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 Extended  American agricultural history bibliography
 Extended  European agricultural history bibliography
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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 together.

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.

Knut Oyangen


Bruchey, Stuart, ed. Cotton and the Growth of the American Economy, 1790 - 1860. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1967.

Fogel, Robert, and Stanley Engerman.
Time on the Cross. The Economics of American Negro Slavery, 2 vols. Boston: Little-Brown, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene.
The Political Economy of Slavery. Studies in the Economy and Society of the Slave South. New York: Pantheon, 1965.

Parker, William, ed.
The Structure of the Cotton Econony of the Antebellum South. Washington, D. C.: The Agricultural History Society, 1970.

Wright, Gavin.
The Political Economy of the Cotton South. Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978.

Further reading

Atack, Jeremy and Fred Bateman. To Their Own Soil. Agriculture in the Antebellum North. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1987.

Cochrane, Willard.
The Development of American Agriculture. A Historical Analysis, 2nd ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993.

Engerman, Stanley. "A Reconsideration of Southern Economic Growth, 1770 - 1860,"
Agricultural History 1975 49 (2): 343 - 361.

Fogel, Robert.
The Slavery Debates, 1952 - 1990. A Retrospective. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2003.

Genovese, Eugene.
Roll, Jordan, Roll. The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon, 1974.

Genovese, Eugene.
The World the Slaveholders Made. Two Essays in Interpretation. New York: Pantheon, 1969.

Lee, Susan.
The Westward Movement of the Cotton Economy, 1840 - 1860. Perceived Interests and Economic Realities. New York: Arno Press, 1977.

North, Douglass.
The Economic Growth of the United States, 1790 - 1860. Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Prentice Hall, 1961.

Owens, Harry.
Steamboats and the Cotton Economy. River Trade in the Yazoo-Mississippi Delta. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Stampp, Kenneth.
The Peculiar Institution. Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South. New York: Knopf, 1956.

Wright, Gavin.
Old South, New South. Revolutions in the Southern Economy since the Civil War. New York: Basic Books, 1986.