After the South lost the Civil War and chattel slavery in the United States abolished, society increasingly characterized the entire plantation regime as a backward, cruel, inefficient failure. Rural and agricultural mechanization and electrification distanced the Old South from the modern era in physical and mechanical ways. The Civil Rights Movement brought American society away from the racial discrimination arising out of slavery, creating even more distance from the antebellum South.
Plantations benefitted from economies of scale and specialization. Many Southern plantations were largely self-sufficient, producing, raising or manufacturing nearly everything they needed, including food, clothing, shelter, transportation, tools, and many useful objects. The self-contained world of the plantation undoubtedly gave its black and white residents a different view of the world. For many slaves, the plantation gave them a strong sense of security, a reinforced feeling of belonging, and it took away many of the worries free people typically have. Sickness and disease were less common on Southern plantations before 1861.
In 1975, Dr. Stanley Engerman and Dr. Richard Fogel published Time on the Cross, the important economic treatise proving that slavery was economically efficient, very productive, and that slaves were not abused to the extent characterized in popular literature. Their book showed that slaves consumed some 88% of their own economic production. Dr. Fogel subsequently won the Nobel Prize for developing cliometrics, the study of economic and other history using statistics.
Blacks and whites on the plantation lived and worked with their families. Planters went out of their way to make sure each of their slaves had a marriage partner at a young age. Slaveholders kept peace by selling offending slaves, limiting alcohol and drug use, prohibiting gambling, building prayer houses, providing holidays and dances, and keeping slaves on their rural estates most of the time. Discipline was enforced with a variety of punishments, the most memorable being corporal punishment. We consider corporal punishment backward today, but the catastrophic number of prisoners held in the United States today cannot be a progressive social development. The plantation regime completely avoided incarceration of African-American slaves. Antebellum slaves were never put in prison, and they were only jailed long enough for their owners to pick them up. Some offenders wore a metallic slave collar.
There is no going back in time… but we need to remember the past, because people do not change as much as we think. When our modern social experiments fail, as some are failing disastrously now, we will need better ideas, some that have already proven themselves. If the racism is taken out of antebellum methods, they will prove useful today.