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The Cotton State

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This podcast is part of the series: ArchiTreats: Food for Thought


J. Mills Thorton


Alabama Department of Archives and History


ArchiTreats: Food for Thought celebrates the Year of Alabama History through a series of sequential lectures in Alabama history by leading experts in the field.

While many think of antebellum Alabama as a state of magnolias and cotton plantations, that picture tells only part of the story. This program will show how three groups – white yeomen farmers, planter elites, and enslaved African Americans – together created the “cotton state” in Alabama. It will begin with a description of the differences between life in the yeoman sections of the state – the hill counties and the Wiregrass – and life in the plantation areas – the Black Belt and the Tennessee Valley. Each of these groups contributed to and shaped Alabama society and antebellum politics. The program will examine some of the “hot” political topics of the time – the state bank, congressional districting, taxation, state aid for railroads, and secession from the Union.

Montgomery - native J. Mills Thornton is a professor of history at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Professor Thornton received his bachelor’s degree with high honors from Princeton University in 1966, and his doctorate from Yale University in 1974, joining the faculty of the University of Michigan in that year. His book, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860, published in 1978, received the Dunning Prize of the American Historical Association. His second book, Dividing Lines: Municipal Politics and the Struggle for Civil Rights in Montgomery, Birmingham and Selma, published in 2002, received the Liberty Legacy Prize of the Organization of American Historians. During 2007-08, he served as the Pitt Professor of American History and Institutions at the University of Cambridge in England.

This ArchiTreats presentation is made possible by the Friends of the Alabama Archives and a grant from the Alabama Humanities Foundation, a state program of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Length: 53:43

Content Areas: Social Studies

Alabama Course of Study Alignments and/or Professional Development Standard Alignments:

SS2010 (4) Alabama Studies
1. Compare historical and current economic, political, and geographic information about Alabama on thematic maps, including weather and climate, physical-relief, waterway, transportation, political, economic development, land-use, and population maps.
  • Describing types of migrations as they affect the environment, agriculture, economic development, and population changes in Alabama
    SS2010 (4) Alabama Studies
    6. Describe cultural, economic, and political aspects of the lifestyles of early nineteenth-century farmers, plantation owners, slaves, and townspeople.
    Examples: cultural—housing, education, religion, recreation
    economic—transportation, means of support
    political—inequity of legal codes
  • Describing major areas of agricultural production in Alabama, including the Black Belt and fertile river valleys
    SS2010 (10) United States History I: Beginnings to the Industrial Revolution
    13. Summarize major legislation and court decisions from 1800 to 1861 that led to increasing sectionalism, including the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Acts, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision. [A.1.a., A.1.c., A.1.e., A.1.f., A.1.g., A.1.i., A.1.j.]
  • Describing Alabama's role in the developing sectionalism of the United States from 1819 to 1861, including participation in slavery, secession, the Indian War, and reliance on cotton (Alabama)
  • Analyzing the Westward Expansion from 1803 to 1861 to determine its effect on sectionalism, including the Louisiana Purchase, Texas Annexation, and the Mexican Cession
  • Describing tariff debates and the nullification crisis between 1800 and 1861
  • Analyzing the formation of the Republican Party for its impact on the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States


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