Eli Whitney: Nemesis Of The South

PrintPrintEmailEmailAny American who ruminates about the origins of the Civil War—and that should mean not only professional historians but everyone in the United States, north and south, who has ever been spellbound by the story of his country—will find himself confronted sooner or later by an ingenious contraption for removing seeds from the cotton boll, known as the cotton gin.

This device, invented by Eli Whitney, a totally unknown young man just out of Yale College, changed the whole pattern of cotton production. No invention ever answered a more pressing need.

Immediately after graduating from Yale, in 1972, Whitney had been engaged as a private tutor for a family in Georgia. On his way to take up his post he made the acquaintance of Mrs. Nathaniel Greene, widow of the Revolutionary general, who was returning to Savannah after spending the summer in the North. An invitation to stay at Mrs. Greene’s plantation, all the more welcome when he discovered that his prospective employer had hired another man in his place, brought him into contact with the cotton aristocracy of the neighborhood. Whitney soon endeared himself to his hostess by his extraordinary “handiness.” There was nothing that this big, rambling man with the extraordinary deft fingers could not make or mend.

As a boy on the farm, the- oldest of five children, he had always preferred puttering around his father’s workshop to doing the farm chores. He was born in Westboro, Massachusetts in 1765, the year of the Stamp Act. By the time he was grown the exciting days of the Revolution were over, and the farmers of Massachusetts were learning to their amazement that independence and prosperity did not necessarily go hand in hand. Some of them, discouraged by debts they could not pay, joined Shays’ Rebellion against the state government, but Eli Whitney stuck to the farm and eked out the family income by manufacturing nails, even hiring a helper to fill his orders. When the demand for nails slacked off, he turned to making hat pins and walking canes. Neighbors got into the habit of looking up Eli Whitney whenever they needed anything repaired. He even made a violin for one of them which was said to have produced “tolerable good music.”


At the age of eighteen it came home to him that he needed a college degree if he was ever to be anything more than a clever mechanic. The family was not sympathetic: by the time he had prepared himself for college he would be too old, and besides the family could not afford it. Eli listened to all their complaints and then disregarded them. He taught school for three winters, finally won his father’s consent, and was admitted to Yale in 1789, when he was 23 years old. He was not a brilliant student, but when the Reverend Ezra Stiles, the president of Yale, was asked to recommend a suitable person for a private tutor out of the graduating class of 1792, Eli Whitney was the man he chose. Though he was not planning to become either a minister or a lawyer, like most of his classmates, there was something about him that inspired confidence.

Evidently Mrs. Greene in Savannah had faith in him too, and when a party of her friends, officers who had served under the general in the Revolutionary War, were discussing the deplorable state of agriculture in their neighborhood, she referred them to the young Yale graduate who was staying with her. They were bemoaning the fact that there was no quick, practical way of separating short staple cotton from its seed. It took a slave ten hours to separate one pound of lint from three pounds of the small tough seeds. Under those conditions no one in the South could afford to grow cotton, and yet in other parts of the world cotton was becoming a semiprecious commodity. “Gentlemen,” said Mrs. Greene, “tell your troubles to Mr. Whitney, he can make anything.”

Mr. Whitney could and did. Within two weeks he had produced a model of the cotton gin, an ingenious device which was destined to have an ultimately disastrous effect upon the people it enriched. By the process he devised, the cotton was dragged through a wire screen by means of toothed cylinders revolving towards each other. A revolving brush cleaned the cylinders, and the seed fell into another compartment. A later model, run by water power, could produce 300 to 1,000 pounds a day.

Whitney wrote to his father that he hoped to keep his invention a “profound secret,” but rumor spread so quickly that long before he could get to Washington and take out a patent his workshop had been broken open and his machine examined. The marauders discovered that the gin was easy enough to copy, and on the strength of what they saw they planted cotton on a scale never dreamed of before. In 1792 the United States was exporting only 138,000 pounds of cotton. Two years later that figure had risen to 1,601,000 pounds. Never had any invention made such an immediate impression upon society, abroad as well as at home.