Antebellum Slavery/Economics

The Cotton Gin


Unhappily, the quick and plentiful profits the plantations concealed much that was worrisome, distasteful, and sordid. Plantation agriculture was wasteful, largely because "King Cotton" and his money-hungry "subjects" despoiled the good earth. Excessive cultivation led to land butchering, which in turn caused a heavy leakage of population to the West and Northwest. Soil exhaustion also forced attention to scientific agriculture, which was a completely new field altogether.

The economic structure of the South became increasingly monopolistic. As the land wore thin, many small farmers sold their holdings to more prosperous neighbors, and went north or west. Another setback in the heart of the South was the financial instability of the plantation system. The temptation to overspeculate in land and slaves caused many planters to plunge in beyond their depth. Although the black bondsmen might in extreme cases be fed for as little as ten cents a day, there were other expenses. The slaves represented a heavy investment of capital, perhaps $1,200 each in the case of prime field hands; and they might deliberately injure themselves or run away. An entire slave quarter might be wiped out by disease or even by lightning, as happened in one instance to twenty luckless blacks.

Dominance by cotton also led to a dangerous dependence on a one-crop economy, whose price level was at the mercy of world conditions. The whole system discouraged a healthy diversification of agriculture and particularly manufacturing, for which the South was almost ideally fitted. While concentrating on cotton, the plantations had to import huge quantities of grain and pork from the upper Mississippi Valley. The South was over-shadowed by their big northern relatives in the terms of industrialization. The fact that Southerners relied so heavily on slaves made people suspect that they had become lazy and unwilling to work. Still, the Southern economy thrived considerably, despite the ambiguous drawbacks.