Whitney’s Gin In 1792 Catherine Greene, a widowed Georgia plantation owner, invited the Connecticut Yankee Eli Whitney to tutor her children on the family planation outside Savannah. Coveersations between cotton planters at the Greene estate often turned to the difficulty of supplying the British market for cotton, and Whitney came to realize that the major bottleneck in the expansion of cotton growing in the South was the difficulty of separating cotton seed from the cotton boll. once Whitney understood the problem, it took him only a few weeks to devise a simple hand-cranked machine called a gin (short for engine )that utilized two metal rollers with mounted teeth to separate cotton seeds from their bolls. Whitney’s device ginned short staple cotton eight times faster than traditional methods by 1800, and worked faster still after improvements in design and attachment to a power source other than manual labor. Whitney’s gin, along with cheap land, a captive labor force, and a growing British market, crated a cotton boom across the South. Annual cotton production in the nation rose from four thousand bales in 1790 to more than a million bales by 1840. By the 1840s cotton accounted for one half of American exports, and the united AStates produced 60 percent of the world supply. moreovwer, the rise of “King Cotton” had an immediate multiplier effect on the national economy. Financing and moving cotton stimulated Northern banking and transport while the wealth generated by cotton sales created Southern demand for Northern manufactured goods and Midwestren farm produce. In its first decades the cotton boom benefited almost everyone, export the African American Slaves wehose labor produced the “white gold”
Economy of Slavery. Before the invention of the cotton gin the institution of slavery apperated to be in permanent decline. The collapse of the tobacco market in the late eighteenth century left many slaveholders in Virginia, the state with the largest slave population in 1800 with more slaves than they could profitably use. Meanwhile, the moral impact of fighting in a revolution dedicated to the equality of all men led some slaveholders to question the institution itself. Whether for economic orethical reasons, Virginians manumitted more tan ten thousand slaves in the years following independence, and asw late as 1832 the Virginia legislature considered abolishing slavery altogether. But the cotton boom created another option. As planters moved west with their slaves and planted more acres in cotton, they clamored for more field hands to work the red soils of Georgia, Mississippi, and Alabama. Slave owners in Maryland and Virginia discovered a market for their human property, a market protected by the federal ban on the African slave trade in 1808. Slaves herded overland in chained coffles, or “sold down the river” on steamboats, became familiar sights as slave dealing became big business in the cotton kingdom.
CAPITAL OF THE COTTON KINGDOM
If any place embodied the “moonlight and magnolias” mythology of the Old South, it was Natchez, Mississippi. Perched on a bluff over looking the Mississippi River, Natchez’s small size (only 4, 680 inhabitants in 1850) belied its economic importance, In 1838 Natchez-area growers sent forty thousand bales of cotton doenriver to New Orleans. Moreover, the city’s forty most prominent families, referred to as the “nabobs” included the largest and wealthiest cotton planters in the entire South and some of the biggest slave owners in the world.
No one could accuse the Natchez nabobs of hiding their wealth. At least forty large mansions graced the streets of the town or the wooded lanes of adams Country. Their names slid smoothly off the tongue—“Concordia” and “Melrose” In conscious imitation of the English landed gentry, families like the Duncans, Surges, and Quitmans furnished their homes with the best furniture, drapes, and marbles, and then used these stages to play out their self-appointed roles as patriarchs of the Cotton Kingdom. Gracious entertainment was the order of the day, as evidenced by John Quitman’ Journal entry recording a visit to a friend’s plantation: “Mint-juleps in the morning are sent to our rooms, and then follows a delightful breakfast in the open veranda… we hunt, ride, fish… read or lounge until dinner” followed by a siesta and then more of the same until the evening meal. “In fine weather,” Quitman continued, “the tea-table is always set before sun set, and then, until bed-time, we stroll, sing, play whist, or croquet. It is an indolent yet charming life, and one quits thining and takes to dreaming”
Source: D. Clayton James, Antebellum Natchez (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State Universtry Press, 1968).
Planters. Contrary to legend, all Southerners did not own slaves or live on large plantations. Of those who did hold slaves, most owned only one or two and worked alongside them on small farms. Much of the region’s wealth, however, was controlled by the few large planters who owned dozens or hundreds of slave to work their
expansive fields. These planters did not work in the field themselves, but contrary to popular perception, they did work. A Cotton plantation entailed on its owner responsibilities similar to those of other large businesses. A planter might spend his morning updating the plantation account books before going out to check on the day’s work in the fields. The afternoon might find him buying supplies or selling crops, deciding on planting schedules, or checking on investments with bankers, merchants, and factors. In fact, many of the largest slaveholders, especially in the newer cotton areas like Natchez, Mississippi, had begun their careers as bankers, lawyers merchants, or slaves and becoming gentlemen and planters. Of course, no matter how normal business operations might seem on a plantation, the growing of cotton still put planters at the mercy of world markets and continued to depend on the labor of enslaved human beings.
Field Hands. On the largest cotton plantations masters organized slaves into work gangs, group of twenty to sixty men and women, who set out early every morning (except Sunday) to labor in the fields under the supervision of an overseer. Workloads fluctuated with the seasonal requirements of the cotton plant. Former slave Solomon Northrup recalled just some of the tasks performed by field slaves: “Ploughing, planting, picking cotton…. pulling and burning stalks.” The fall harvest, or “picking time,” saw the greatest demands on the plantation crews, bringing all available hands into the fields, including children. Because the short staple cotton plants grown before the Civil War did not all mature at the same time, the picking season might extend over several months, with slaves scouring the same field over and over again. Adult slaves were expected to pick two hundred pounds of cotton a day, pinching the bolls out of the sharp seed casings, stuffing them into long gunny sacks dragged over the shoulder through the rows to the weighing scales, then dumping them in the wagon waiting to take the cotton to the nearest gin for cleaning and pressing into bales. Slave gangs worked at least until dusk though in harvest season slaves might also feed live-stock or move cotton bales well into the night. After the harvest was ove3r, slave workers spent the winter season cutting wood, repairing or erecting outbuildings, and clearing more land for spring planting. After a twelve-to fourteen-hour workday most slaves returned to a dinner of fatty pork and corn mush, followed by sleep in drafty cabins, often with only a plank for a bed.
Overseers. In an 1873 article in the Farmer’s Register planters were advised to “regard an overseer as an indispensable agent, whose first qualities should be honesty and firmness, united with forbearance and good temper. Sobriety is the sine qua non.” The article went on to suggest that the overseer “should not be allowed to strike… with his first or a stick, nor ever to punish with severity; for it is not the severity, but certainty of punishment that wins implicitly obedience.” As the article suggests overseers did not have a good reputation, and planters often hired them to bush salves when they themselves were unwiling to do so. Not all plantation regimes were brutal, but many witnesses, including former salves and Northern travelers, recorded frequent physical punishments doled out by white overseere or even black slave drivers. On his tour of the South, Frederic Law Olmsted described a scence on a cotton plantation where the overseer wandered among the work gangs with a whip “which he often cracked at them, sometimes allowing the lash to fall.”
Lewis Cecil Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United State to 1860, 2 volumes (Washington, D.C.: Carnegic Instution, 1933);
James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slavebolders (New York: Knopf, 1982).
COTTON KINGDOM refers to the cotton-producing region of the southern United States up until the Civil War. As white settlers from Virginia and the Carolinas forced the original Native American inhabitants farther and farther west, they moved in and established plantations. The section remained indeliblytied to and controlled by plantation agriculture. From the Atlantic coast to Texas, tobacco, rice, and sugar were staple crops from 1800 to the 1860s. It was cotton production, however, that controlled life in the region.
The predominant feature of the Cotton Kingdom was the employment of slave labor. The societal structure of the area in the antebellum era was built around slavery. The vast majority of the population of the southern United States at this time, slaves, freedmen, and farmers without slaves, were ruled by a disproportionate minority of less than 2,000 large landowners (those who owned more than one hundred slaves).
Because of the isolation and self-containment of the plantation system, coupled with a small population with limited resources, social services were practically nonexistent. This meant that social life, community services, education, and government rested in the hands of the large landholders. The only other outlet for community life was the church.
The notion of mass production of cotton in the South, and slavery with it, was dying out prior to the turn of the nineteenth century due to slow and unprofitable methods employed by the farmers. In 1793 that changed with the invention of Eli Whitney's cotton gin. The gin made mass cotton production in the South feasible and helped to institutionalize slavery in the region. The Louisiana Purchase and the annexation of Texas as a slave state helped to expand the Cotton Kingdom. Politically, cotton became the foundation of southern control of the Democratic Party.
The period from the mid-1830s to the election of 1860 saw the rise of a strong U.S. federal government, disunion with international importers of cotton, and increased support of abolition. The Civil War brought victory for abolition and utter destruction of the land in the region.
With the end of the Civil War on 9 April 1865, cotton was no longer the backbone of southern politics, but it remained the largest crop and source of income. Both prosperity and population dropped after the Civil War and continued to decline until an upsurge in the 1960s. Since then, the southern United States has replaced cotton with industry.
Branford, Robert E. Cotton Kingdom of the New South. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967.
Dodd, William E. The Cotton Kingdom. Washington, D.C.: Ross and Perry, 2002. The original edition was published in 1926.