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Cotton & Race in the Making of America

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Cotton and Race in the Making of America
The Human Costs of Economic Power

 

 

Cotton and Race in the Making of America begins at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. When confronted with the choice of creating a nation with slavery or no nation without slavery, the delegates enshrined slavery in the Constitution. They did so before cotton appeared on the American scene. Six years later, the invention of the cotton gin, combined with the British advances in textile manufacturing, created an ever-increasing appetite for cotton — and the slave labor that cultivated this white gold. Rather than wither, slavery survived and expanded to satiate the national commercial interest in one crop: cotton. Known as the "indispensible product," cotton swept quickly across the American landscape — prolonging slavery and stimulating economic growth in the young nation. Its primary social byproduct, the subordination of black men and women to the economy, shaped the plight of African Americans.

 

During the antebellum period, cotton production and slavery moved inexorably in tandem across a compatible terrain. Slavery only spread where cotton could be grown. Cotton was the foundation of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. As the young economist Karl Marx remarked in 1848, "Without cotton, you have no modern industry. Without slavery, you have no cotton." Cotton exports surged and became America's leading export from 1803 to 1937. Slave-produced cotton caused the Civil War. The South's tactic of using cotton as a diplomatic weapon was ineffective, because King Cotton was not deployed properly. The North's pervasive racial animosity during the antebellum era provides an accurate guide to the future for African Americans after the Civil War.

After the bloody conflict, African Americans remained chained to the cotton fields. Cotton, although no longer regal, was still a potent economic force. Northern racial antipathy created a formal and informal containment policy to keep blacks in the Southern cotton world. Only with the advent of mechanical cotton pickers and herbicides did blacks and cotton become decoupled. The saga ends in the 1930s with cotton becoming a permanent ward of the federal government and before the assault on legal segregation. For more than 150 years, America benefited enormously from cotton picked by African Americans. The economic world of cotton needed a work force, and white America designated African Americans for the role. America no longer needs cotton, but it still bears cotton's human legacy.