By Julia Levine
Eli Whitney had barely graduated from Yale when he invented the machine that would alter the course of US history. In 1793, he invented the cotton gin; a machine with saw teeth that allowed the user to quickly extract the seeds within the boll of cotton, a previously laborious task done by hand. By 1795, the cotton gin had spread throughout the South, even deep within the Mississippi Valley, resurrecting the declining cotton industry where slave prices had hit a twenty year low. Instead, the cotton gin exploded cotton exports by 11,200 percent from 1790-1795, until the 1850s when US exports accounted for “80 percent of the cotton consumed in North America and Europe.” Due to this enormous surge in wealth
consistent with Jeffersonian dreams of industrial expansion, Whitney’s cotton gin justified the revitalization of the slave economy and propelled the US into the global cotton market, while ignoring the significant toll enacted on the ecological makeup of southern landscapes and the lives of slaves.
Whitney’s cotton gin allowed a stagnant industry to increase in economic value inducing many established plantation owners and new migrants to plant the crop. The cotton gin was an extremely effective machine, allowing planters to increase their “ginning productivity by a factor of fifty.” In his novel, Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South, Adam Rothman writes of the effect this new technology had on Southern planters, who “rapidly abandoned tobacco and indigo and adopted cotton.” Suddenly the market flooded with cotton, producing the largest economic boom in US history. As new migrants entered the area in search of their own rich cotton plantation, the South transformed “from a thinly inhabited region of native people and farmers who focused on subsistence crops and tobacco to one in the thrall of cotton.” Additionally, Whitney’s gin sparked a boom for slave markets in the south. As Beckert notes, “In the thirty years after the invention of the gin alone (between 1790 and 1820), a quarter million slaves were forcefully relocated” to southern states. The enormous demand for slave labor in the South steadily increased with the rising presence of American cotton on the world market. Within a decade, the entire economy of the South had adjusted to reap the benefits from this newly desirable good.
This remarkable conversion of southern land from subsistence farms to cotton plantations fit well within prominent American doctrines of expansion. In his Notes on State of Virginia, written in 1782, Thomas Jefferson lauds the marketization of land as the key to a prosperous economy and democracy. Jefferson viewed “cultivators of the earth” as “the most virtuous and independent citizens,” imagining the expansion westward to be the realization of that virtuousness. This framing of expansion can be found in other texts of the era, in particular documents that encouraged emigration to these new lands. In 1801, George Sibbald wrote in his promotional pamphlet “Notes and observations, on the pine lands of Georgia, shewing the advantages they possess, particularly in the culture of cotton…,” that “nature has no where been so lavish in her bounties as in [Georgia]” and that those interested “can here procure himself a comfortable home, on easier terms and for less labor, than in any country in the civilized world.” Nature, in the Jeffersonian mentality, acted as a means to an end, terrain through which human virtue was derived. Industrial cotton manufacturing, more than intense ecological undertaking, was viewed as a “civilizing economy,” a bridge to the refinement of human society and wild lands.
Not merely bountiful natural fields, but rather gin-advanced slave labor allowed the US to take control of the global cotton market. Before the invention of Whitney’s gin, the US produced 1.5 million pounds of cotton, a number that grew to 36.5 million pounds in 1800, and by 1820, 167.5 million pounds. According to Beckert, four major factors allowed the U.S. to so rapidly assume dominance in the global cotton market: “planters’ command of nearly unlimited supplies of land, labor and capital, and their unparalleled political power.” Britain on the other hand struggled to keep the pace, though aware of the change occurring in the US, they couldn’t adapt the cotton gin to their colonies in Asia. By the 1850s, US exports took over Britain’s hold on the market, accounting for 77 percent of the cotton consumed in Britain. In order to induce this takeover, the US mimicked the British methodology of war capitalism: combining “imperial expansion” into global markets, “slavery” of Africans, and “land expropriations” of native peoples. Through the ease of the cotton gin, the US swiftly assumed control of the cotton market, forming a new age of global capitalist marketplaces grounded in violent appropriations of people and land.
Though economically beneficial, the expansion of the cotton industry wrought intense ecological damage to southern land. Massive desire for cotton after the invention of the gin encouraged homogenization of agricultural land previously used to support subsistence farmers. According to Johnson in “River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom,” cotton mono cropping in the Mississippi Valley “stripped the land of vegetation, leached out its fertility, and rendered one of richest agricultural regions on earth dependent on upriver trade for food.” Gin expansion was rapid and ruthless; with no political or labor-based barriers to development, the main issue became the land, “as the same patch could not be used for more than a few years without either planting legumes on it or applying expensive guano to it.” This natural setback proved easily averted as plantation owners moved farther west and south to freshly vacant lands with their portable ginning machines. Often these men moved westward before the federal government officially sanctioned the action. Unrestrained violence marked their movements as they pillaged land once inhabited by Native Americans. These farmers subverted the biological old regime through their unrestricted land grabs, unlimited labor, and efficient ginning system—allowing entire forests to be exploited and exhausted within a matter of a few years.
Transporting the cotton boom to major ports required a large-scale steamboat operation, which relied on shoreline forests for power. River traffic on the Mississippi grew from 21 steamboats in 1813 to 1,500 boats in 1840, carrying cotton worth almost $50 million. The swelling demand for wood led to soil erosion along the riverbanks and created rivers more forceful and frequent to flood. In the scramble for cotton of the early 19th century, it is important to note that all elements of southern ecosystems were affected, not only the exhausted fields.
Though much credit is due to efficiency and portability of the cotton gin in propelling the US to the international stage, it is only a small piece of the story. The cotton gin catered to the most excessively greedy elements of the United States, raking in profit for the white plantation owners and European migrant farmers, while enacting terror on both humans and land to a disgusting degree. In 1820, the US census documented “69,064 slaves in Louisiana and 32,814 in Mississippi. Twenty years later, the respective numbers were 168,452 and 195,211.” Previous years of slow growth propagated Northern support for the abolition of slavery, but the economic boom cotton provided crushed the dissident opinions. Without slavery, we would not know the name Eli Whitney; his invention only brought the change that it did because of the hands that toiled upon it, because of the land sucked dry underneath it. In light of expanding pockets, human suffering and environmental degradation become afterthoughts, at best. For our modern Anthropocene, we must recognize the ways in which technology has been used to justify oppression, not alleviate it. As long as our moral compass remains guided by economic growth, new technologies will be subservient to that mission; the cotton gin a prime example of the merciless logic of this system.
Beckert, Sven. Empire of Cotton: A Global History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.
Beckert, Sven. 2004. “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War”. The American Historical Review 109 (5). [Oxford University Press, American Historical Association]: 1405–38. doi:10.1086/530931.
History.com Staff. “Cotton Gin and Eli Whitney.” History.com. 2010. Accessed May 04, 2016. http://www.history.com/topics/inventions/cotton-gin-and-eli-whitney.
Jefferson, Thomas. “Thomas Jefferson, 1743-1826. Notes on the State of Virginia.” Documenting the American South. 2006. Accessed May 03, 2016. http://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/jefferson/jefferson.html.
Johnson, Walter. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Cambridge, Belknap/Harvard U. Press, 2013.
Olmstead, Alan L., and Paul W. Rhode. 2008. “Biological Innovation and Productivity Growth in the Antebellum Cotton Economy”. The Journal of Economic History 68 (4). [Economic History Association, Cambridge University Press]: 1123–71. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.library.wisc.edu/stable/40056471.
Phillips, Ulrich B.. 1905. “The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt”. Political Science Quarterly 20 (2). [Academy of Political Science, Wiley]: 257–75. doi:10.2307/2140400.
Rothman, Adam. Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South, Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 2005.
Shugerman, Jed Handelsman. 2002. “The Louisiana Purchase and South Carolina’s Reopening of the Slave Trade in 1803”.Journal of the Early Republic 22 (2). [University of Pennsylvania Press, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic]: 263–90. doi:10.2307/3125182.
Sibbald, George. Notes and observations, on the pine lands of Georgia, shewing the advantages they possess, particularly in the culture of cotton. Addressed to persons emigrating, and those disposed to encourage migration to this state. Together with a plan of emigration, for their immediate settlement. To which is added a geographical sketch of the state of Georgia, with a comparative view of the population of 1791, and 1801, and the exports of the years 1791 & 1800. Augusta, 1801. The Making Of The Modern World. Web. 14 Apr. 2016