Oct 24, 2019 in History
Impact of the Cotton Gin on the History of the USA

By the times of independence the United States was an agrarian country. While the farming was dominating in the North, the antebellum South was a land of the huge slave tobacco and cotton plantations. The main feature of the plantation economy was the use of the African slaves’ labor by the elite owners of plantations. Natural conditions in the south were favorable for the cultivation of cotton, and the demand was growing rapidly due to the industrial revolution in the UK. The more English manufacturers were increasing the purchases of US cotton, the more exploitation of slaves was growing. The invention of the simple machine, the cotton gin, showed the way to obtain the maximum profit from the cultivation of the top demanded commodity. Along with the spread of plantations, the extension of violence and use of black slaves, the great cotton south empire raised.

In the year 1793, when Eli Whitney invented his famous cotton gin, the South seemed to be the underdeveloped slavery agricultural part of the country. In the year 1825, when he died, it already was a prosperous Kingdom of Cotton. A turning point was at the times, when a young man observed the excessively hard and time-consuming process of picking cotton by slaves on the plantation he was tutoring children. It inspired him to create a machine that would accelerate the process. In fact, the invention of this machine accelerated the economic processes in the South and then in the country as a whole. The rattling mix of the favorable soils, free labor of slaves, external economic factors of European industrial revolution, and lastly the creation of the “wonder” cotton machine made history of the US South rapidly change. 

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By the times, the cotton became the leading cash crop, the South was already famous for its sheer tobacco, rice, and indigo cultivation. In fact, agricultural South was dependent on these plantations, which could not be handled without thousands of black “hands”. The Industrial Revolution hardly touched the South, while its Lower part was called the Black belt because of the large number of plantations and slave workers. The southern lands were highly favorable also for cultivations of cotton, which could grow almost all year round. Even with help of the thousands of slaves’ hands, it was impossible to produce huge volumes of cotton, because of the cumbersome collecting and processing. It was a hard work to plant, tend, and pick the cotton. It was also quite time-consuming and exhausting to separate the seeds from the fibers and then to bale the cotton fibers. In a while the hungry aggregate of industrial development in the UK demanded the high volumes of cotton. And the invention of Whitney was able not only to satisfy it, but also to cause the cotton production boom. Thus, the effective cotton gin machine could do the work faster and better than with hands.  “In one hour, the cotton gin (engine) did as much work as several slaves could do in a day”. Consequently, the strong demand for slaves did not decrease but increased because the main task and mercantile desire of the planters was to pick as much cotton as possible in the shortest terms. The cotton plantations were carried out ruthlessly. Land was not fertilized properly and after a few years ceased to harvest and planters throw it.  They did not worry about how to protect the land from exhaustion and preferred to occupy new lands. Together with their slaves and overseers hired armed guards, they were moving to the south-west and establishing new and new plantations.

John Boles in his work about the history of the South claims that “Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793 and westward settlement created a cotton empire and geographic growth exacerbated sectional tensions within the South”. This invention had a significant impact on the global economy as whole as the process for producing cotton became much cheaper. For the US, the effect of cotton gin was even more significant. On the one hand the invention triggered the industrial revolution in the Southern states. On the other, it dramatically increased the cost-effectiveness of the slave economy. Some historians share the opinion that the invention of cotton gin prolonged the existence of the slave system in the South for decades. Without this machine slavery would probably withered away much earlier due to economic insolvency.

Speaking on the role cotton played in the 1800’s economy, the Root columnist Henry Louis Gates emphasizes: 

“It is important to understand that this was not simply a Southern phenomenon. Cotton was one of the world’s first luxury commodities, after sugar and tobacco, and was also the commodity whose production most dramatically turned millions of black human beings in the United States themselves into commodities. Cotton became the first mass consumer commodity”. 

At the end of eighteenth-century volumes of cotton production in the US increased by ten times and put it into the focus of US exports. McInerey states that in the 1840’s Southerners entitled cotton with the name of “King” or the “white gold”, as it was significantly profitable business and the main economy support for the country.

The environment of the antebellum South of the United States brought to life plantation economy and slavery incompatible with the capitalist spirit of British settlers. Indeed, slavery and the large landed property were the key indicators making the difference between the North and the South. It is important to underline that historically, various industries were more developed on the North, where most of the immigrants arrived, making the agriculture activities less important. Furthermore, agriculture in this part of the country did not require involvement of the labor of slaves because farms were smaller. The South, in turn, depended on the sheer plantations. While the North was building new transportation roots, new factories and plants, the South invested in slaves. Furthermore, the two big sales markets of cotton were placed in the North and the UK, and the South’s dependency on them became very strong. 

In short, by the 1860 cotton became a cash crop and cotton production in the South increased. The amount of slaves was growing and dependency on their labor was very high. As South cared about this labor, they invest in slaves, while the North was investing in its infrastructure, making the abyss in the development of both parts of the country wider and wider. 

In order to estimate the role of the Planter class it is important to refer the fact that in the first half of the XIX century the US was considered as a democratic state only on the paper. In fact, the main political force belonged to the slaveholders. Slaveholders dictating their demands in society and on the market largely influenced the region's politics. McInnerey emphasizes that they belonged from 50 to 85% of the seats in the legislatures of the southern states, and they had a solid representation in the Congress. They had every opportunity to shape local policy in their own interests, fully protecting and strengthening the institution of slavery. Except the politics and social life, the institution of slavery largely shaped also the culture of the South, considering the slavery as the distinctive feature of their lives. As it was already mentioned, in the XIX century the region remained completely agricultural and non-profit. The main features of such plantation society were inviolable order and respect for the traditional and purely southern values. Politicians, priests, journalists and writers glorified a rare balance and unique identity of the South. The system of slave labor formed a special world not only for the slave owners, but also for all the white members of society. The institution of slavery was the source of wealth of the South. It also defined its role in the country and shaped public attitudes and policy preferences. Each group in the south system took its special place, each of them contributed to the process of augmentation of wealth, security and stability of society as a whole. Of course, such conclusion is possible if to close eyes to a number of problems. If we consider the moral aspect, it should be noted the increasing isolation of the South was exactly due to its particular way of life: every third of the residents here was a slave. In economic terms, it should be recognized: slavery brought the obvious benefit to individuals, but had a devastating effect on the long-term development of the region.

 Even though, the Planters were few in number, they held most of the South’s wealth. Since the first half of the 17th century, when the first black slaves appear in the country and by the 1860, slavery and profit-making agriculture were closely connected. The vast majority of southern slaveholders had at its disposal, as a rule, only a few black slaves. The number of large slaveholders was relatively small. A significant part of farmers living in the southern states of the country, generally cultivate their small plots of land on their own. Nevertheless, the very existence of the Institute of slavery is largely determined by the development of the South. Slaves were a good investment and brought large profits. In order to estimate the value of slaves Steven Deyle gives very precise information. He emphasizes that in 1860, the value of the slaves was 

“roughly three times greater than the total amount invested in banks,” and it was “equal to about seven times the total value of all currency in circulation in the country, three times the value of the entire livestock population, twelve times the value of the entire U.S. cotton crop and forty-eight times the total expenditure of the federal government that year.”

Slavery, built in the structure of the bourgeois society of the United States, can be described as rational. Slave was regarded as an expensive property, which required care on a par with the mule, machine or any other thing. They were called “hands” and divided by the full, half, or quarter-power, like a horse. Slavery of the American South was the most severe since planters did not see men but property, depriving them of the right of privacy. The pursuit of profit has forced growers to control the entire life of the slaves: sleep, food, clothing, and family relationships. Slavery also determined the type of social relations in the southern states. The cast society developed and prospered, in which the upper class for centuries ruled over the lower. Skin color determined the social rank of a southerner, and the current system of slavery was a guarantee of the inviolability of the rank. None black (whether slave or free it) could not rise above the assigned place in society. All these restrictions were included in the so called Slave Codes. Even in colonial times some slave rebellions were known, which, in turn, provoked a paranoiac fears that the rebellion in one neighborhood will cause the mass one. So the codes served as preventive methods to restrict possible uprisings. Few slaves decided to escape from the host, most of the escapees were caught. In 1850 Congress even passed the Fugitive Slave. Nevertheless, the most fortunate daredevils could count on the support of both their free counterparts and white abolitionists who helped fugitives to cross into the northern states or Canada. There were also free Afro Americans in the South, who bought their freedom or was freed by the master. Their place in society was unclear and usually they had no chances to escape poverty. However, despite the whole slavery period in the history of the USA is a black morn page and the injustice of the southern society was as a red flag put on the every plantation, the South had its own view on the situation. Defenders of slavery believed that the abrupt end to slavery would cause chaos in the society. It would have profound negative impact on economy and actually destroy it. The unemployment would be enormous as well as uprisings and anarchy. Furthermore, they used examples from the Bible and history to show the natural source of slavery for the humankind. Some of the arguments seem to be ridiculous as for example the idea that slaves in the South were better cared of than some other poor people in the North or Europe. Turning in the whirl of new ideas the North proposed, the South tried to protect its old traditional system as they could. And in that time, as mentioned before, the invention of the cotton gin greatly increased the cotton harvesting by slaves. As a result enormous profits planters generated the growth of the greed desire to have more. The slavery was growing and the whole situation seemed to be a vicious cycle. At least, in 1860 the resolution was found - the Civil War.

In conclusion, despite the scale of the antebellum period its history was put in the hand of a man decided to make work better for slaves. Thus, on the one hand the cotton gin is a reflection of further large cotton exports, huge plantations, and high profits of slave-owners and feast of the Cotton Kingdom. But on the other hand, it is also the issues such as the monstrous exploitation of millions of blacks, industrial backwardness of the South, the heyday of racism and social inequality.


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