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Friday, June 08, 2007

When Cotton Was King

B. Thomas Cooper - Editor

White blossomed, white bolled, short staple cotton. It is the stuff of which dreams are made, and wars are fought. If you think the US Civil War was about the abolition of slavery, perhaps you may wish to reconsider.

During the late 1850’s and right up through the US Civil War, Cotton was indeed an economic powerhouse, not just in the southern United States, but throughout the world. “Dare not make war on cotton,” presaged Senator James Henry Hammond in 1858. “No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King."

Economists agreed with the Senator from South Carolina. Cotton was the driving force behind a period of great prosperity in the south, creating an elitist upper class dependant on the success of the crop. Slavery in the US was on the wane until Eli Whitney patented the cotton gin in 1779. Unfortunately, the success of his invention brought new demand for slave labor. By 1804, the cotton crop was eight times greater than in the previous decade, and the demand for slaves was rising.

This new Southern aristocracy resulted from the ownership of land and slaves and the surest way to obtain both was to grow cotton. Its impact was long reaching. New roads were constructed and businesses sprang up along endless processions of wagons hauling the crop to various ports. Cotton’s new kingdom extended well into Texas and north another six hundred miles up the Mississippi River valley. Rest assured, where there was cotton, there was money to be made. Even smaller farms, who generally planted only for sustenance, often set aside a few acres of cotton for trading.

Caught in diplomacy.

By 1860, the South was annually exporting two-thirds of the worlds cotton, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. During the Antebellum Period, cotton was indeed king, dominating international relations with the Confederacy, a policy referred to by many as “cotton diplomacy.” This period would see the South in a new light. However, James Henry Hammond was far from accurate in his assessment. Cotton would rule under a pall of darkness, perhaps the darkest period in American history. Still, it was not cotton that was to blame for the folly of man, but man himself, who was to blame for the rise and fall of a mighty king, King Cotton.


King Cotton, the Fiber of Slavery. Author or authors unknown.
Bleeding Kansas and the Enduring Struggle for Freedom, National Heritage Area Feasibility Study. Author or authors unknown.

B. Thomas Cooper - Editor

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