Antebellum Slavery/Economics

The Cotton Gin
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To understand the development of slavery, it is necessary to realize that North America was always on the fringes of the immense slave trade that developed between West Africa and Tropical America. The Spanish colonies and Portuguese Brazil began importing slaves in the early 1500s, and by the time Jamestown was settled in 1607, some 250,000 Africans had been brought to the New World. It was primarily the need for labor on the sugar plantations of Brazil and the Caribbean that stimulated the growth of the Atlantic slave trade after 1700. As that trade skyrocketed, the number of slave ships that wandered as far north as Virginia also increased. Yet of the six million slaves who survived the Atlantic voyages between 1700 and 1810, less than six percent ended up in what is now the United States. So the growth of slavery on the thirteen colonies was only a small part of the growth of slavery in the New World.

It is also necessary to realize that very few people had any qualms about slavery. Human bondage had been considered a part of the natural scheme of things since ancient times – colonists everywhere accepted slavery as normal. Even churches and preachers owned slaves.


The South had emerged in the last quarter of the eighteenth century to become a region of dynamic change between 1800 and 1860. But it had changed in ways that only widened the distance between it and the North. At a time when the North was experiencing rapid urbanization, the South remained predominantly rural. In 1820 the proportion of the southern population living in urban areas was about half that of New England and the Mid-Atlantic States. The reason for the rural character of the South was that it contained very little industry. As long as southerners believed that an economy founded on cash crops would remain profitable they had little reason to leap into the uncertainties of industrialization.

So the economy of the South changed dramatically between 1790 and 1850. The cause of this dynamic transformation could be described in one word. COTTON. The growth of the British textile industry had created a huge demand for cotton and had provided a stimulus to the development of the cotton gin. The Lower South was especially suited to the cultivation of cotton. The fertile soil and ideal climate provided security for the mass production of the crop. This new industry could be beneficial at any scale. Cotton was profitable for anyone, even non-slaveholders, to grow.

Although modest cotton cultivation did not require slaves, large-scale cotton growing and slavery grew together. As the southern slave population nearly doubled between 1810 and 1830, cotton employed three-fourths of southern slaves. Owning slaves made it possible to harvest vast tracts of cotton speedily, a crucial advantage because a sudden rainstorm at harvest time could pelt cotton to the ground and soil it. Slaveholding also enabled planters to increase their cotton acreage and hence their profits.

An added advantage of cotton lay in its compatibility with the production of corn. Since corn could be planted earlier or later than cotton and could be harvested before or after, corn production enabled slaveholders to utilize slave labor when slaves were not employed on cotton. From an economic standpoint, corn and cotton gave the South the best of both worlds. Fed by intense demands in Britain and New England, the price of cotton remained high, with the result that money flowed into the South. In 1860 the twelve wealthiest counties in the United States were all in the South.

Because the South diverged so sharply from the North, it is tempting to view the South as backward and doomed to be bypassed by its more energetic northern counterparts. Yet the South did not lack progressive features. In 1840, per capita income in the white South was only slightly below the national average, and by 1860 it exceeded it. Rather than viewing the Old South as economically backward, it is better to see it merely as different. Cotton was a wonderful crop, and southerners could hardly be blamed for making it their "king." And the major influencing factor in the growth of the economy was the employment of slaves. The use of black slaves, though criticized by many abolitionists, was an extremely important part of southern lifestyle. From the buying and selling of slaves, to the tortuous labor that they endured, bondage became integrated into the American work habits. Most Americans became so dependent on blacks that they were sometimes criticized as lazy. Still, the antebellum era was a most productive time for America. Slavery was just one of the ways of putting us at the top.

It was slavery and the introduction of Whitney’s cotton gin that sparked the tremendous growth of the American economy. The popularized short-staple cotton, which brought a premium price, gradually became the dominant southern crop, eclipsing tobacco, rice and sugar. Slavery was branded into the system, with the slave being chained to the gin, and the planter to the slave.



Whitney's Cotton Gin
Whitney's Gin