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History of Cotton

During the antebellum era, cotton was America’s most profitable commodity; and the south was the world’s biggest supplier. The climate, the industrial revolution, the cotton gin, and slave labor, were factors that contributed to the success of the south’s cotton economy. By supplying the North in both raw materials and markets for manufactures, income from the North’s role in handling the cotton trade provided surpluses for capital investment. The cotton boom (1800-1860) refers to the profit obtained through the production and trade of cotton in the nation. By the 1850s, cotton made up 50% of America’s exports, and produced 75% of the world’s supply of cotton; giving birth to the phrase, “cotton is king.” High demands for cotton in textile industries in the northern states, along with Great Britain, were being supplied by slave-grown cotton plantations of the Deep South. Southern planters saw themselves, and accurately so, as a key component in the industrial revolution and a critical part of an international economic system.

As one planter bragged in 1853, “Our Cotton is the most wonderful talisman in the world. By its power we are transmuting whatever we choose into whatever we want.” James Hammond, speaking in the U.S. Senate five years later, was even more trenchant: “The slaveholding South is now the controlling power of the world. Cotton, rice, tobacco, and naval stores command the world…. No -power on earth dares to make war on cotton. Cotton is king.” Because factories and merchants from Britain and the United States had their profits tied to southern cotton, southerners started to draw the conclusion that cotton was vital to the nation’s economy. And because cotton production relied on slavery, this meant that slavery was also vital to the nation’s economy.

The South differed from the North geographically. It was harder to grow crops in the North because the land wasn’t as fertile, and the climate didn’t make an agrarian economy favorable. As result, the north turned to industrialization. Because factories produced large amounts of goods, the north required less labor force; correspondingly, the north did not need slaves. The South was warmer than the central and New England colonies. Winters were short and mild. The land was rich; large plantations grew tobacco, indigo (dye), corn, vegetables, grain, fruit, and cotton. And unlike the North, Americas’ South found slavery to be the driving force of their economy in the 19th century.

Cotton production became popular in the inland regions of Georgia and South Carolina: the profits to be made from cotton growing drew a rush of southern famers into the so-called black belt-an area stretching through western Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. As cotton plantations expanded, so did slavery. By 1850, of the 3.2 million slaves in the country’s fifteen slave states, 1.8 million were producing cotton; by 1860, slave labor was producing over two billion pounds of cotton per year. Entire old-growth forests and cypress swamps fell to the axe as slaves labored to strip the vegetation to make way for cotton. With the land cleared, slaves readied the earth by plowing and planting. To ambitious white planters, the extent of new land available for cotton production seemed almost limitless, and many planters simply traveled from one area to the next. This migration doubled the population of Mississippi (from 31,306 to 74,448) and that of Alabama to grow sixteen fold (from 9,046 to 144,317) between 1810 and 1820.

Short-staple cotton had long been recognized as a crop ideally suited to southern soils and growing conditions, but it had one major drawback: the seeds were so difficult to remove from the lint that it took an entire day to hand-clean a single pound of cotton. This all changed with the invention of the Cotton Gin, which could remove the seeds of 50 pounds of cotton in a single day. The invention of the cotton gin came at the right time. British textile manufactures were eager to buy all the cotton that the south produced. The figures for cotton production soared: from 720,000 bales in 1820, to 2.85 million bales in 1850, to nearly 5 million in 1860. Cotton exports averaged about $9 million in value from 1803 to 1807, about 22% of the value of all exports; from 1815 to 1817 they averaged over $23 million, or 39% of the total; and from the mid 1830s to 1860s they accounted for more than half of the value of all exports.

Cotton had been used from ancient times, but the industrial revolution and its spread of textile mills created a rapidly growing market for the fluffy fiber. The cotton boom generated an increase in the domestic slave trade. Plantation owners in the Upper South (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, Virginia, and Tennessee), who did not have cotton plantations, sold their slaves to the Deep South; who were in high demand for labor in their new and expanding cotton growing regions.

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