In 1835 Alexis de Tocqueville pronounced the South a society “gone to sleep.” As he steamed down the Ohio River, Tocqueville heard from the free, right, bank the “confused hum” of men at work, while from the left shore came the silence of loitering slaves and idle white men. Slavery cursed southern whites by degrading work and glorifying idleness, Tocqueville argued in Democracy in America. Whites shunned work because it suggested the double debasement of slavery and blackness. In the North men hungered for wealth and worked passionately to get it; in the South people were drawn to the pleasures of the hunt, bottle, and bed. Inevitably, Tocqueville predicted, the North would accumulate the nation’s wealth, leaving the South burdened with problems of slavery and race for which no happy solutions existed.
Tocqueville’s observations posed a paradox he failed to note: How did the sleepy South produce most of the world’s cotton, the basic raw material for English industrialization? By the 1850s critics like Frederick Law Olmsted and Hinton Rowan Helper took southern productivity for granted and posed a different paradox: Why was such a productive society so poor? Both Olmsted and Helper agreed with Tocqueville that slavery had caused the South to slip the traces that, in the North, harnessed productivity to prosperity. Lazy, productive, and poor, the slave South strayed from the northern path to capitalist industrialization.
When the Civil War ended slavery, the South quickly resumed production of phenomenal quantities of cotton. Poverty endured, however, and became worse. Southerners of both races found the go-ahead spirit of free enterprise nearly as alien as the carpetbaggers. In the half-century between Reconstruction and World War I, promoters of the “New South” sponsored a drive for home-grown industrialization. They preached the virtues of textile mills and the economics of lifting the region out of poverty through its own efforts. The factories arrived and stayed, but the economy generally did not improve.
In the midst of the Great Depression, a century after Tocqueville’s visit, James Agee and Walker Evans went to Alabama to live with the Gudgers, a family of white sharecroppers. Evans’s photographs and Agee’s text of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men portrayed a South of ceaseless work, destitution, and exhaustion. Southerners like the Gudgers enjoyed neither the profits of work nor the pleasures of idleness. Seventy years after the end of slavery, the South of the 1930s seemed trapped in a hopeless cycle of work, low productivity, and poverty.
Almost miraculously, however, within the generation since World War II southern economic growth has outpaced the rest of the nation’s. The Sunbelt attracted capital, jobs, and whites from the North, while millions of blacks were displaced from rural jobs and moved to northern cities. Across the South bulldozers tumbled cropper shanties, mechanical pickers harvested crops, factory workers assembled pickups and TVs, expressways circled cities, air conditioners were installed, and modern architects filled the southern skylines with office buildings and hotels. What happened …