In the late eighteenth century, a recent Yale graduate named Eli Whitney had aspirations of practicing law. However, like many modern college graduates, Whitney had a debt to repay for his education. To that end, Whitney left his home in Massachusetts to take a tutoring position on a Georgia plantation.
Whitney found himself in the midst of an active agricultural economy. Tobacco, rice, and sugar were vital crops, and cotton cultivation was showing great promise. A stable slave culture was in place in the south, providing labor for southern plantations. However, the time-consuming process for harvesting cotton limited the prosperity of plantation owners.
Whitney’s employer, Catherine Greene, asked the educated Whitney if he could devise a solution. He set aside his aspirations to practice law and began tinkering with plans for a hand-crank machine that would separate the sticky cotton from its seeds. Whitney successfully created such a machine in 1793, along with a larger version that could be powered by horses or water.
With the development of the cotton “gin” (short for engine), cotton rapidly surpassed tobacco, rice, and sugar as the number one southern crop. Cotton production increased 800% over the next ten years with assistance from Whitney’s invention. The cotton gin brought Southerners unprecedented prosperity.
With the ability to process cotton at a faster rate, southern plantation owners needed to increase their labor force. The already large slave system in the south became larger as slaves were smuggled into the country (slave importation had been deemed illegal from 1808 on). Slave women were encouraged, and in some cases enticed with promises of freedom, to have children and build up the slave owner’s labor force, all to increase the cotton harvest. Already prosperous southern plantation owners grew even wealthier with the bounties brought by Whitney’s cotton gin. Ironically, Whitney had hoped his invention would reduce the need for slave labor, but its effect was just the opposite.
This thriving cotton industry led to the rise of large-scale commercial agriculture. Not only did increased cotton milling result in an increased numbers of slaves, but planters also worked to augment their land ownership to make more money. Some land was taken from the Indians, who were being removed from the southeast during this period. Also, large plantation owners were buying out smaller plantations to increase their land holdings, and those planters who were bought out moved westward. The motto of Southerners became “Cotton is King,” and they were happy to serve a ruler who provided such prosperity.
Southerners were not the only ones benefiting from the cotton boom. Eighty percent of the south’s cotton went to England by way of northern shippers. These shippers were able to buy cotton wholesale and sell it at a premium, since England’s most important manufactured good was cotton cloth. One-fifth of the population in England earned a living from the manufacture of this cloth, and 75 percent of the cotton used in England’s production came from the United States. Since England was so dependent on the south’s cotton and the north’s transportation of it, both the north and the south were able to benefit heavily from this export.
The many people who gained wealth from cotton were willing to disregard the indications that a one-crop economy could not be sustained. Planters ignored the fact that King Cotton was hard on the soil, especially with the frenzied harvesting that was taking place during this era.There were other drawbacks to the cotton industry, as well. The cotton gin made production potential greater, but it also made the labor source more unstable. The slaves required to operate the cotton gins could get sick or injured in great numbers, rendering plantation owners unable to harvest the crops growing on their land. The cotton-based economy also promoted a decidedly unequal socio-economic structure. An excess of poor whites and slaves lived in the south, while a few wealthy plantation owners monopolized the industry. At a time when democracy was being celebrated, the majority of the south was under the control of a minority of prosperous plantation owners.
By the mid nineteenth century, the south had developed into an aristocracy, with wealthy plantation owners at the top of the social ladder. In 1850, only a small minority—approximately 1,750 families—owned more than 100 slaves each. This small group of people carried significant political and social power.
Southern aristocrats used their wealth to send their children to the finest schools, which were often in the north or overseas. Many of their young men returned home feeling called to public service, and the south produced a high proportion of statesmen. Southern women ran the households, including managing female slaves who cooked, cleaned, and performed nearly all the household chores. Although there were abolitionist rumblings among white men at this time, virtually none of their wives supported the abolition effort.
While democracy was the goal throughout the entire United States, the aristocracy of the south weakened the foundation of a democratic society. Since wealth bought southern aristocrats the opportunities for education at private institutions, efforts for state-supported public education were hindered. The gap between the rich and the poor continued to widen.
Even as the rich were controlling the south, it was the smaller plantation owner who truly represented the southern lifestyle. Only one-fourth of white Southerners owned slaves, and of that number, many had small cotton farms and most owned fewer than ten slaves each. In fact, over six million residents in the south owned no slaves at all.
In addition to the large and small plantation owners, residents in the south included poor white families. These families were often called “white trash” by other Southerners, who believed they were lazy. Rather, most poor whites were unable to work efficiently due to malnutrition and parasitic illness caused by a poor understanding of safe and healthy food preparation.
Poor whites were classified by location. The term “lowland whites” identified mechanics, tradesmen, and small cotton farmers who lived among the southern population. Hoping to someday achieve the American Dream of prosperity, they staunchly supported the slave system. Many lowland whites worked their entire lives with the hope of one day owning at least one slave—someone to whom they could feel superior.
Due to their interaction with the public, lowland whites were more civilized than their mountain brethren. Mountain whites also suffered from poverty and malnutrition, but their location in the semi-isolated backcountry and Appalachian Mountains from western Virginia to northern Georgia and Alabama meant they often went unnoticed by other Southerners. Their isolation required the mountain whites to be subsistence farmers, raising their own corn and hogs for survival.
Another class of people competed with the underprivileged whites on the social ladder—the free blacks. By 1860, approximately 250,000 free black men and women lived in the south. Many had been freed during the Revolution, while others were emancipated mulattoes, the offspring of white planters and their black slave mistresses. Although they had their freedom, most states had laws limiting blacks’ rights. In some cases, free blacks were captured by unscrupulous slave traders and resold into slavery, so emancipation was no guarantee of a prosperous life.
Another 250,000 free blacks lived in the north, where they were also denied basic rights, including the right to vote and, in some cases, the right to a public education. Irish immigrants often threatened or caused harm to free blacks out of resentment, since the two groups often competed for the same menial jobs.
The bottom rung of the southern aristocracy was not surprisingly held by slaves. By 1860, nearly four million slaves inhabited the southern region of the United States. Although slave importation had been deemed illegal from 1808 on, many slave traders continued to smuggle slaves in and were rarely prosecuted for these violations.
Abolitionists were gearing up for battles which they hoped would result in freedom for all slaves, but at the same time arguments were being made for maintaining the slave system. Supporters of slavery argued that the U.S. slave system provided slaves with a much better lifestyle than they would have in other countries. They pointed to the self-sustaining slave population as evidence, using the argument that slaves were voluntarily cohabitating and reproducing with one another, a luxury not afforded slaves in other countries. Proslavery rhetoric also argued that the typical slave was better off than the typical northern worker and that slavery civilized blacks and allowed them to learn about Christianity.
However, the primary argument for slavery was always economical. Slaves were no doubt an economic necessity for both the north and the south. Slave owners lived in fear of a slave revolt, which could destroy their profitability, but they saw the risk as a necessary evil to maintain the prosperity brought by King Cotton.
The conditions in which slaves existed in the nineteenth century varied from region to region—and even from house to house. Wise slave owners recognized the value of slaves as human capital, since by 1860 slaves were worth approximately $1,800 each. As such, while most slaves travailed in the fields cultivating crops, dangerous work, such as roof repair, was often hired out to more expendable labor sources.
Most slaves resided in the Deep South, an area stretching from South Carolina and Georgia to Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. This region became known as the “black belt” for its abundance of slaves.
Hard work was a mainstay of the slave lifestyle. Since slaves did not earn wages like other workers, their source of motivation was an overseer—often another slave who had been given increased responsibility—who wielded a whip to flog the unproductive or inefficient laborers. Physically, emotionally, and legally, slaves were reduced to property, given no civil or political rights.
Slaves did not even have the right to legally enter into marriage, although many slave owners allowed their slaves to participate in unionizing ceremonies and to live as married couples. Most slaves practiced some form of religion, usually a hybrid faith mixed from Christian and African elements. They often incorporated the African “responsorial” system of punctuating sermons with verbal agreement. Most slave children in the Deep South lived in two-parent households, where forced separations did not happen very often.
Forced separations typically occurred when a slave owner died or encountered financial difficulties. In these situations his slaves were often sent to auction. Most auctions were multi-purpose events, selling humans alongside cattle and horses. No regard was given to keeping families together at these auctions. In fact, it was rare that families who came to auction together stayed together.These terrible auctions, along with the appalling conditions most slaves dealt with daily, fed the growing abolitionist movement. The dispute over slavery would eventually be resolved, but not before the country turned on itself in civil warfare.