Cotton and Race in the Making of America
The Human Costs of Economic Power
Interview with Gene Dattel
How was cotton comparable to present day oil?
Both oil and cotton revenues were used to buy armaments.
Why is cotton production important in American history?
It would be difficult to find a more important determinant of American history than cotton. In American economic history, only cotton has been given regal status – aptly named King Cotton. Cotton production moved through the economic, social, physical and political landscape of nineteenth century America with the force of tornado. The demand created by England’s newly industrialized textile mills, the invention of the cotton gin, American ingenuity, the presence of race-based slave labor, and vast areas of suitable land in the South fueled an ever-expanding desire to chase cotton wealth.
The role of cotton in the industrial revolution is not fully appreciated. Textiles provided the backbone of the industrial revolution in England. A young Karl Marx, the philosophical wellspring of Communism, did fully appreciate the connection between cotton, slavery, and the industrial revolution when he wrote in 1848 that “without cotton you have no modern industry, without slavery you have no cotton.”
The results were economically beneficial for the young nation’s economy while creating America’s most profound social tragedy – slavery and its legacy for African Americans. Cotton holds an unassailable record, as it was America’s leading export from 1803 to 1937. In the years preceding 1860, cotton accounted for sixty percent of America’s exports. It stimulated American economic growth and linked sections of the country through trade. Without the surge in cotton production, slavery would surely have become extinct. Slavery spread only to where cotton could be grown. Slave-produced cotton produced America’s most bloody conflict – the Civil War. Cotton production continued to dominate the lives of African Americans after the Civil War and played a major role, if not as dominant as before, in the nation’s economy. Cotton was truly a ‘map-maker, trouble-maker, and history-maker.’
Americans have an overwhelming attachment to materialism and economic progress at whatever human cost. The money trail leads directly to the heart and soul of America. Cotton is a metaphor for an economic force, a proxy for money. Economics in general is a leading determinant of America’s destiny and cotton production provides a compelling specific example of economic forces in action.
Black slaves provided the labor for cotton plantations. No other alternative crop or industry could compete with cotton for slave labor. The rationalization that slavery was a “positive good” rather than “a necessary evil” gained acceptance in the 1830s in the midst of a cotton boom. When slavery was abolished, America’s priority was resumption of cotton production. This meant “black labor” and “white brains,” according to the New York Times. So, blacks who had toiled in the cotton fields for sixty years before the Civil War as slaves were now relegated to the cotton fields for another one hundred years as free laborers.
This is one of the major misconceptions in American history. Actually forty percent of all cotton revenues went to America’s commercial center, New York City on the eve of the Civil War. Cotton exports to England and France gave the nation a favorable balance of trade which stabilized its finances. It linked the North, South, and West through trade. Northern mills used cheap slave-produced cotton and northern factories shipped manufactured goods to the cotton South. Western foodstuffs traveled to the South. We need look no further than today’s abysmal US trade deficit to see the importance of exports.
No, we must distinguish between attitudes towards slavery and attitudes towards African Americans. Slavery was not an option for white Northerners. They shed slavery because it was uneconomical, not because it was immoral. If cotton could have been grown in New York, Illinois, or any other state, they would have been pro-slavery. Racial hatred and notions of black inferiority permeated the white North which dreaded a migration of blacks. Even though the North had tiny black populations amounting to one to two percent of the total, blacks were not allowed to vote and were relegated overwhelmingly to poverty, separate communities, condescension, and overt discrimination. The North fully subscribed to a belief in black inferiority. Anti-slavery movements were, in large part, anti-black. Northerners did not want slavery to expand into the new Western states, but they also deeply opposed free black migration. This brute racial animosity had important consequences after the Civil War and is a reliable guide to the results of Reconstruction.
No other role was contemplated for freedmen other than as cotton laborers. The few instances of federal government-sponsored land ownership by freedmen were situational, brief, and never amounted to a policy. Lincoln certainly never espoused federal government redistribution of land. The lure of cotton wealth brought hordes of white Northerners to the South. This group which included Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted to make their cotton fortune wealth and reform black laborers. These opportunists failed and became discouraged with the prospects for rehabilitating former slaves. Cotton and race were linked through the much maligned sharecropper system which was initiated by former slaves and developed as a response to economic realities.
Absolutely not. The North was not willing to shed white blood in order to secure black rights. The federal government passed an impressive amount legislation which theoretically protected black political rights; these abstractions were crushed when confronted with the reality of American racial antipathy. The North still wanted to prevent the migration of blacks and considered them inferior and a burden on society. So, while the North actively encouraged millions of white Europeans between 1865 and WWI to settle in their states, ninety percent of all blacks remained in the South. The North’s attitude and actions amounted to an indirect containment policy. It should be remembered that President Theodore Roosevelt thought that universal suffrage was a farce and that ninety-five percent of all African Americans were not capable of holding public office.
What changed the relationship between cotton and race?
The long awaited technological breakthroughs, a mechanical cotton picker and effective herbicides, finally displaced black labor.
A racial tragedy – America’s most intractable social problem – evidenced by a seemingly permanent black underclass which appears to be unable to assimilate into the economic and social mainstream. Even today, race is America’s most sensitive issue. Black labor was needed in the cotton fields and wanted nowhere else in America. The self-destructive tendencies prevalent in the black underclass have been seen as a relic of slavery and segregation even though emancipation occurred one hundred and fifty years ago, African Americans have lived in large numbers in the North since WWI, and de jure segregation ended over fifty years ago. We must ask now if the conditions of the black underclass are still a legacy of slavery and segregation.
Does the election of Barack Obama as president render the legacy of our troubled racial past irrelevant?