Themes in American History: Capitalism, Slavery, Democracy

The Cotton Revolution

In the American Yawp textbook, chapter 11 sheds light on one of the most influential revolutions in the south. The introduction to cotton revolutionized the global economy all together. The new version, Petit Gulf cotton, “slid through the gin…and grew tightly, producing more usable cotton than anyone had imagined to that” (Wegman). The South continued their more “traditional” practices like slavery and agricultural lifestyle because of the implementation of cotton. Of course, it was no surprise that when it started in Mississippi in 1820, merchants, planters and even botanists developed their own cotton as well to produce an abundance of profit from their plantations. According to the chapter, by the end of the 1830s technological advances made cotton “the primary crop” not only of the southwestern states but of the entire nation” (Wegman). By that time, “the five main cotton-producing states-South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, produced more than five hundred million pounds of Petit Gulf for a global market stretching from New Orleans to New York and to London, Liverpool, Paris and beyond” (Wegman). Their range was endless, and the economy was undeniably booming. Behind all that success and triumph, resided the agonizing truth of how the South maintained their “cotton kingdom”. Without slavery there would be no cotton, no capital. They were dependent of using slaves to produce massive amounts of Petit Gulf every day. Slavery was “seen as the backbone of southern society and culture” (Wegman). Cotton and slavery were so intertwined in the south that any idea of change could implode their entire economy, also being that cotton was the only major product that they could sell internationally.

While reading this chapter, I questioned the very sanity of the people in the south. How could they allow the foundation of their whole state rely on using enslaved people to do their dirty work. It’s no wonder that the Cotton Revolution, a time of capitalism, lead to competition. A product like that made every planter want to be the best and would often get into massive amounts of debt because they were actively working against everyone else. Wealth has a tricky way of manipulating people into getting more of it, making people capable of unspeakable deeds. Owners would do anything to make more cotton and enslaved people was the only thing they needed. Resistance would only cause them unimaginable pain. To them, the slaves weren’t people, they were just tools or a means to an end. Never once did they stop to question their cruelty.

One thought on “The Cotton Revolution”

  1. In the future, I’d like you to write your posts on one of the non-textbook readings on the syllabus (so this week’s would have been Hannah-Jones/Wood, Glymph, or Rockman). Since you chose to write about the American Yawp textbook this time, you did a fine job spelling out the economic importance of cotton in the antebellum period, and persuasively connect it to both slavery and capitalism.

    However, these connections, especially re: capitalism, need to be historicized. Southern planters may have believed that “without slavery, there would be no cotton,” but northern entrepreneurs and British manufacturers were already looking into growing cotton with “free labor” by the 1850s (and in the event, the South continued to produce cotton well after the end of slavery in 1865). There are a number of debates about the relationship between slavery and capitalism, but one of them is over what was really driving the increases in cotton production in the period: the systematic whipping and torture of enslaved workers, or the creation of new, more efficient strains like Petit Gulf. If you are writing about this topic for your paper, it would be great to see you engage with some of this literature.

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