"To Labour for Another." Economics and Democracy in Plantation Life

"To Labour for Another." Economics and Democracy in Plantation Life
Dolley Madison: Economics, Discovery and Daily Life

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One week


In the 18th century and into the 19th, during the lifetime of Dolley Madison, the colonies (and some states) were based on an agricultural economy, supported in large part—mostly but not entirely in the south—by the “peculiar” institution of slavery.  But with or without slaves, plantations were nearly always self-contained communities, with an economic identity, and economic motives, like any community.  Furthermore, they were a part of a larger, agrarian economy in the colonies, which depended in large measure on trade with England and other European countries.


Students who participate in this lesson will consider the economic aspects of plantation life in the colonial south, with particular attention to the way in which slavery—“that peculiar institution,"—fit into the economic picture.  Students will then compare the economic role of slavery in the democracy of ancient Greece with its role in the colonial democracy of the plantation south.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials; overhead projector linked to a computer.


1.  Introduce the lesson by showing students the website, “A Day in the Life of Thomas Jefferson,” (below), pointing out its salient information and paying particular attention to the ending paragraph:
Jefferson's words and deeds are contradictory on the issue of slavery. Although he drafted the words "all men are created equal," and worked to limit the stranglehold of slavery on the new country, he personally found no political or economic remedies for the problem, and trusted that future generations would find a solution. "But as it is," Jefferson wrote, "we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other."
2.  Explain that some scholars have suggested that the way in which southern plantation owners rationalized their economic dependence on slavery in a new land that purported to value human freedom was to adopt as a model the democracy of ancient Greece, which was also economically dependent on slavery.
3.  Using the websites listed below as well as any available print resources, the task for students is to decide whether that was a valid rationalization by researching the relation of slavery and democracy in ancient Greece as well as in the colonial south, looking for commonalities and differences.  If students work in small groups, each group needs to decide which aspect of the comparison it will undertake. One set of categories for research into both the Greek and 18th century plantation circumstances might be taken from the website, “Slavery in Dark-Age Greece,” below:
  • The Synergy between Slavery and Freedom
  • The Sources of Slaves
  • The Extent of Slavery
  • The Occupations of Slaves
  • The Concept of Public Slaves
  • The Lives of Slaves
4.  When each group has completed its research, students should be brought together again to share their findings.  Each group should, on the basis of its own findings, come to consensus on the question of whether the Greek model “fits” the 18th century plantation economic reality, and why. 
5.  If different groups come to different conclusions, the class should spend at least a day debating the issue.

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by having students prepare PowerPoint presentations or posters or papers on the subject, and inviting other classes in the school to participate in the debate.

Sources & Resources:

A Day in the Life of Thomas Jefferson
Plantation Economy
History of American Agriculture
The Southern Plantation
The Dream of Greek Democracy in the South
Ancient Greek Slavery and Its Relation to Democracy
Slavery in Ancient Greece
Slavery in the Ancient World
Slavery in the United States
This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.