Before the Civil War
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Before the Civil War began, Madison’s economy was almost entirely based on small, family-run farms, the average farm size being three hundred and five acres. The population was somewhat stagnant, remaining about the same or dropping from 1830 to 1880. Since recent mechanical farming innovations had yet to become widespread, work was completed using manual labor, nearly all of it provided by slaves. There were approximately 4,400 of these slaves in Madison in 1850, making up about half of Madison’s population. There is evidence that colonists first imported slaves before the Revolutionary War, though exact dates are unknown (Davis, 1977) .

Because each family owned only a few slaves and they made up a significant part of the population, slaves and freedmen in Madison generally had privileges that they would not have had on larger plantations, such as the ability to take part in legal proceedings. There are cases on record of slaves suing their masters for freedom. In one case, two freedmen petitioned the court to allow them to sell themselves into slavery (Davis, 1977). Though slavery was vital to Madison’s economy, many Madison citizens did support gradual abolition. With all of these slaves, agricultural production in Madison was fairly high before the Civil War, though farmers exported very little of it except for small quantities that were exchanged at the nearest market, Fredericksburg, for manufactured goods.

For the most part, what was produced by Madison was also consumed by Madison, mainly due to the lack of paved roads. This remained true until the late 1850s, when railroads were first built in nearby counties, making it easier to market produce in outside markets, though exports remained low until after the Civil War. The primary crop of Madison was, as it is today, corn, with wheat, oats, and rye being produced in smaller numbers. It was not until the late 19 th century that new agricultural technology began to be imported to Madison and increased the sizes of surpluses enough to make exportation feasible.

Thus, Madison was largely unaffected by one of the most contentious issues before the Civil War: tariffs. Tariffs caused perhaps the largest pre-Civil War escalation of hostility between the North and the South in 1832, when South Carolina attempted to nullify a national tariff within its own borders. Though the national government won this confrontation, many Southerners sympathized with South Carolina. The issue of tariffs and the slavery issue both fall under the umbrella of states’ rights, the rallying cry of secessionists before the Civil War.

When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 presidential election and South Carolina announced its secession, most other disgruntled slave states were quick to follow. The citizens in Madison voted in favor of Virginia’s secession referendum with a large majority, not because of opinions on slavery or tariffs, but due to the general sense of alienation and dissatisfaction with the federal government and the Northern states. Though they voted in favor of secession, many people in Madison did not expect to be fighting a war against their former countrymen, especially not as brutal and violent a war as it turned out to be. The ruination of Madison’s agriculture and economy was unavoidable once the war had started.

Content in this article was taken from a senior project produced by high school student Peter Rice at the Blue Ridge Virtual Governor's School in Madison County. To see the full paper with references, please visit his project website.

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