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Eli Whitney: Nemesis Of The South

May 2024
11min read

Having given slavery a new lease on life, he then made Northern triumph inevitable

Any 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.

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.

Here was a man who as early as 1798 could visualize the government’s need of a constant supply of firearms, who could devise methods of production that would guarantee such a supply, and who, handicapped by the lack of a machine that would enable workmen to cut metal according to pattern, proceeded to invent one which has remained unchanged in principle for a century and a half.

This milling machine, as it was called, was in itself a major innovation. It was the cornerstone of his new system of interchangeable parts, by means of which he was able to make the same parts of different guns as much like each other as “the successive impressions of a copper-plate engraving.” Life in America had produced plenty of mechanics, particularly in New England, but few craftsmen. What Whitney did was to substitute for the skill of the craftsman the uniformity of the machine.

Foreigners have often observed as one of the characteristics of American industry that we build from the top down rather than from the ground up. Eli Whitney did not start with a few workmen and then gradually expand. He “tooled up” first. Before a single workman walked into his factory lie designed and built all the machinery he would need for his method of production. At the same time he proved himself a practical businessman as well as an inventor. He understood how to obtain contracts, finance their execution and provide funds for future expansion.

The importance of what Eli Whitney was doing did not readily penetrate the official mind. His friend Oliver Wolcott had been replaced in the Treasury by Samuel Dexter, a Massachusetts lawyer, who instinctively distrusted theories not sanctioned by experience. Whitney’s methods seemed to him unorthodox. As if to justify his suspicions, Whitney was soon running behind on his schedule of deliveries. In the first year only 500 guns were produced instead of the stipulated 4,000. Dexter was not surprised by his request for an advance of $10,000, but he took his time answering the letter and only agreed very grudgingly after insisting on further guarantees.

Fortunately the new President, Thomas Jefferson, was blessed with the receptive, ranging mind of his generation. The idea of interchangeable parts was already familiar to him. In 1785, while minister to France, he had visited the workshop of a certain Monsieur LeBlanc who was engaged in manufacturing muskets on exactly that principle. He had himself put together the parts of fifty locks, “taking pieces at hazard as they came to hand.” So impressed was he by this new method of manufacture that he suggested bringing Monsieur LeBlanc over to America, but the government was not interested in newfangled techniques. Nor indeed was the French government, which probably distrusted any invention that might possibly lead to unemployment.

Nothing more is heard of Monsieur LeBlanc. “I do not know what became of him,” said Jefferson. He had flashed across the screen of history and disappeared. In England, too, other men had anticipated Whitney in the application of mass production to an article with interchangeable parts. Joseph Bramah, the great machine designer, and Marc Brunei, a young French Royalist officer who had been driven out of his country during the Revolution, had manufactured pulley blocks on this system for the British Navy, but it was left to an American to develop the process and put it to the service of mankind.

Whitney himself probably never realized how far his system would reach. The new technique which had been adopted as a defense measure for the manufacture of firearms was soon found to be no less applicable to other industries. The Connecticut clockmakers began making brass clocks instead of wooden clocks, as soon as the advantages of interchangeable manufacture were recognized. Elias Howe and Isaac Singer followed with the sewing machine, and before the outbreak of the Civil War Cyrus McCormick and his rivals were producing the harvesters and reapers that rolled back the frontier and revolutionized farming the world over.

For these inventions and a hundred others Eli Whitney paved the way. The successful application of his theory of interchangeable parts proved a landmark in the over-all growth of American mass production. In Europe, where there was no shortage of skilled labor, the idea of mass production made slow progress. It caught on only in the gun-making industry where the advantages were too obvious to be ignored. By the middle of the century nearly every government in Europe was supplied with American gun-making machinery, all planned to operate on what was known everywhere as the “American System.”

In the southern states the rich planters who had profited so enormously from the cotton gin paid no attention to the increasing tempo of industrial activity in the North. One southern state, South Carolina, paid $50,000 to the inventor of the cotton gin as a belated acknowledgment of what society owed him, hut no one in the South seemed to be aware of the new techniques in manufacture evolved by (his same inventor, techniques of which the seceding slates were soon to find themselves desperately in need. The fact was that conditions of labor, soil, and climate had produced a static society in the South which refused to accept the implications of the Nineteenth Century.


It is one of the ironies of history that the man who inadvertently contributed to the downfall of the South by his invention of the cotton gin should also have blazed the trail leading to the technological supremacy of the North. The loss of the will to fight in the closing days of the Confederacy can be traced in large part to the feeling that the South had reached the limit of its resources, whereas in the North every deficiency in equipment could always be made good.


As to inherent fighting ability no distinction can be made between the Union and Confederate soldier, but in the quantity as well as the quality of their equipment the advantage was all with the northerner. While it is true that the extraordinarily resourceful General Gorgas, the Confederate chief of ordnance, managed to keep the gray armies supplied with the necessary weapons and munitions up to the very end of the war, even General Gorgas could not keep pace with the inventiveness and the productivity of northern arsenals and northern factories. On more than one occasion a single northern regiment, armed with breech-loading rifles, held in check a whole brigade armed with the ordinary musket. As one Confederate soldier put it, “it is no use for us to fight you’uns with that kind of gun.”

The disparity in clothing and equipment was even more marked than the disparity in weapons. The southern soldier had to find most of his own equipment, whereas the northerner was supplied by the government. If the northern soldier faced privation, as he often did, it was the fault ol shady contractors and incompetent quartermasters. The New England factories were turning out all the uniforms, the boots, and the varied accoutrements he could possibly need.

The Civil War, at bottom, was the first of the truly modern wars, in which the industrial “potential of a nation forms the foundation on which all military plans and achievements must ultimately be built. Given that situation, the advantage was all with the North.

Before the war even began, William Tecumseh Sherman warned a southern friend that a purely agricultural nation, like the South, could not hope to fight against a nation of mechanics. “You are bound to fail,” he said, sharply, and events bore out his contention. As the war progressed, the entire southern economy came under intolerable strain. In the end. it simply became impossible for the Confederacy to carry the burden any longer.

But the North could produce, in almost any required volume, the infinite variety and number of goods needed to support a nation at war. For this technique it was, to a large extent, indebted to Whitney.

Eli Whitney died in 1825, long before the “irrepressible conflict” had cast its shadow over American history. He himself was unaware of the part he had played in the expansion of slavery, just as he was unaware of the mighty industrial forces he had set in motion. He had invented the cotton gin and he had manufactured muskets on a new system for a war against France that never materialized, but by those two achievements he had affected the whole course of American history. By the first he riveted slavery on the South and thus created a tension between the two sections of the country which could only be resolved by war. And by the second he gave an impetus to the mass production of inexpensive goods which has created what the world knows as the American standard of living, and which has reunited us, in spite of all the differences in our backgrounds, into an amazingly homogeneous nation.


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