The Cotton Gin and Slavery
The Cotton Gin
The harvesting and processing of cotton was an extremely labor intensive exercise. The cotton, once harvested by hand, had to be hand-picked free of seeds so that it could be used as a fiber in the manufacturing of clothing. Laborers could only put out about 1 pound of cotton per day. The cotton gin, by comparison, was able to do the work of 50 men prepping an amazing 50 pounds of cotton daily. One would think that this would be a valid reason to release slaves, but the opposite is true. With the new ability to harvest, clean, and export cotton, demand rose and so did the demand for slaves. With countries all across the globe seeking more and more cotton (the South provided 70% of the world's cotton) American Southern plantation owners began clearing fields which in turn demanded more laborers, hence an increase in demand for slaves.
The cotton gin (short for engine) was invented in 1793. Cotton production with slaves jumped from 178,000 bales in 1810 to over 3,841,000 bales in 1860. In direct proportion to the expansion of the cotton industry so to did the slave industry increase. During that same 50 year period the number of slaves in the United States increased from nearly 2 million to over 4 million.
Eli Whitney 1765-1825
Reasons for the Secession of Southern States
I have often heard people say, both in casual conversation as well as historical narrative, that there were many reasons the Civil War was fought, slavery being only one among them. When it comes up in conversation, and it does in my circles, I like to ask the person making the statement this question:
"Could you tell me some of the other reasons?" The answer I get is always the same.
"It was more to do with states rights." I have a follow up question prepared.
"Which states rights?"
People are usually not able to answer this question, in fact I'd go so far to say I've never heard a reasonable answer to the simple follow up, "which states rights are we talking about?"
Are we talking about the right of the southern states to grow tobacco, cotton, export magnolias? Exactly which rights were being infringed that merited going to war? No, the North did nothing to oppose Southern states from doing business. Now there are some who would disagree, but that disagreement must be buttressed by the fact that the only way Northern policies would interfere with the financial prosperity of the South was by interfering with the institution of slavery.
The invention of Eli Whitney's cotton gin had created an increased ability to harvest cotton, and in turn, an increased need for man power- manpower provided by slaves.
The tale of slavery is a tale of greed at its core. Why didn't plantation owners just hire workers? Why didn't southern politicians work to establish stronger business ties to Great Britain, the main consumer of southern cotton? The South, in fact, believed that Great Britain would come to their aid in the event of a Civil War just to protect their own financial interests.
The cotton gin provided an opportunity for the South to begin the dismantling of slavery. Instead, they used it as a way to further their financial prosperity. They did, after all, own huge mansions and enormous amounts of land. It isn't as if they needed slave labor to survive. They just needed it to survive lavishly.
The Cotton Gin in Use
Short Video About the Cotton Gin
What do you Think was the Main Cause of the Civil War?
It is certainly going too far to that the invention of the cotton gin led to the Civil War. That would be like saying the invention of the automobile led to drunk driving. While there is a definite association it possible to have one without the other. You can have a car and NOT drive while intoxicated. So too the cotton gin could have existed in a slave free South. (It existed elsewhere under slave free conditions) Had the cotton gin not been invented surely something else would've come along to appease those in favor of slavery and further their ambitions. After all, we've argued that the cotton gin actually could have contributed to the elimination of slavery. Slavery began prior to the cotton gin and continued after it. It's misuse is not the reason for the War. So what is? I would like to conclude with a quote from Philip Van Doren's excellent work, The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln.
"For seventy-five years historians and political observers of all shades of opinion have been trying to fasten the cause of the Civil War on anything except slavery. They have advanced theories putting the responsibility for the War on the violation of states rights, on widespread economic differences between the North and the South or on the natural conflict between agrarian and industrial interests. All these causes are correct enough. They did help aggravate the situation. They were involved in many of the events leading to battle. The American Civil War was, of course, too complicated a movement to have been precipitated by any single cause. But it is undeniable that underneath all the political and economic moves were the four million enslaved blacks, omnipresent and inescapable, whose bondage was the keystone of the Southern economy was equally a the keystone of economy of the North, and an affront to the moral sense of the world. The men who fought the Civil War realized this; they should be given some credit for knowing their own minds. Their rallying cry was "Preserve the Union!" but although they did not fight merely to free the slaves, they knew that there would have been no war if there had been no slaves." (emphasis mine)
It is my belief that perpetuating the idea that the Civil War was fought over states rights is a miscarriage of understanding. In one sense we might even agree and say, "yes it was a war over the rights of the states- their right to own slaves."
Several legal and diplomatic attempts were made to reduce, and curtail slavery with the eventual goal of complete abolition. Discussion of these efforts are subjects for future articles. However, I would like to close by saying that in every instance these efforts were thwarted by political maneuvering, back room intrigues, bribes and every form of coercion and murder available to human imagination. The only thing that would end slavery would be war.
- The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln, by Philip Van Doren Stern
*The title of the second source is misleading because I changed the title of the article after publication. It seems to have retained it's original title. However, the information contained is relevant.*
© 2018 Leland Johnson