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King Cotton

June 2024
6min read

As any faithful reader of the old gossip columns knows, great wealth too easily acquired can be a very mixed blessing indeed. Many of the very rich whose names appeared endlessly in the columns—the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, for instance—simply frittered life away in an endless round of public pleasure-seeking. If they seldom seemed actually to be having a very good time, perhaps their friend Noel Coward put his finger on the reason when he reportedly noted that “work is so much more fun than fun.”

For others of the very rich, however—Barbara Hutton and Huntington Hartford come to mind—their lives as they were played out in the columns seemed sad almost to the point of tragedy. And the cause of their unhappiness was precisely that they inherited huge fortunes at an early age and lacked the personal strength to carry the burden of them.

Sudden great wealth can be equally debilitating for entire nations as well. The fleetfuls of gold and silver that yearly poured into Spain from the New World, as though from some vast trust fund, were used to purchase commodities (not to mention armies) from abroad rather than to develop the Spanish economy. In effect, the wealth of the Indies went to developing the economies of northern Europe, not Spain, which was left far behind. Only in the late twentieth century is it beginning to catch up with the countries that, lacking Spain’s wealth, had no choice but to “work for a living.”

In the modern era it is usually oil that distorts national economies. In the American South, two hundred years ago, however, it was cotton. The consequence of the easy profits to be had from growing cotton there in the first half of the nineteenth century echo even unto today’s headlines.

The carefully cultivated Gone with the Wind mythology of the antebellum South has colored our image of the colonial South as well. But in truth the Southern colonies before the Revolution were economically precarious, and even the wealthiest citizens were burdened by debts to their factors in London. While sugar in the West Indies was hugely profitable and the foundation of many a great British fortune, the major export crops of the Southern colonies—indigo, rice, and tobacco—were marginal, and the competition from elsewhere fierce.

Indigo, from which a blue dye was extracted, was widely grown in warm climates around the world. With British tariff preferences providing a protected market, indigo utilized about 10 percent of the slave labor in the Southern colonies. After the Revolution, with the South now outside the British tariff walls, India blew the American indigo industry right out of the water, and it vanished in the 179Os. Rice culture, which had employed about 20 percent of the slave labor in colonial days, held its own in terms of exports after the Revolution, but what growth there was came only from the relatively small domestic market.

Tobacco had been the main export crop of the Old South, and 40 percent of the South’s slaves were used in its production. But tobacco had to compete with the West Indies and the Mediterranean lands, which had begun producing tobacco in quantity within a century of its first export from the New World. Tobacco could be a profitable crop in good years, but compared with West Indian sugar—a license to steal in the eighteenth century—it was a tough way to earn a buck.

People in the Old South, in other words, had to work hard to make a living. Cotton changed everything.

A single bale of American cotton was exported to Liverpool in 1784, the year following the peace treaty. British trade regulations required that commodities had to enter the country either in British ships or in ships of the country of origin; the cotton had arrived in an American bottom, but customs officials flatly refused to believe that there was any such thing as American cotton, and the bale rotted on the docks.

The British customs officials were not far wrong. The entire American cotton crop in the 178Os grew on less than two hundred acres, virtually all of them located in the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, cotton had been a very luxurious fabric, within the reach only of those whose names would have appeared in gossip columns had there been any. The reason for this was simple: Its production was extremely labor-intensive. Spinning a pound of cotton thread by hand, thanks to its natural twist, took far longer than spinning wool, linen, or even silk, between twelve and fourteen man-days in all. (Spinning, in fact, was largely woman’s work and was the origin of the word spinster , but I’m not about to call them “person-days.”)

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the English cloth industry, changed matters considerably. Only five hundred thousand pounds of cotton were spun into thread—all by hand—in 1765. Twenty years later sixteen million pounds were spun, by machine, and the price of cotton cloth had dropped from the caviar range to the mere smoked salmon bracket. The reason the price stayed as high as it did was, again, labor costs.

A field hand could pick about fifty pounds of cotton bolls in a day, enough eventually to yield about four pounds of cotton “lint” ready for spinning. But removing the seeds from that much cotton took a single worker fully twenty-five days.

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.

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