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The Cotton Kingdom


  • During the first half of the nineteenth century, demand for cotton led to the expansion of plantation slavery.
  • By 1850, enslaved people were growing cotton from South Carolina to Texas.

The Cotton Kingdom

During the early nineteenth century, as the Market Revolution transformed the American economy of the North and West, the South was undergoing a different transformation.
For nearly two centuries, southern plantations had focused on producing tobacco, rice, and sugar for national and international markets. Tobacco quickly exhausted the soil, as did cotton, which was so time-consuming to process that it was hardly profitable as a cash crop. In the late 1700s, when enthusiasm for liberty was high and profits from slavery were low, some observers predicted that the institution would soon die out altogether in the United States.
But in 1850, contrary to those predictions, slavery was very much alive and well—in fact, there were more enslaved people living in the United States than ever before, and the cotton they produced accounted for more than half the value of US exports. Instead of following the path toward extinction, the institution of slavery thrived and expanded in the first half of the nineteenth century.
What changed?

An insatiable hunger for cotton

First, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793. The gin transformed cotton into a profitable crop by reducing its processing time and making large-scale cultivation possible.
Model of a nineteenth-century cotton gin. Image credit: Eli Whitney Museum
At the same time, the first Industrial Revolution centered on the creation of cotton fabric in water-powered mills. The textile mills of New England and Great Britain demanded cotton, and the American South supplied it. By 1820, the United States was more than growing 30 times as much cotton as it had when Whitney invented the gin, making it the world’s leading supplier.
The mills’ insatiable hunger for cotton kept prices high, so that white southern farmers demanded ever more land, and ever more enslaved people, to grow it.

Cotton and westward expansion

In the Deep South, where the rich soil was ideal for growing cotton, westward expansion meant more acres to cultivate “white gold.” As the United States acquired western lands through the Louisiana Purchase and later the Mexican Cession, the “pioneer” on the southern frontier was not a lone white farmer breaking the wilderness but rather an enslaved African American working in a gang-labor system.
Consequently, by 1850, the states of the Deep South had become a “cotton kingdom,” a vast expanse of cotton plantations that extended from the South Carolina lowcountry to East Texas. The Deep South was unique in its single-minded focus on agriculture; there was little industrial activity and its only noteworthy cities (New Orleans and Charleston) were ports focused on shipping cotton to international markets. While urbanization and industrialization transformed the North over the first half of the nineteenth century, the South in 1850 was much the same as in 1800—only a lot larger.
Map of the "Cotton Kingdom," created by Frederick Law Olmstead in 1862. Image credit: Cornell University Library
But if the South was “peculiar” among US regions in its devotion to slavery and agriculture, its product was not. Cotton was the backbone of the US economy in the nineteenth century: northern textile mills spun it into cloth for sale, southern planters sold it to Europe and purchased manufactured goods in turn, and New York speculators loaned money for the purchase of land and slaves.
Little wonder that Senator James Henry Hammond declared that the “whole civilized world” would topple if the South ceased to supply cotton. “Cotton,” he declared, “is king.”

Jak uważasz?

Why did slavery expand in the nineteenth century instead of dying out, as some Americans had predicted after the Revolution?
How did the South's focus on cotton cultivation separate it from the North? How did cotton unite the two regions?

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