Eli Whitney: Nemesis Of The South


In England the invention of spinning frames and power looms had created a demand which could be filled only from the southern states. The supplies from the Levant, from Guiana and from the West Indies, which had met nearly all needs down to 1794, fell into the background as the export of American slave-grown and mechanically ginned cotton suddenly began to climb. By the end of the first quarter of the Nineteenth Century, America was shipping to Liverpool more than three-quarters of all the cotton consumed in the United Kingdom. Eli Whitney had conjured up an army of 450,000 cotton workers in England. Ten thousand power looms and 240,000 hand looms secured the cotton planters against the danger of a glutted market.

The existence of this market and the possibility of supplying it with ease and profit made cotton plant ing the one absorbing industry of the South. The Louisiana Purchase had opened to slave-holding settlement and culture a vast domain of the richest soil on earth in a region peculiarly adapted to the expanding production of cotton. As the production grew, so did the value of the Negro. By 1825, when cotton was selling at fifteen cents a pound, a good Negro field hand who had been worth only $500 twenty years earlier would often bring $1,500 on a New Orleans auction block.

The phenomenal success of the cotton industry, for which Eli Whitney was directly responsible, gave birth in the South to an entirely new conception of slavery. In the early days of the Republic the most thoughtful southerners, including Washington and Jefferson, had deprecated slavery as an evil which must eventually be swept away. No one denied that slavery was a moral evil and a menace to the country. Almost every Virginian hoped to make real the opening words of Jefferson’s Bill of Rights, “that all men are by nature free and independent.” As the French traveler Chastellux wrote, “they are constantly talking of abolishing slavery, and of contriving some other means of cultivating their estates.”


Such ideas gradually came to be regarded as old-fashioned. What, asked Daniel Webster in 1850, had created the new feeling in favor of slavery in the South, so that it became an institution to be cherished —“no evil, no scourge, but a great religious, social and moral blessing? I suppose this is owing to the rapid growth and sudden extension of the cotton plantations of the South. It was the cotton interest that gave a new desire to promote slavery, to spread it, and to use its labor.”

The doctrine that Cotton was King, and that all other interests in the nation would bow before it, had permeated the whole South by the middle of the century. Few of the northerners who scoffed at this doctrine remembered that it was a northern inventor who gave slavery its new lease on life. It was hard to protest against a system upon which the whole prosperity of one section of the country seemed to hinge. Unwittingly, Eli Whitney had set in motion an under-current against the notions of equality and freedom. He himself made nothing out of his cotton gin, but he was none the less the founder of the cotton empire, an empire which everybody believed would inevitably collapse if the underpinning of slavery were removed.


The cotton gin, like many other inventions, turned out to be so valuable to the world as to be worthless to its inventor. The government could offer him no protection against the infringement of patent rights. The suits he brought were tried before juries composed of the very men who were breaking the patents. Whitney discussed his predicament dispassionately in a letter to Robert Fulton, another disappointed inventor: “The difficulties with which I have had to contend have originated principally in the want of a disposition in Mankind to do justice… My invention was new and distinct… I have always maintained that I should have had no difficulty in causing my rights to be respected if it had been less valuable and used only by a small portion of the community.”

Unable to make a living out of the cotton gin, he turned his back on the South. He settled in New Haven and determined to devote himself to the production of something profitable, something which could not easily be copied and appropriated by others. Alexander Hamilton’s “Report on Manufactures,” presented to Congress in 1791, had emphasized the importance of making the United States independent of foreign nations for military purposes. Alone of Hamilton’s state papers, this report fell Hat. It was only later that its wisdom came to be generally recognized, but Eli Whitney was one of those who did not have to be converted. In 1798, disturbed by the danger of war with France, he wrote to Oliver Wolcott, the secretary of the treasury, offering to manufacture “ten or fifteen thousand Stand of Arms.” By “stand of arms” was meant the complete arms necessary to equip a soldier—the musket, bayonet, ramrod, wiper and screwdriver.

After some haggling the offer was accepted. Whitney journeyed down to Washington and returned to New Haven with a contract in his pocket for 10,000 muskets, costing $13.40 each, to be delivered within two years. He proposed to manufacture these muskets on a new principle, the principle of interchangeable parts.