The Economics of Cotton

A timeline shows important events of the era. In 1794, Eli Whitney patents the cotton gin; an illustration of slaves using a cotton gin is shown. In 1803, the U.S. purchases Louisiana Territory from France; a painting depicting the raising of the U.S. flag in the main plaza of New Orleans is shown. In 1811, Charles Deslondes leads a slave revolt in Louisiana. In 1831, Nat Turner leads a slave rebellion; an illustration of Nat Turner’s capture is shown. In 1845, the United States annexes Texas; a contemporaneous map of the United States is shown. In 1850, John C. Calhoun’s “Disquisition on Government” is published. In 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe publishes Uncle Tom’s Cabin; an illustration from Uncle Tom’s Cabin is shown. In 1854, the Ostend Manifesto is made public. In 1855, William Walker conquers Nicaragua and legalizes slavery.

In the antebellum era—that is, in the years before the Civil War—American planters in the South continued to grow Chesapeake tobacco and Carolina rice as they had in the colonial era. Cotton, however, emerged as the antebellum South’s major commercial crop, eclipsing tobacco, rice, and sugar in economic importance. By 1860, the region was producing two-thirds of the world’s cotton. In 1793, Eli Whitney revolutionized the production of cotton when he invented the cotton gin, a device that separated the seeds from raw cotton. Suddenly, a process that was extraordinarily labor-intensive when done by hand could be completed quickly and easily. American plantation owners, who were searching for a successful staple crop to compete on the world market, found it in cotton.

As a commodity, cotton had the advantage of being easily stored and transported. A demand for it already existed in the industrial textile mills in Great Britain, and in time, a steady stream of slave-grown American cotton would also supply northern textile mills. Southern cotton, picked and processed by American slaves, helped fuel the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution in both the United States and Great Britain.