The Cotton Economy Of The Old South
Colonial America produced very little cotton. As late as 1791, the United
States only produced two million pounds of the fiber. By the dawn of the
nineteenth century, however, the conditions for an unprecedented cotton
boom had emerged: rapidly rising demand from British textile industry,
following innovations in spinning, weaving, and steam power technologies;
improvements in ginning technology which facilitated the easy separation of
the fibers from the seeds; the availability of inexpensive land with soil and
climate conducive to the growth of cotton; and strong legal and political
institutions securing the maintenance of an enslaved labor force. By 1801, the
annual production of cotton had increased to 48 million pounds, in 1860, it
stood at a phenomenal 1,650 million pounds. As early as the 1830s the United
States produced more cotton than all other countries combined, and the
value of cotton exports exceeded the value of all other American exports put
Until the late eighteenth century's improvements in ginning technology, the
only cotton to be grown with any considerable profitability in the United
States was the long-staple variety raised on the Sea Islands off the coasts of
South Carolina and Georgia. Once large-scale production of upland,
short-staple cotton became feasible, the center of cotton production moved
to the Piedmont of the Carolinas and Georgia, and from there to the black
prairies of central Alabama and Mississippi and to the alluvial lands of the
Mississippi River in Mississippi and Louisiana. The relative importance of South
Carolina cotton declined somewhat over the course of the nineteenth
century, leaving Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana as the four major
cotton-producing states. On the eve of the Civil War, those four states
combined to raise more than half of the world's cotton. Large amounts of
cotton were picked in Texas, Arkansas, and Tennessee as well.
Large-scale cultivation of cotton using slave labor was extremely profitable for
its main beneficiaries, the owners of big plantations. Before the Civil War,
most of the really wealthy men in America were southerners, and most of
those were cotton planters. Although most farms in the South were small to
medium farms whose owners had few or no slaves, the great concentration of
land and slaves among the big planters combined with their elevated social
status and influence on local and regional politics to make them the prime
movers in southern society, especially in the primary areas of the Cotton Belt.
In the antebellum era, most white men who sought to participate in the
agricultural economy wanted to own their own farm rather than work for
someone else, in part because the rapid population growth of the United
States ensured an unearned increment derived from increasing land prices.
Thus, in the North, farm labor was scarce, and few farmers owned farms much
larger than what could be cultivated by one family (in fact, farmers commonly
owned more land than they were able to farm). In the slave states, on the
other hand, planters with adequate financial resources could acquire
tremendous numbers of unfree laborers and thus also cultivate very large
tracts of land. The long cotton boom greatly enhanced the demand for slaves,
and by the 1850s, slaves made up about 50 percent of the population of the
four main cotton states. Slaves, not land, livestock, or machinery, was the
most important asset in cotton agriculture. Due to the great demand and the
ban on importation of slaves, the price of slaves rose steadily until the Civil
War. This meant that even slaveowners outside the cotton areas could
benefit from the cotton boom by selling their slaves further south and west.
In this way, cotton culture contributed greatly to the southern elite's
commitment to slavery.
Wealthy planters had the financial security to maximize their profits by
planting a large percentage of their land in cotton, the crop which offered the
highest monetary returns in the long term. Small farmers, on the other hand,
had to consider that people and animals on their farms had to eat regardless
of the short-term yield and price of cotton. Although both farmers and
planters generally grew a combination of cotton and corn, marginal farmers
without slaves usually planted a much larger proportion of corn and other food
crops, decreasing their long-term profitability in order to minimize short-term
risk. This worked to ensure the persistence of very substantial differences
between rich and poor in the South, even if we disregard the half of the
population that was enslaved. This class divide contrasted sharply with the
rural North, which was in many ways remarkably egalitarian in the antebellum
period. Nevertheless, most ordinary white southerners were supportive of the
system, as slaveownership was widespread enough for them to imagine
owning slaves one day, and they were often bound to great planters through
kinship, patron-client relationships, or political connections. White southerners
were also inheritors of a cracker culture, more leisurely and less eager to "get
ahead" than the enterprising Yankees to the North. The centrality of slave
labor in the Cotton South further denigrated the status of work.
The cotton economy based on slave labor prospered until the Civil War, as
British demand continued to rise and as more land and more workers were
used in cotton production (increases in productivity per acre or per worker
were rare in this era, except that the lands of the Southwest were more
fertile than the Southeast). Meanwhile, the emphasis on cotton and slavery
constrained innovation, industrialization, urbanization, educational progress,
and immigration to the South, with dire consequences for the regional
economy once the slaves were emancipated and cotton demand stagnated.
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