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King Cotton

The rapid and unforeseen development of slavery in the South was due to one of those slight changes in the mechanics of industry which so often exercise a profound influence upon the course of history. In 1793 Eli Whitney invented the cotton-gin, a simple device for separating the seed from the fiber which, by enabling one man to do the work of three hundred, so greatly increased the profit of cotton culture that cotton soon became one of the chief of American products.

The planters' great difficulty in making cotton profitable had been the expense of separating the seed from the fiber. A slave could clean by hand only 1 pound in a day. At that rate it was not profitable to keep a slave constantly employed at this kind of work. The planters managed to keep cotton cleaning; as busy work to be done at odd moments. In 1787 Samuel Maverick sent 300 pounds to England, but was informed that it was worthless, because it could not be cleaned to any advantage. By 1790 the textile industry in England had reached the factory stage in its development. One more invention was required to put the entire cotton-industry on a machine basis. The machine still wanting was the cotton gin, which Whitney supplied in 1792. It was the final link in the chain of inventions that gave cotton its world-wide importance.

In Great Britain several inventions — the spinning jenny, Crompton’s spinning mule, and Cartwright’s power loom — revolutionized the textile industry. The improvements allowed cotton fabrics to be mass produced and, therefore, affordable to millions of people. The cotton gin gave a new lease of life to slavery by making it immensely profitable in the extensive uplands of the South. Up to this time the plantation system - that is to say, the system of raising staple crops for export and the importation of finished goods for consumption - had been confined to a very limited area near the coast. This was the colonial South. Back of this region were the uplands, landlocked and unsuited to the production of the staple crops of that time-rice, indigo, and tobacco.

The South was swept along by the global economic force created by its cotton production, the demand by cotton textile manufacturing in Europe, and New York’s financial and commercial dealings. The South did not exist in a vacuum. The South’s social and economic histories were driven by cotton and slave labor, and the two became intertwined in America. Cotton was a labor-intensive business, and the large number of workers required to grow and harvest cotton came from slave labor until the end of the American Civil War. Cotton was dependent on slavery and slavery was, to a large extent, dependent on cotton.

For the raising of cotton, negro slaves were thought to be peculiarly suited; and wherever cotton could be raised negro slavery became every year more intrenched, was every year more complacently excused by its beneficiaries as an economic necessity, and at last defended as a social and moral blessing. But cotton could be raised only in the South. It was, therefore, only in the South, where slaves were profitable, that slavery increased and was defended, while in the North, where slaves were unprofitable, slavery disappeared and was denounced as an evil.

American cotton production soared from 156,000 bales in 1800 to more than 4,000,000 bales in 1860 (a bale is a compressed bundle of cotton weighing between 400 and 500 pounds). This astonishing increase in supply did not cause a long-term decrease in the price of cotton. The cotton boom, however, was the main cause of the increased demand for slaves – the number of slaves in America grew from 700,000 in 1790 to 4,000,000 in 1860. A materialistic America was well aware of the fact that the price of a slave generally correlated to the price of cotton. Thus, the cotton economy controlled the destiny of African slaves.

Cotton gave the slave a money value which it was hardly in human nature to ignore; and it gave an exultant feeling of superiority over the North in possessing a commercial monopoly. Every additional three and a half bales meant an additional field-hand, so that in round numbers 1,400,000 more were employed in the cotton-fields in 1860 to produce 5,400,000 bales than to produce the 450,000 bales of 1820. Cotton cultivation rolled like a car of Juggernaut over every lesser industry, and marched into new territory as an invading army.

By the 1830s the prices of slaves varied with the prices of cotton and sugar. At this time, when cotton brings a good price, a good field hand cannot be bought for less than $800 if a male; if a female for $600. Body servants sell much higher, $1,000 being a common price for them. Good mechanics sometimes sell for $2,000, and seldom for less than $900. The usual price for a good seamstress or nurse is from $700 to $1,000. An infant adds $100 to the price of the mother, and from infancy the children of the slaves increase in value about $100 for every three years. All domestic slaves or house servants often sold at the most extravagant prices, the best, native or acclimated, at $1,800 to $2,000.

The Mississippi State treasurer's report of 1854 states that the average price of slaves (including children, it may be inferred) was $600 in 1844, and had increased in ten years to about $800. The number of slaves listed in 1844 was 288,707, and the number in 1854 was estimated at 300,000. The total value would be $250,000,000. But taxation fell very lightly upon this sort of property. Owners were taxed for slaves, of any age, under 60 years, 60 cents each under the law of 1844, and this rate was cut in half by the law of 1850. It was a rate of about 5 cents on the $100, in 1844, and 2 or 3 cents in 1850. An owner was taxed as much for an infant as for a field hand value at $1,500, or a good mechanic, worth from $2,000 to $4,000.

Southerners remained vexed with their own economic and political concerns. While cotton was still "king" of the Southern economy, the cost of producing cotton had risen because the price of slaves, needed to harvest the crop, had gone up dramatically in the past twenty years. Even the average farmer felt the pinch, as small plots were being consolidated into larger agricultural enterprises, making it more difficult for lesser-income Southerners to make a living. Efforts to industrialize and diversify the economy had also largely failed.

By 1860, New York had become the capital of the South because of its dominant role in the cotton trade. New York rose to its preeminent position as the commercial and financial center of America because of cotton. It has been estimated that New York received forty percent of all cotton revenues since the city supplied insurance, shipping, and financing services and New York merchants sold goods to Southern planters. The trade with the South, which has been estimated at $200,000,000 annually, was an impressive sum at the time.

After Britain had officially declared its neutrality in the American war in May 1861, the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis – a Mississippi planter, Secretary of War under U.S. President Franklin Pierce, and former US senator – strongly supported what became known as King Cotton diplomacy. Confederate leaders believed an informal embargo on cotton would lead Great Britain into formal recognition of the Confederacy and to diplomatic intervention with other European countries on behalf of the South.

To begin King Cotton diplomacy, some 2.5 million bales of cotton were burned in the South to create a cotton shortage. Indeed, the number of southern cotton bales exported to Europe dropped from 3 million bales in 1860 to mere thousands. The South, however, had made a pivotal miscalculation. Southern states had exported bumper crops throughout the late 1850s and in 1860, and as a result, Great Britain had a surplus of cotton. Too, apprehension over a possible conflict in America had caused the British to accumulate an inventory of one million bales of cotton prior to the Civil War.

The cotton surplus delayed the “cotton famine” and the crippling of the British textile industry until late 1862. But when the cotton famine did come, it quickly transformed the global economy. The price of cotton soared from 10 cents a pound in 1860 to $1.89 a pound in 1863-1864. Meanwhile, the British turned to other countries that could supply cotton, such as India, Egypt, and Brazil, and had urged them to increase their cotton production.

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Page last modified: 30-10-2017 10:45:43 ZULU