‘Within the Pale of the Plantation States’: Slavery and the Governance of the University of the South in 1860

Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states and the United States (1861).

[Click here to go directly to the interactive map.]

Across the United States today, many of the nation’s oldest universities and colleges have, for the first time, begun researching their historical ties to slavery and uncovering the ways  their institutions relied on enslaved persons for the labor performed on their campuses or as the basis of fortunes they tapped for funding.

The University of the South is at the start of its own six-year investigation, led by its Project on Slavery, Race, and Reconciliation. Today the Project shares part of the research it has amassed by introducing an interactive map feature entitled ‘Within the Pale of the Plantation States’: Slavery and the Governance of the University of the South in 1860.

Our aim with the publication of this map is to gain a better understanding of the significance of slavery in the campaign to establish the University of the South. The Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, Leonidas Polk, launched that drive in July 1856, when he wrote a letter to nine of his fellow southern bishops, rallying them to join forces in founding a southern and Episcopal university. This great center of learning would be the equal of any other in the world and centrally located, he explained, “within the pale of the plantation states.”

With that telling phrase, Polk rooted the identity of the planned university in the region defined by slave-based plantation agriculture, its enslaved population numbering some 4 million persons, and the phenomenal wealth it generated. Polk’s bold proposal later materialized as The University of the South, chartered in 1858.

The ten “plantation states” the bishop identified are represented in the interactive map compiled here. Save for Virginia, which does not appear here because it was not included in Polk’s campaign, the states corresponded to those of the Confederacy later formed in 1861.

The interactive map locates the home counties of the thirty-seven white men – Episcopal bishops, clergymen, and laymen – who served in 1860 as the original Trustees and governed the new University of the South. Clicking on the highlighted counties allows a closer inspection, revealing a more detailed demographic profile of the respective counties and each individual Trustee, including their assessed wealth and the number of persons they enslaved. (Links to the U.S. Census documents from which the information is drawn are provided, too.) You may click through the biographies on the left side or explore the map itself by selecting a county.

The map incorporates extensive research by Tanner Potts, C’15, the Project’s research associate, who worked closely with Molly Elkins, C’18, and Will Godsey, C’17, technicians in the university’s Landscape Analysis Lab, in preparing the illustration.

What we see in this accounting is that virtually all of the university’s early leaders held persons in bondage; in some cases, they held hundreds captive as slaves. Most hailed from counties where the enslaved population was comparatively large, and in some cases the numerical majority. The map’s profiling of the original leadership cadre indicates the university’s indebtedness to the wealth and power of persons whose fortunes were grounded in the slave-based plantation economy.

The map represents the initial phase of a larger project of “social geography” that uses Geographic Information System (GIS) mapping technology to profile and examine the university’s first generation of organizers and boosters in light of their connections with and investments in slavery.  Succeeding versions of the map will incorporate our ongoing research into the biographies of the nearly 300 persons who pledged upwards of $1 million to endow the University of the South.

Our interactive map is indebted to one of the landmark productions in the history of American cartography: the Map showing the distribution of the slave population of the southern states and the United States. The U.S. Coast Survey issued this map in 1861 after the formation of the Confederacy and sold it “for the benefit of the Sick and Wounded Soldiers of the U.S. Army.”

The map translated statistical information taken from the 1860 Census into a visual form, a process known today as “statistical cartography.” The map’s principal designer shaded each county according to the density of the enslaved population, the darkest indicating counties where slaves constituted 80 percent or more of the inhabitants. Doing so produced a picture of slavery and an argument against it that no one had ever seen or imagined before – a kind of “heat map” that linked the hotbeds of secessionist fervor to the areas of densest enslaved populations.

By overlaying our data on the 1861 map, we produce a revealing picture of the antebellum University of the South, its leadership class, and the slavery-defined “pale of the plantation states” that gave the university its first identity.

NOTES: For further information on Hergesheimer’s map, see Susan Schulten, “The Cartography of Slavery and the Authority of Statistics,” Civil War History, vol. X no. 1 (March 2010): 5-32. For information on the property categories in the Eight Census of 1860, see the instructions to the Census marshals at  this website.

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