“If the war had proved that King Cotton’s power was far from absolute, it did not topple him from his throne, and many found it advantageous to serve him.”
Harold D. Woodman
King Cotton Restored
King Cotton had provoked the War of Northern Aggression, but abandoned the South in her time of need. Nevertheless, within a decade after the War, King Cotton was back on his throne in the South, controlling the destiny of the region.
Contrary to the expectation of the Confederates, King Cotton had not defended them against the Yankees. The British cloth manufacturers quickly found substitute sources of cotton from India, and were never persuaded to help detach the Southern states from the Union. In the initial years after the war, the South was disorganized, but by the 1870s cotton production had rebounded. By the time Reconstruction ended in 1877 cotton production had resumed ante-Bellum levels, and by the end of the 19th Century, Southern cotton production was more than twice ante-Bellum levels. The insatiable demand for field labor that had fueled the growth of the slave power in the decades before the War returned with a vengence.
Cotton spawned a series of federal regulations during the war. The North needed cotton for its textile mills, and it wanted to deprive the South of its financing power. The system was rife with corruption. Confederate cotton that was subject to confiscation by the North could not be distinguished from legitimate cotton grown by planters loyal to the Union. One observer noted that the “mania for sudden fortunes in cotton” meant that “Every [Union] colonel, captain, or quartermaster is in secret partnership with some operator in cotton.” The lure of cotton wealth would entice white Northern civilians and Union soldiers south during and after the war. The economic importance of cotton had not diminished after the war. In fact, the federal government and northern capitalists were well aware that restoration of cotton production was critical to the financial recovery of the nation. Cotton exports were needed to help reduce the huge federal debt and to stabilize monetary affairs in order to fund economic development, particularly railroads.
After the war ended in 1865, the future of cotton land remained under white southern control. Northern Republican businessmen were firmly opposed to confiscation of lands from southern plantation owners and actively supported the resumption of cotton production by means of large plantations under the management of landowners.
The future of former slaves remained sealed in the cotton fields. Blacks were denied economic and physical mobility by federal government policy, by the racial animosity of Northern whites, and by the enduring need for cotton labor in the South. The former slaves were not allowed to leave the plantation without a pass. The white Northern lessees of the plantations were generally driven by money.
While the United States produced two-thirds of the cotton of the world, or in other words, twice as much as is produced in all other countries, the proportion of American exports was even greater, the chief competitor of the United States (India) exporting less than one-half of her crop, while the United States exports two-thirds of her crop. The tendency of the last two decades of the 19th Century was toward an immense increase in the exportation of cotton from the United States and in general in a partial deflection of the American export from Great Britain to Germany and Italy.
In the decade from 1881-1890 Great Britain took 62 per cent of American total exports as compared to 45.8 percent of export in 1897-98, while during the same period the exportation to Germany increased from 12.5 to 22.4 per cent of the total crop. In other words, US exportation to Germany was only one-fifth as great as that to Great Britain during the decade from 1881-1890, whereas by 1897-98 it was over half, or 53 per cent, as great as US exportation to the British Isles.
The percentage of exportation to France remained practically stationary, as has also been the case with exportation to Belgium and Spain. The exportation to Italy, however, increased from 2.1 per cent of the total in the last decade to 5 per cent in the year 1897-98; while our exportation to Russia, on the other hand, owing to the greatly increased production of cotton within the Empire, declined during this period from 4.7 to 1.3 per cent of our total exportation.
The competition of British India in the exportation of cotton was less formidable than would appear from the statistics of production. Not only is the proportion which their exports bear to their production smaller than is the case with the United States, but this proportion, owing to the rapid increase in the manufacture of cotton goods at home, is rapidly declining. During the period 1884-1888 there was an average export of 57.9 per cent of the total crop, which declined in the year 1889-90 to 52.8, and in 1893-1896 to 46.1_per cent as compared with an average export of about 68 per cent from the United States.
In the year 1897-98 the exportation from India, owing to the fact of an unusual American competition, had declined to 3,700,000 hundredweight. The chief consumer of Indian cotton was Japan, which in 1897-98 took 35.2 per cent of the total exports from that country. The next in order follow Germany, Italy, Belgium, and Austria-Hungary with 15.6,13.4,10.5, 8.9 per cent of the Indian exports, respectively, these four continental countries taking over 50 per cent of the crop, and together with Japan considerably over five-sixths. The percentage taken by Great Britain is only 5.4 per cent and that by France only 4.6 per cent .of the total Indian export.
The conditions existing in 1897-98 are very different, however, from those which existed in the period from 1885-1889. At that time Great Britain took 36.6 per cent of the export and France 10.4, while Germany imported only 2.1 per cent of the total Indian export. While the exportation to England and France, therefore, have largely decreased, the export of Indian cotton to countries producing the cheaper grades of yarns, the continental countries other than France, and, above all, to the Asiatic countries, has increased very rapidly.
Thirty years after the Civil War, the South was still poor, overwhelmingly agrarian, and economically dependent. Moreover, its race relations reflected not just the legacy of slavery, but what was emerging as the central theme of its history — a determination to enforce white supremacy at any cost to provide an abundant supply of cheap [black] agricultural labor.
After Reconstruction, some Southern leaders pushed hard to attract industry. States offered large inducements and cheap labor to investors to develop the steel, lumber, tobacco, and textile industries. Yet in 1900 the region’s percentage of the nation’s industrial base remained about what it had been in 1860. Moreover, the price of this drive for industrialization was high: disease and child labor proliferated in Southern mill towns.
Intransigent white Southerners found ways to assert state control to maintain white dominance. Several Supreme Court decisions also bolstered their efforts by upholding traditional Southern views of the appropriate balance between national and state power.
As time passed, it became more and more obvious that the problems of the South were not being solved by harsh laws and continuing rancor against former Confederates. Moreover, some Southern Radical state governments with prominent African-American officials appeared corrupt and inefficient. The nation was tiring of the attempt to impose racial democracy and liberal values on the South with Union bayonets. In May 1872, Congress passed a general Amnesty Act, restoring full political rights to all but about 500 former rebels.
Gradually Southern states began electing members of the Democratic Party into office, ousting carpetbagger governments and intimidating African Americans from voting or attempting to hold public office. By 1876 the Republicans remained in power in only three Southern states. As part of the bargaining that resolved the disputed presidential elections that year in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes, the Republicans promised to withdraw federal troops that had propped up the remaining Republican governments. In 1877 Hayes kept his promise, tacitly abandoning federal responsibility for enforcing blacks’ civil rights.
The South was still a region devastated by war, burdened by debt caused by misgovernment, and demoralized by a decade of racial warfare. Unfortunately, the pendulum of national racial policy swung from one extreme to the other. A federal government that had supported harsh penalties against Southern white leaders now tolerated new and humiliating kinds of discrimination against African Americans. The last quarter of the 19th century saw a profusion of “Jim Crow” laws in Southern states that segregated public schools, forbade or limited African-American access to many public facilities such as parks, restaurants, and hotels, and denied most blacks the right to vote by imposing poll taxes and arbitrary literacy tests. “Jim Crow” is a term derived from a song in an 1828 minstrel show where a white man first performed in “blackface.”
In 1873 the Supreme Court found that the 14th Amendment (citizenship rights not to be abridged) conferred no new privileges or immunities to protect African Americans from state power. In 1883, furthermore, it ruled that the 14th Amendment did not prevent individuals, as opposed to states, from practicing discrimination. And in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), the Court found that “separate but equal” public accommodations for African Americans, such as trains and restaurants, did not violate their rights. Soon the principle of segregation by race extended into every area of Southern life, from railroads to restaurants, hotels, hospitals, and schools. Moreover, any area of life that was not segregated by law was segregated by custom and practice. Further curtailment of the right to vote followed. Periodic lynchings by mobs underscored the region’s determination to subjugate its African-American population.
Faced with pervasive discrimination, many African Americans followed Booker T. Washington, who counseled them to focus on modest economic goals and to accept temporary social discrimination. Others, led by the African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, wanted to challenge segregation through political action. But with both major parties uninterested in the issue and scientific theory of the time generally accepting black inferiority, calls for racial justice attracted little support.
In the antebellum South the cotton factor was the single most important individual in the network that moved cotton from the fields to its ultimate destination in the United States or world markets. He was able to draw capital to the South to finance and move the crop. He was a specialist in cotton and the planter, often far from the market and with insufficient information to direct the sale of his produce, depended substantially on the factor's judgment to get the best price.
Harold D. Woodman [King Cotton and His Retainers] rejected the idea that the factor (and his postwar successor the furnishing merchant) deliberately held the planter in bondage and were the real power behind the throne of King Cotton; they were, instead, "royal retainers, providing important services to the throne." After the Civil War there was a short-lived attempt to revive the factorage system. The attempt failed because improvements in transportation and communication allowed cotton buyers to go directly to the interior of the South and ship cotton to the world markets on "through bills of lading," thus bypassing the factor and making him superfluous.
Replacing the factor as the chief retainer of King Cotton (and hastening his departure) was the furnishing merchant. The creation of commercial arrangements, even if only share-cropping and debt peonage, to control the labro fore was a factor of fundamental significance in changing the Southern business environment. These included changes in wealth ownership, the growth of a class of nouveaux riches, and the ascendency of the Snopses of Southern life.
Walter F. Willcox [The Negro Population] found that " There are nearly four million (3,992,337) negroes in continental United States engaged in gainful occupations.... The ill-defined and fluctuating character of the division lines between farmers, planters, and overseers, agricultural laborers, and laborers (not specified), makes it difficult to interpret the figures regarding persons engaged in agriculture. The three classes together include two-thirds of all negro breadwinners. In the following 13 of these 27 leading occupations the proportion of negroes among all breadwinners in the occupation in continental United States was greater in 1900 than in 1890: Servants and waiters, draymen, hackmen, teamsters, etc., miners and quarrymen, saw and planing mill employees, porters and helpers (in stores, etc.), teachers, nurses and midwives, clergymen, hostlers, masons (brick and stone), dressmakers, iron and steel workers, and engineers and firemen (not locomotive)."
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