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Impact of Slavery on the Northern Economy

Impact of Slavery on the Northern Economy

One of the major themes in American history is sectionalism; some historians trace the origins of this development within the colonial regions. As John Garraty noted in The American Nation (1995, pp. 35-64), by the antebellum period the three colonial regional sections had coalesced, and there were now only two sections: the North and the South. Distinctive economies were the defining features of the two regions. Although the North was still predominantly agrarian, the industrial development in New England distinguished the North from the even more agrarian South. In the South, it was the plantation production of cotton, and not the pervasive subsistence agriculture practiced by poor whites, that was most distinctive. Although the two regions had very dissimilar economies, the North and the South did not develop independently of each other; in fact, they were intimately entwined around cotton. As Sen. James Henry Hammond noted in a speech to Congress just before the outbreak of the Civil War, "Cotton is King" (Dodge 1984, p. 2). During the first seventy years of the American Republic, cotton influenced the economic development of not only the South, but also the North.

At the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century the transatlantic economy underwent a transformation, first in Britain and later in the United States. In Britain, inventors such as James Watt (1736–1819) and entrepreneurs such as Richard Arkwright (1732–1792) industrialized the textile business, transforming it from a cottage-based production held together by merchants into a factory operation run by businessmen. With the use of water-driven and steam-powered machinery tended by thousands of unskilled workers in factories, textile entrepreneurs prodigiously increased the amount of cotton cloth available. Unlike the British woolen industry, which was supplied domestically by English sheep, the textile industry needed to import its raw material. Through much of the eighteenth century the cottage textile industry had been adequately supplied by cotton imported from India, the Levant, and the colonies in the Western Hemisphere. But these sources could not supply the tremendous productive capacity of factories that had first appeared in England's Midlands; during the 1780s the consumption for cotton increased by 208 percent over the previous decade (Shapiro 1967, p. 183). Britain's voracious demand for cotton was met in the next decade by a tremendous increase in cotton production in the United States made possible by Eli Whitney's cotton gin. In 1793, the year before Whitney's gin went into operation, the South exported 487,000 pounds of cotton to Britain; with the use of the gin in 1794, that amount had jumped to 1.6 million pounds (Yafa 2005, p. 86). During the first six decades of the nineteenth century, as the South's cotton economy continued to grow, some of that output was shipped north to the factories founded in the New England states.

U.S. industrial development began during the Napoleonic Wars, although attempts had been made earlier to start factory production in the United States. One successful effort occurred in 1790 at Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when Samuel Slater, "a former superintendent at one of Arkwright's partners' cotton mills," set up mass production of spinning yarn, but not woven cloth (Yafa 2005, p. 76). It was not until the next decade that some New Englanders sought to develop a textile industry that would make the United States independent of British manufactures.

The impetus for a fully developed U.S. textile industry came when the Embargo Act of 1807, the Non-Intercourse Act of 1809, and the War of 1812 disrupted trade with Britain. Just before the outbreak of war between the United States and Britain, Francis Cabot Lowell (1775–1817) had visited British factories in Manchester, where he learned the secrets of mass production of textiles. Lowell enlisted the financial support of other Boston Brahmins like himself, especially Nathan Appleton (1779–1861), and in 1814 the two men established a textile factory at Waltham on the Charles River, just northwest of Boston. Production began that same year with the importation of boatloads of cotton from the South, and in 1815 the quantity of imported southern cotton to Waltham and other factories in New England reached 27 million pounds (Yafa 2005, p. 107). To ensure that the Boston Manufacturing Company's production of cloth would dominate the market in the United States, Lowell and his associates argued that Congress should impose tariffs on certain types of imported British textiles. They pointed to the sudden decline in New England cloth production after peace between the two countries had enabled Britain to resume trade with the United States, flooding the U.S. markets with British goods. In 1815 the value of New England textiles had been $47,160, but in 1816 the value had dropped to $16,355 (Rosenbloom 2004, p. 381).

The historian Joshua Rosenbloom argues that during the antebellum period, federal tariffs protected New England textile manufacturing so that this "infant industry" could develop and expand within the U.S. domestic market (2004, pp. 390-391). By the middle of the nineteenth century the United States had become the world's second largest producer of textiles. During the course of the nineteenth century U.S. textile manufacturing could not compete with most varieties of Britain textiles on the world market, but tariff protection enabled U.S. companies to dominate the domestic market. At its inception, the rates of the Tariff Act of 1816 had received considerable southern support, notably from John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), but by the end of the next decade many southern planters had labeled the federal rates that protected northern industries the "abominable tariff." The dispute over the tariff rates, especially those on manufactures imported from Britain, led to the Nullification Crisis of 1831 to 1833, when South Carolinians seemed to threaten secession over the rates. Between 1816 and 1828 textile prices had decreased, due in part to a decline in cotton prices, but Congress had twice raised rates during the 1820s so that by 1830 the increase of costs on British imports reached 40 percent (Rosenbloom 2004, p. 388). For some southerners such as Calhoun, who wrote his South Carolina Exposition and Protest (1828) to justify state action against the federal tariff, it seemed that the economy and the consumption patterns of southerners was being used by northerners to protect their industrialization (Garraty 1995, pp. 257-259).

Indeed, by the early 1830s New England industries were consuming large quantities of southern-grown cotton as the mills propelled the United States into position as the second largest producer of textiles in the world. In 1831 a report authored by the Committee on Manufactures of the American Congress stated that New England industries consumed "seventy-eight million pounds of cotton fiber per year." This figure indicated that the yearly consumption by U.S. industries, beginning in the 1830s and continuing through the 1840s and 1850s, equaled and eventually surpassed the whole export of U.S. cotton to Britain up to 1820. In 1807 there had been only fifteen mills in the nation; in 1831 there were 795. The committee's report stated that these 795 mills produced "nearly sixty-eight million pounds of spun yarn" and employed more than 57,000 workers (Dodge 1984, pp. 88-89). Clearly, in the takeoff period of industrialization, the U.S. textile industry had grown tremendously. New England mills not only produced large quantities of inexpensive cloth—in 1834, the equivalent of 15,698 miles of cotton cloth—but also clothed the slaves in the cotton fields with a coarse fabric called "Negro cloth" (Yafa 2005, p. 112).

Lowell did not live to see the industrial development that he had started at Waltham in 1814—he died in 1817 at the relatively young age of forty-two. However, his manufacturing methods did survive him. Lowell's associates established the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, transplanting what Lowell had begun at Waltham on the Charles River to an even larger complex on the Merrimack River. This site became the city named in his honor, Lowell, Massachusetts. The industrial complex there was erected during the Age of Reform, a period of high ideals when some Americans, especially in the northern states, wanted to perfect society. Whereas reformers such as the transcendentalist George Ripley (1802–1880) sought to build a utopian community at Brook Farm, Massachusetts, the directors of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company attempted to construct an industrial utopia in Lowell. Appleton and the other associates who survived Lodge kept Britain's manufacturing processes while trying to avoid the slums that sprang up in British manufacturing towns. The investors, directors, and managers of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company adopted a paternalistic approach to the management of the factories and workers, who were primarily young unmarried women.

To evoke an academic atmosphere, Merrimack provided company-supervised boarding houses set on tree-lined streets and encouraged the young women to continue their self-education while employed; the mill women even began a journal, Lowell Offering. In the late twentieth century the historian Benita Eisler compiled many of the journal's essays written during the early 1840s into The Lowell Offering: Writings of New England Mill Women, presenting a picture of an industrial environment that was truly different, if not quite utopian (Dodge 1984, pp. 102-104, 100-112). During the halcyon years of the 1830s many visitors to Lowell, including some southerners such as President Andrew Jackson (1767–1845) and Davy Crockett (1786–1836), saw the place as a socioeconomic marvel based on the profitable economic integration of a southern cash crop with northern manufacturing. Apparently, a Jeffersonian economy in the South was mutually compatible with a Hamiltonian economy in the North (Nash and Graves 2005, p. 120), and this, especially the northern part, was the ideal of many in the Whig Party during the antebellum period.

Despite the initial acclaim bestowed upon Lowell, the Merrimack Manufacturing Company and other northern businesses soon became targets of strong censure. During the 1840s and 1850s there were two major subjects of criticism: work operations in the mills and the mills' economic connection with slave-produced cotton. Workers' complaints, especially regarding the long working hours and the ever-increasing pace of the machinery, are documented in a second, later worker publication, Voice of Industry (Yafa 2005, p. 116). The labor criticisms coincided with the abolitionists' condemnation of the mill owners' economic ties with southern planters. During the same period when the mills were established throughout the New England states, abolitionists founded the American Anti-Slavery Society and other antislavery organization, which were implacably opposed to slavery and anything connected to it, whether that meant buying slave-produced cotton or eating slave-produced sugar (Carson, Lapsansky-Werner, and Nash 2007, p. 188).

One of the reasons politicians such as Henry Clay (1777–1852) and Daniel Webster (1782–1852) had formed the Whig Party in 1833 was to promote economic development. This party followed the Federalists, and adopted much of Alexander Hamilton's economic agenda, which included an active role for the federal government in promoting commerce and industry. By the 1840s some of what Hamilton had envisioned for the United States had been achieved, even though the Federalists had disintegrated and the Whig Party only infrequently controlled the federal government during the early nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, the Whigs were strong in New England, where a commercial economy had long existed and where, during the first half of the nineteenth century, every state in the region had undergone at least partial industrialization. In fact, a wing of the Whigs, the Cotton Whigs, cooperated with southerners because they had a mutual economic interest in keeping the Union together. In a letter to one of the owners of the Merrimack Manufacturing Company, Abbott Lawrence (1792–1855), the South Carolina senator John C. Calhoun articulated that tie: "I am no opponent to manufactures or manufacturers, but quite the reverse. Cotton threads hold the union together: unites John C. Calhoun and Abbott Lawrence. Patriotism for holidays and summer evenings, but cotton thread is the Union" (Yafa 2005, pp. 122-123). Until the early 1850s, some Cotton Whigs actively maintained the tie with the agrarian South led by slave-owning planters and publicly denounced the abolitionists.

During the 1850s the U.S. economy grew rapidly, led by sales of public land, railroad building, gold mining, cotton production, and textile manufacturing. In 1860 the South produced 2.275 billion pounds of cotton. Moreover, cotton exports accounted for 60 percent of the country's exports, most of which were handled by New York City, the new emporium for the United States. The South supplied 80 percent of the cotton for textiles manufactured in Britain and all of the cotton for textiles manufactured in New England's mills. In that same year, 1860, those mills and the few established elsewhere in the North produced $115 million worth of textiles (Yafa 2005, pp. 129-130). These mills and the Yankee clipper ships delivered more cotton goods to East Africa than Britain and all of its empire combined (Coupland 1961, pp. 379-380). Nonetheless, political events trumped economics during the decade. The Whig Party disintegrated when popular sovereignty was introduced into the territories. Even the Cotton Whig Abbott Lawrence shied away from his ties with the South after a southern congressman, Preston Brooks (1819–1857), brutally assaulted the southern Whig senator Charles Sumner (1811–1874) on the Senate floor. Despite the mutual benefits of an economy integrated around cotton, the house of which Abraham Lincoln spoke was deeply divided.


Carson, Clayborne, Emma J. Lapsansky-Werner, and Gary B. Nash. The Struggle for Freedom: A History of African Americans. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2007.

Coupland, Reginald. East Africa and Its Invaders. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Dodge, Bertha S. Cotton: The Plant That Would Be King. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1984.

Garraty, John A. The American Nation: A History of the United States, 8th ed. New York: Harper Collins, 1995.

Nash, Roderick, and Gregory Graves. From These Beginnings: A Biographical Approach to American History, Vol. 1, 7th ed. New York: Pearson and Longman, 2005.

Rosenbloom, Joshua L. "Path Dependence and the Origins of Cotton Textile Manufacturing in New England." In The Fibre That Changed the World: The Cotton Industry in International Perspective, 1660–1990s, ed. Douglas A. Farnie and David J. Jeremy. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Shapiro, Seymour. Capital and the Cotton Industry in the Industrial Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1967.

Yafa, Stephen. Big Cotton: How a Humble Fiber Created Fortunes, Wrecked Civilizations, and Put America on the Map. New York: Viking, 2005.

                                        George Sochan

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