If you look at the tag of the shirt you’re wearing, you will probably find that at least a portion of it is made of cotton. Cotton is everywhere! It’s in our shirts, in our pants, in curtains, in blankets, and so many other things that many of us don’t even realize. But even though that cotton on your back was meant to keep you comfortable, the historical reality of the United States is that the cotton industry was built on the backs of Black folks. A lot of cotton is grown in the hot and humid climate of the southern United States. And a lot of this country’s wealth was built on the cotton trade.
But it’s easy to forget that part of the reason cotton was so lucrative in early America, was because it was harvested with the labor of enslaved people. And even though the dirty work of the cotton industry took place mainly in the southern states, many white people in the Northern United States gained their fortunes through the exploitation of enslaved workers in the South. The reason that cotton became such a central economic pillar was not just because of what was happening in the United States, but because of an entire global financial network that, whether they sanctioned the use of slavery themselves or not, incentivized the use of enslaved labor to satisfy the enormous international demand for cotton.
It’s time we learn about how cotton became king in the United States. Let’s start the show. INTRO By the time of the Civil War, the United States was WEAL-THY. I’m talking Scrooge McDuck swimming in golden coins rich. It had become one of the major slave trading capitals of the world and a major exporter of cotton. According to scholar Henry Louis Gates, cotton was the first mass consumer commodity – which is just a fancy way of saying that everyone in the world wanted it. They wanted it for their clothes, for their blankets, for their rugs, for their socks. Demand across the globe was exploding. The cotton industry was so powerful, that it not only grew the US economy, but many economies in Europe as well.
But most nations just couldn’t compete with the United States’ production level. According to historian Edward Baptist, “the North American interior…had thousands of acres of possible cotton fields, thousands for each one in the Caribbean.” In order to develop all of this land, there was a greater need for laborers to work the cotton plantations of the South and Mid-Atlantic United States. And as had become standard practice in the US in the 18th and 19th centuries, the plan was for most of those laborers to be enslaved Black people. Enslaved labor and cotton went hand in hand to produce profit. And the work, was more than backbreaking. It was torture. Charles Ball, a Black man and author who escaped slavery, wrote that the brutality of the cotton industry was enough to make an individual contemplate taking their own life. He said in his 1837 autobiography, Slavery in the United States,
“Surely if any thing can justify a man in taking his life into his own hands, and terminating his existence, no one can attach blame to the slaves on many of the cotton plantations of the south, when they cut short their breath, and the agonies of the present being, by a single stroke. What is life worth, amidst hunger, nakedness and excessive toil, under the continually uplifted lash?” It really doesn’t get more clear than that. In 1793, the cotton gin transformed the cotton industry, the global economy, and, in horrific ways, the lives of enslaved people.
The cotton gin, significantly ramped up cotton production in the United States, especially in South Carolina and Georgia. Let’s check that out in the Thought Bubble: Before 1793, separating the sticky seeds from cotton was a laborious task. Then, the mechanical cotton gin, invented by Eli Whitney, made the process much faster and easier than it had ever been. What would happen is that the cotton would be threaded through a wooden drum filled with hooks that caught hold of the fibers and pulled them through a mesh. The holes in the mesh were too small to allow the seeds through, but the cotton fibers themselves were /easily/ pulled through. While some larger gins would later be powered by horses and even steam engines, Whitney used a smaller version. “Whitney’s hand-cranked machine could remove the seeds from 50 pounds of cotton in a single day.”
This meant planters needed a way to grow and pick more cotton to keep up with the new, accelerated pace of processing. And at the same time, market conditions in Europe meant cotton was more desirable than ever. What this meant was that planters needed even more labor from even more enslaved workers than they did before. Demand for other industrial cotton machinery grew as well– like new machines for spinning cotton or steamboats to transport massive bales of it. This drastically changed the American economic landscape. By the 1850s, cotton provided three-fifths of American exports. And the yield of raw cotton doubled every decade after 1800. By some estimates, the United States supplied three-quarters of the global cotton supply by the start of the Civil War. If cotton wasn’t king before, it certainly was now. Thanks Thought Bubble. The economic impact of the cotton industry on the United States
–and the enslaved people whose labor sustained it
— is clear. Historian Edward Baptist writes: “All told, more than $600 million, or almost half of the economic activity in the United States in 1836, derived directly or indirectly from cotton produced by the million-odd slaves — 6 percent of the total U.S. population — who in that year toiled in labor camps on slavery’s frontier.” And it wasn’t just the United States, it was the world. /Most/ of the western world’s economies benefited from the cotton industry. Historian Gene Dattel
(DAH-tuhl) argues that cotton produced by enslaved people “was the driving force for territorial expansion in the Old Southwest and fostered trade between Europe and the United States.” Major northern cities like New York City needed raw cotton for their own industries. New England was also seriously dependent on raw cotton for the textile revolution. New England mills consumed 283.7 million pounds of cotton, or 67 percent of the cotton used by U.S. mills in 1860. So any notion that the North wasn’t intimately involved in slavery is something that we should immediately toss out the window. Abroad, countries like Britain and France also depended on raw cotton.
According to Gene Dattel, “Britain, the most powerful nation in the world, relied on slave-produced American cotton for over /80 per cent/ of its essential industrial raw material. English textile mills accounted for 40 percent of Britain’s exports. One-fifth of Britain’s twenty-two million people were directly or indirectly involved with cotton textiles.” And it didn’t stop there. One of the main causes of the Civil War was cotton (and the status of the enslaved laborers who produced that cotton). Southern slaveholders were so financially attached to the cotton industry, that they were willing to go to war over it. At the end of the war, cotton was one of the bargaining tools that the South used to assure that they would still have a place, and political power, in the Union. The US economy, still relied on cotton. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. We’ll get to the Civil War soon. Let’s do some deeper thinking about the economic implications of slavery.
In 1860, in large part tied to the explosion of the cotton industry, the four million enslaved people in the United States were worth more than all the railroads and factories in the nation, combined. Those enslaved workers were worth more than all of the manufacturing in the United States. So Black people’s labor has played an enormous role in America’s ascent as a global economic superpower, but the enslaved people themselves didn’t get to reap any of the benefits of the economic explosion they created. The vast majority of Black folks were not allowed to own any property and if they did, it could be seized from them, without them being able to do much about it. Even when slavery was abolished, the sharecropping system in the South worked similarly – plunging Black Americans and their families into devastating debt while they owned nothing of their own.
The implications of this are profound. Let’s step back and consider that integenerational chattel slavery in United States, in which Black people rarely owned their own land, lasted for 250 years before ending, technically at least, in 1865. Let’s then consider that sharecropping, in which enormous numbers of Black people continued to not own their lands, lasted well into the 1950s (and arguably later). This directly impacts generational wealth in the United States. If your family was able to accrue income, equity, and mobility by owning land that produced cotton (or any other crop for that matter) and pass it down across generations, it would quite naturally leave your descendents in a more economically secure position than those who came before them.
But Black folks, despite working the land, cultivating the land, and picking the cotton and crops that grew on the land, for the most part, didn’t have the opportunity to reap the financial benefits of the land. This left many Black families, well after slavery ended and into the 20th century, with little if anything to pass down to their children, something that shapes the sort of opportunities that their descendants would or would not have. And this gap between white and Black people is compounded decade after decade after decade, until it’s no longer a gap in wealth, it’s a gulf.
Cotton was the United States’ biggest export for more than a century. That’s more than 100 years of wealth creation and industry that Black Americans not only carried on their backs, but were designated to never profit from. I mean, calling it a head start for white people doesn’t even accurately capture it. It wasn’t just a head start, it was like you started running while the person you’re racing against had chains on their feet and death threats in their ears. So, when we talk about creating a more equitable nation, part of what we have to think about is how to account for and make amends for what was done to people, and what was kept from people, for generations.
How can we compensate those who we purposefully left behind? Thanks for watching. Crash Course is made with the help of all these nice people and our animation team is Thought Cafe. Crash Course is a Complexly production. If you’d like to keep Crash Course free for everybody, forever, you can support the series at Patreon; a crowdfunding platform that allows you to support the content you love. Thank you to all of our patrons for making Crash Course possible with their continued support.