Cotton and Southern Slavery

cotton and southern slavery
Figure 1.--The vast majority of American slaves in the ante-bellum South lived on plantations and were employed in the production of cotton. I do not know of photographs depicting slave labor in the cotton fields, although some may exist. This photograph was taken after the Civil War, probably in the 1870s. It is from a stereoview card.

Cotton is today the most widely used natural fiber in the manufacture of clothing. It has a number of qualities making it ideal for making textiles and clothing. It is a natural vegetable fiber--the most important textile raw material. This was not the case in the 18th century. The reason the shift to cotton occurred was technical advances in first manufactuing textiles and second in the production of raw cotton. Cotton played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. The first industrial machines designed for mass production were developed to manufacture cotton textiles. This created a demand for raw cotton. American slavery was declining in importance in the late 18th century. Many even in the South thought that it would eventually disappear as was happening in the North. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to Ely Whitney's cotton gin. Suddenly there was way of supplying the European demand for cotton. The resulting efficiences changed the economies of cotton cultivation. New plantations were founded on King Cotton as Southern planters moved west into Alabama and Mississpi and eventually Texas. Huge profits could be made in cotton. But it was a labor intensive crop. This meant that large plantations and slave labor were the most effecient production system. A very subsrantial proprtion of American slaves were employed in the production of this single crop. Cotton became the orimary American export commodity, in effect financing America's early industrial development. The revitalization of the South's slave-based economy began a process that was to lead inexorably to Civil War. Cotton today continues to be the most important natural textile, still widely used in the production of clothing.
Cotton

Cotton is the most widely used natural fiber in the manufacture of clothing. It has a number of qualities making it ideal for making textiles and clothing. It is a natural vegetable fiber--the most important texttile raw material. As it is a plant it can be cultured in much larger quantity and at much less cost than producing animal fibers as in raising sheep for wool. The extensive use of cotton around the world as a textile fabric owes primarily to the fact that individual cotton fibers have a natural spiral twist, giving it a strength and reiliancy unmatched by other palnt fibers. This allows the spinning of extremely fine yards. Cotton is a soft, white, downy substance consisting of hairs or fibers attached tonthe seeds of plants belonging to the genus Gossypium of the mallow family. Cotton is used in making fabrics, thread, wadding, etc. A large number of fabrics are made from cotton, including corderoy, denim, drill, madras, searsucker, and many others. Cotton fabric has been used since ancient times and the development of cotton agriculture was an important step in the advance of civilization among ancient civilizations. Cotton also played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. Cotton today despite the development of synthetic fibers continues to be the most important natural textile, still widely used in the production of clothing.

Technical Developments (18th centuyry)

Cotton was not yet a key crop in the 18th century. This was not the case until early in the 19th century. The reason the shift to cotton occurred was technical advances in first manufactuing textiles and second in the production of raw cotton.

Industrial Revolution

Cotton played a major role in the Industrial Revolution that has so changed modern life. The first industrial machines designed for mass production were developed to manufacture cotton textiles. This substantially lowered the cost of produving textiles and thus increased the demand for them. There was no way sufficent wool or flax could be grown to fill the demand. This created a rapidly increasing demand for raw cotton.

Cotton Gin

American slavery was decling in importance inthe late 18th century. Many even in the South thought that it would eventually disappear as was happening in the North. The Industrial Revolution, however, led to Ely Whitney's cotton gin. Whitney was from New England and had just graduated from Yale. He traveled south (1792). He wanted to be lawyer, but could not afford to continue his studies. He accepted a position as a tutor on a Georgia plantation. After he arrived in Georgia, he soon learned that Southern planters faced major problems. Their proncipal crop in the 18th century was tobacco. But prices were falling and yield declining because of soil ehaustion. There was a growing demand for cotton in Europe and high priceds to be had. Separating cotton from the seeds in a ball required so much labor that it was not profitable. Long-staple variety of cotton was easy to separate from its seeds. But this could only be grown close to the coast. The short-staple variety of cotton that grew inland had sticky green seeds that could not be esily separated from the cotton fibers. Whitney began working on the problem. And his sollution was the the cotton gin which revolutionized southern agriculture. Suddenly there was way of supplying the European demand for cotton. The resulting efficiences changed the economies of cotton cultivation.

Revival of Slavery

New plantations were founded on King Cotton as Southern planters moved west into Alabama and Mississpi and eventually Texas. Huge profits could be made in cotton. But it was aabor intensive crop. This meant that large plantations and slave labor were the most effecient production system. A very subsrantial proprtion of American slaves were employed in the production of this single crop. Cotton became the primary American export commodity, in effect financing America's early industrial development. The revitalization of the South's slave-based economy began a process that was to lead inexorably to Civil War.

Cotton Plantations

A plantation is an agiculture institution focused on the large-scale cultivation of a specific crop using slave or wage workers. Usually it does not involve cereal production or pasture. Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton had sharply contrasting views of America's future. It is the Jeffersonian image that caught the American imagination--the idea of a republic of virtue based on the yeoman farmer. Ironically it was the Hamiltonian vision of a commercial future that proved the most accurate. And Jefferson's vision hardly described Montecello and the the ruling class of Virginia and the other Southern states where plantations based on slave labor came to dominate society. Again ironically it was another Jeffersonian rival--John Adams--who was the archtypical yeoman farmer. The colonial plantation were often diverse operations growing a variety of crops. Tobacco was especially important, but the depletion of soils on many tobacco plantations led many to conclude that slavery was a dieing institution. Tobacco was not the only crop. otton was grown, but because of the labor intensive step of separating the seeds, not a particularly luctative crop. This changes in the late 18th century. As a result of the Industrial Revolution, demand for cotton was growing. Many thought that plantations and slave labor were an outmolded economic model. When Ely Whitney perfected the cotton gin (1793), the economics of cotton and plantation agriculture was transformed. Cotton plantations were opened in the new southern states beyond the Eastern seabord. They fed the voracious demand for cotton from English and other European textile mills. Huge fortunes were made. Cotton was the major American export product and essentially financed the industrialization of the United states. Historians for years focused more on northern agriculture and industrial development. Scholars today are giving ncfeasing attention to the abte-bellum plantantion. There is some debate over the politival dominance of the planter class. Interestingly there are many largely untapped resources about Southern cotton plantations. They were commercial enterprises and in many cases sizeable, sophisticalted operations. These operations required detailed record keepings and the records of many plantations in addition to diaries and letters have survived for scholarly research.

Work Assignments

The vast majority of the slaves in the deep South were involved in agricultural labor on large plantations. This is where the living and working conditions were often horendous. The principal crop was cotton and slaves were used to plant, hoe, and then pick the cotton balls. Picking was called "chopin" cotton. This was back breaking manual labor. Fw of the slaves on these plantations were taught or developed skills. Except for the household slaves, few planttion slaves had peronal relations with their owners. Some plantation slaves did learn trades to facilitate the plantation's operations, but this was a small minority. The slave owners were primarily focused on maximizing cotton production. Slaves in the border states were much more likely to be owned on small farms or small-scale pripertor like black smiths or carpeters. They were thus more likely to have a closer worjing relationship with their owners. They were also more likely to have been taught trades and othe skills. While slavery was an economic system primarily centered on agriculture, slaves were also used as servants to make live more pleasant. Another occupation for slaves, always slave women, as child care.

Restraints

Plantations mammed by slaves ptoved the most efficent method of growing cotton. It was also the most cruel agricultural system. A variety of control and discipline devices were used on slaves. Many such devices were also used on Russian serfs. Some of the best known devices were collars, shackles, and chains. Therewerealo slave bridles. One report descrines their use in Brazil during the 18th century. Similar bridles were sometimes applied in Russia to the serf boys and serf girls (shepherds) so that they could not drink milk from the animals that they were caring for.








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Created: 1:19 AM 11/25/2007
Last updated: 1:19 AM 11/25/2007