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Cotton & Race in the Making of America

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Preface Excerpt for Cotton and Race in the Making of America

 

Cotton and Race in the Making of America is about money and the uses and abuses of power. The story of cotton in America is a dramatic economic tale whose fundamental importance in the nation’s history has been largely ignored. Because of its connection with race, cotton is uniquely tainted in American history. “It is the melancholy distinction of cotton,” wrote David Cohn in 1956, “to be the stuff of high drama and tragedy, of bloody civil war and the unutterable woe of human slavery. . . . [Cotton was] a ‘map-maker, trouble-maker, and historymaker.’” To put it less poetically, slave-produced cotton was shockingly important to the destiny of the United States; it almost destroyed the nation. In many ways this book is also about America’s overwhelming attachment to material progress at whatever the human cost. Once we begin following the money trail, we realize that it leads us to the heart and soul of America.


Cotton has long since vanished as an economic powerhouse, but the relics of cotton—a black underclass in the North and South, with its destructive behavioral characteristics—remain long after slavery, sharecropping, and legal segregation have disappeared. This is the story of how cotton shaped America, defi ned the South, and in so doing prepared the ground of our racial quagmire. The tale winds through the interconnected worlds of fi nance, politics, diplomacy, and technology, and is built upon powerful personalities, the hunger for money and power, and the maelstrom of race.