in "The Decadence of the Plantation System" that slavery was an unprofitable relic that persisted because it produced social status, honor, and political power.

Phillips contended that masters treated slaves relatively well; his views on that issue were later sharply rejected by Kenneth M. Stampp. His conclusions about the economic decline of slavery were challenged in the 1960s by Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, who argued in their book, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery, that slavery was both efficient and profitable, as long as the price of cotton was high enough. In turn, Fogel and Engerman came under attack from other historians of slavery.


  • Genovese, Eugene, Roll, Jordan Roll (1975), the most important recent study.
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery; a Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor, as Determined by the Plantation Regime. (1918; reprint 1966)online at Project Gutenberg
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. Life and Labor in the Old South. (1929).
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. ed. Plantation and Frontier Documents, 1649-1863; Illustrative of Industrial History in the Colonial and Antebellum South: Collected from MSS. and Other Rare Sources. 2 Volumes. (1909).
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. "The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt," Political Science Quarterly 20#2 (Jun., 1905), pp. 257-275 in JSTOR
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. "The Origin and Growth of the Southern Black Belts." American Historical Review, 11 (July, 1906): 798-816. in JSTOR
  • Phillips, Ulrich B. "The Decadence of the Plantation System." Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, 35 (January, 1910): 37-41. in JSTOR
  • Kenneth M. Stampp. The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-bellum South (1956)