It was, ironically, a Northerner who helped cement the link between slavery and the production of cotton in the Southern states. In 1792, Eli Whitney, a Massachusetts native, invented the cotton gin, a machine that removed the stubborn seeds from freshly picked cotton. Whitney's invention led to an explosive rise in cotton production and a burgeoning demand for cheap labor to cultivate the cotton. Although cotton and slavery were the foundations on which much Southern wealth was built, Northerners also reaped the riches of King Cotton's profits and helped prolong the institution of slavery.
The American Revolution's ideals of freedom led statesmen such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to believe slavery would eventually fall out of favor. By the 1780s, slavery had all but disappeared in the North and was diminishing in the South due to the decline of tobacco farming. When cotton rose to prominence, slavery once again became essential to economic progress. Nevertheless, abolitionists and free African Americans in the North pressed Congress to end slavery, and in 1808, Congress outlawed the importation of slaves. But the cotton industry's need for slaves did not diminish, and domestic slave trading was legally carried on until 1865. Free African Americans in the North, particularly children, were under constant threat of being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
America's Cash Crop
In 1791, the yearly cotton production was about two million pounds. By the 1860s, cotton was being produced at the rate of one billion pounds per year. The economic wealth reaped from cotton fields funded the building of railroads and the country's western expansion. Cotton paid for more than half of the nation's imports and helped fuel the Northeast's textile industry, which in turn created jobs for Americans and immigrants alike. The wealth of Northern cotton exporters, insurers and transporters was indirectly acquired through the South's slave labor. A large part of the nation's free population shared in the benevolence of King Cotton.
The American Dream
The agricultural classes of the South were distinctly divided during the antebellum period. Plantation owners made up the upper class, but the owners of large cotton plantations who owned 20 slaves or more were the true aristocracy. The only way a farmer could increase his production of cotton, increase his profits and elevate his station was to purchase slaves. The farmers who did not own slaves and instead worked the land themselves dreamed of owning slaves in the same way a 21st-century American might aspire to owning his own business or buying his own home. Slaves were not just a necessity in the South; they were a symbol of success.
Forever in Dixie
The Civil War of 1861 to 1865 freed African Americans from their Southern masters, but didn't liberate them from the cotton fields. Fearing the Northern states would be flooded with refugee slaves, a policy of containment was instituted by Union Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas. He arranged for freed slaves to remain in the South and work the fields of abandoned Southern plantations controlled by white Northern owners. Once assigned to a plantation, the former slaves were not permitted to leave without a pass. They worked 10-hour days and were paid $10 a month. When this contract labor arrangement concluded at the war's end, it was estimated that at least two-thirds of these former slaves were defrauded of their wages.
- USHistory.org: The Crowning of King Cotton
- History.com: Cotton
- USHistory.org: Cotton and African American Life
- Civil War Trust: Slavery in The United States
- PBS.org: Africans in America: Growth and Entrenchment of Slavery
- California State University, Northridge: U.S. History: Plantations and Slavery Sperad
- Mississippi History Now: Cotton and The Civil War
- The New York Public Library: The Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture: The Abolition of The Slave Trade
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images