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Cotton and Slavery Within the U.S. Economy

Slavery has been a part of the American economy from the very beginning, slavery was present in Virginia as early as 1619, when a Dutch man-of-war sold 20 African prisoners to the colonists of Jamestown. Slavery developed right alongside colonial American concepts of freedom (Hughes 11, 114).

I believe that the slave’s plight was best put into words by the American jurist James Kent in his 1826 Commentaries, when attempting to explain his embarrassment at the persistence of American slavery he said:

Slaves are considered… though not in criminal prosecutions as things or property, rather than persons, and are vendible as personal estate. They cannot take property by descent or purchase, and all they find, and all they hold, belongs to the master. They cannot make lawful contracts, and they are deprived of civil rights. They are assets in the hands of executors, for the payment of debts, and cannot be emancipated by will or otherwise, to the prejudice of creditors. Their condition is more analogous to that of the slaves of the ancients than that of villeins of feudal times, both in respect to the degradation of the slaves and the full dominion and power of the master. (qtd. in Hughes 12)

Near the end of the 18th century many considered it surprising that slavery had persisted for so long, and often referred to as “the South’s peculiar institution” (Hughes 172). Indentured servitude had fallen out of favor and would soon be completely gone from the American landscape. It seemed that there was a chance that slavery could be abolished without the need for a major upheaval of American society.

In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a machine allowing for the separation of cotton fibers from the cotton seed up to fifty times faster than a worker could do by hand. Within the cotton gin a rotating sawblade catches the fibers, or lint, of the cotton boll and pulls them through a set of ribs too small for the seed to pass through, the cotton seed then simply falls away. This machine was responsible for reinvigorating and expanding the American cotton industry and, as a byproduct, linking slavery to the South more strongly than ever before. Cotton made slavery a great investment because it gave the Southern states an extremely profitable commodity that was, at the time, most effectively grown and harvested by slave labor (Hughes 76).

Before Whitney’s gin, there had been a growing sentiment against slavery within the South and a belief among the public that it would not last. The older tobacco growing regions of the south were experiencing a surplus of slave labor. Diversified farming, which used less labor than tobacco or cotton, was gaining in popularity. In 1792, American cotton exports were 138,000 pounds; in 1794, after the introduction of Whitney’s gin, cotton exports grew to 1.6 million pounds. In 1800, the United States exported 18 million pounds, the system of cotton produced by slavery had grown by more than 130 times it’s initial size in only 8 years, demonstrating its profitability to the Southern plantation owners (Hughes 115).

By 1850, over 60% of the Southern population were slaves. The system of plantation style farming and slave labor had spread westward throughout Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas Mississippi, and east Texas. “The expansion of textiles in England, New England and continental Europe, kept cotton demand rising [motivating] enormous increases in raw cotton output (Hughes 170). The Northern farmers, without slaves or major cash crops, remained mostly self-sufficient and did not specialize.

“In 1860… cotton exports totaled $192 billion, nearly four times the revenues of the federal government (Hughes 177). The American south had come to dominate the market, providing Britain with over 75% of their industrial raw materials.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 many wartime industries overshadowed cotton production, and the South also lost all international trading ability during this time. The movement of Northern troops further into Confederate territory showed itself as great levels of destruction of local industries. The South lost massive amounts of livestock and farm real estate value fell by over 50% (Hughes 271).

Near the end of the civil war the South experienced bouts of hyperinflation, prices rose by a factor of 92, Confederate debt totaled more than $2 billion of which less than 12% was offset by taxation. “The Confederate monetary officials had neglected to designate their notes legal tender… and as the South’s military fortunes sank, the currency became worthless. Before the War’s end, the Confederate notes fell to a level of nearly 1/1000 against gold” (Hughes 267).

The fiscal disaster that was the Confederacy had wrecked the financial structure of the South. Ninetenths of the state banks of the South, which were larger on average than those of the North before the war, vanished. The slave labor force was freed, leaving fewer laborers to farm the land. The price of cotton had dropped by more than 80% from 1865 to the late 1870s (Hughes 271).

The South had fallen behind on innovative farming technology, almost all new farming techniques developed had been for the improved efficiency of slave labor and most scientific discoveries pertaining to agriculture were focused on cotton production. The North due to smaller farm units was forced to develop better ways to farm the smaller tracts of land, they needed to maximize earnings without relying on a plentiful and cheap source of labor, they invented machines to do the work of many.

Slavery was strongly tied to a great majority of American finances and systems. Slaves were property, and could be used as collateral and commodities as well as an inexpensive source of labor. Not only were slaves commodities, they could also be used to vote for state representation in Congress using the 3/5 compromise. Slavery was integrated into a great number of businesses in America.

Southern plantation owners exported cotton and used slave labor because it was cost effective. If it weren’t, they would have found a different method. Plantation owners and crop-exporters around the world were business owners not humanitarians, and a business’s job is maximizing profits while minimizing costs. Slavery was a horrible blemish upon our national history, but without it, the U.S would not be where it is today.

Over time cotton production did regain a small amount of its profitability, but the production of that cotton had become smaller scale and came mostly from sharecroppers who had become trapped in a system of debt peonage. They were given credit from the local general store on the condition that they grow cotton, which disallowed them from growing enough food to support themselves, so in addition to buying resources to grow their cotton they also needed to buy their food on credit, forcing themselves into a system of perpetual debt (Hughes 277).

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that the American cotton industry began to become the incredible profit making machine it had once been. At this time, many of the textile mills of New England relocated to Georgia, Alabama, and North and South Carolina. From this point denim began to come into popularity. Soon after this migration World War I broke out, allowing the U.S. a greater market for its exported cotton (Hughes 246).

Again, the cotton market received a boost when the United States became involved in World War II. After this denim jeans and white T-shirts had become symbolic of American fashion, both of which have maintained a massive market share for many years. For a short time in the 1960s and ‘70s cotton clothing lost a large portion of its popularity to synthetic fabrics, but the market was soon regained by a strong marketing push for denim.

Today cotton production is continuing to grow in both measure of profits and efficiency. Cotton and its byproducts are used in such far-reaching industries as film, chemistry, food, and glass production. Cotton seeds are now being sent to processing plants where the remaining fibers, called linters, are removed, and seeds are broken down into meal and oil. First cut longer linters are used in the production of furniture stuffing, air filters, and fine writing paper. Second cut shorter linters are used in camera film, electronics, and chemical applications. Cottonseed oil is most commonly used as a frying oil for potato chips and cottonseed meal is often fed to dairy cows as a means of increasing butterfat content in milk.

Works Cited

Hughes, Jonathan R. T., and Louis P. Cain. American Economic History. 8th ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Addison Wesley, 2011. Print.

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