King Cotton

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Then in 1792 Eli Whitney, a New Englander and natural-born mechanic living near Savannah, Georgia, decided to do something about it. Savannah at that time was the major port for the American cotton trade, such as it was. Whitney realized that if he could find a way around the ginning bottleneck, he would greatly lower the price of cotton, help the South meet the fast-rising demand of the British cloth industry, and help fill the gap being left by the collapse of indigo.

In a month he had found the answer. Perhaps never before or since has a mechanical device of such simplicity had such vast consequences. In Whitney’s gin a roller studded with nails stripped the lint from the seeds by pulling it through a grid too narrow to let the seeds pass. The seeds fell into one compartment, and a brush swept the lint off the nails and into another. Whitney’s machine could be built in an hour or so by any competent carpenter and worked by a single laborer, increasing his productivity fully fifty times. In a stroke Whitney had reduced the labor cost of ginning from the dominant component in the cost of cotton cloth to a near triviality. And the cost of cotton cloth dropped as a result from the smoked-salmon range to the fish-and-chips bracket.

Once Whitney had thought of it, lesser minds had no trouble at all discerning the gin’s utility. Indeed, it was so obvious that Whitney’s first gin was stolen. And it was so easily constructed that he was never able to enforce his patents. Altogether Whitney realized only about one hundred thousand dollars from his invention, no small sum at the time, but nowhere near what he might have earned in a perfect world.

Ironically, Whitney’s gin did not work all that well with the sort of cotton that grew on the Georgia coast and flowed through the port of Savannah. Its long staples tended to clog the machine (and, in fact, Sea Island cotton remains a luxury fabric to this day). But the gin was ideal for the short-staple cotton that could be grown inland. Upland cotton, as it was called, required a growing season of at least two hundred days, about an inch of rainfall a week, and, ideally, a rich soil. It could be grown profitably, once the gin was invented, in the sandy Piedmont region, but it thrived in the black-earth belt of central Alabama and especially in the rich alluvial soils of the Mississippi Delta country.

Sudden great wealth can be as debilitating for whole nations as it often is for the people who play out their lives in the gossip columns.

The South, able to grow cotton very profitably at a much lower price than ever before (or anywhere else), became the natural empire of King Cotton as the demand of the British and New England mills became insatiable. That single bale that rotted on the Liverpool docks in 1784 became more than four million bales by 1860.

While the price of cotton had now dropped low enough to reach a mass market, it remained a labor-intensive crop far more than a land-intensive one. In 1850 cotton took up only 6 percent of the improved land in the cotton states, but it required about 70 percent more labor per acre than corn to produce. One reason for this is that cotton is very susceptible to weed infestation and needs to be hoed regularly. Chopping cotton, as it was called, was backbreaking toil, but there was a cheap, and involuntary, labor supply available: the slaves.

Slavery was not an uneconomic institution in the eighteenth century, as many (beginning with Benjamin Franklin in the 1750s) have claimed. But it was no more than moderately profitable. In the swiftly rising climate of moral opprobrium, it might well have soon withered away in the South as it did in the North. But cotton made slavery hugely profitable, and the price of a prime field hand rose twentyfold between 1800 and the Civil War.

The Old South, its climate largely unsuited to growing cotton, swiftly adapted to the new realities and began to export human flesh. Between 1790 and 1860 some 835,000 slaves were “sold South,” to the new cotton lands.

Southern capital became tied up in slaves rather than land and improvements, but labor, on a cash-flow basis, was cheap. Thus laborsaving ingenuity was not prized as it was in the North. And with vast wealth flowing into the South from the cotton trade, other sectors of the economy were neglected as well. Industry settled in the North, and immigrants gravitated to where opportunities were far greater. Even the cotton trade itself was largely brokered through New York.

Like Spain before it, the South failed to evolve with the swiftly evolving economy of the nineteenth century and fell farther and farther behind, clinging to the profitable but increasingly archaic system that produced so much wealth and so little happiness.