King Cotton

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Michael Baker
HIS 131-07
The Cotton Revolution in America:
We often view the twentieth century as the era of the most progressive time for technology, but often what are not often thought of are the astonishing advances of the century prior. The inventions of the nineteenth century seemed to bring the world out of the Dark Ages. With all the amazing advances in science and technology, it trumped any time before hand. Between the railroad, the telegraph, electric lighting, the photograph and the steam boat, the advances of this century were phenomenal. But it seemed that simplest inventions of this time had the most profound effect on American Society ever. These were Eli Whitneys inventions of the cotton gin and interchangeable parts. Eli Whitney was considered “the father of American technology”. While these machines are pretty simplistic in nature, they ignited an extreme flux in slaves and helped fuel the American Civil War. Eli Whitney was a pioneer of his time. Whitney was born in Westboro, Massachusetts in 1765. Growing up, he was very innovative and built a nail forge at a young age. Whitney graduated from Yale in 1792. Shortly after, he met a recently widowed Catherine Greene. She invited Whitney to come live with her on her plantation in Georgia. There, Greene and her fiancée Phineas Miller challenged Whitney to build a machine to clean the seeds out of short-stapled cotton. He invented the cotton gin that winter. This invention sparked an era that led to a huge demand for slaves in America. Before Whitneys invention of the cotton gin, seeding through cotton was a pain-staking process that was quite labor intensive. It seems the cotton gin fell perfectly into place. Whitney and Miller went into partnership together trying to set up cotton gins all over the South. Instead of producing gins and selling them, they wanted to set them up and process the cotton for the plantation owners at the cost of two-fifth of the cotton produced. Whitneys cotton gin was almost immediately duplicated and they had had a very hard time getting it patented. By the time Whitney was finally awarded a patent, it was too late and cotton gins had sprouted up all over the South. They had an extremely hard time turning a profit for this invention. Whitney once said “An invention can be so valuable to be worthless to the inventor”. Whitney could not have guessed the large impact his invention had on American society. The most significant of these was the exponential growth in slavery. This single invention prolonged slavery another half a century. Before the cotton gin was invented, it looked as if slavery was going to die out. The price of buying, housing and feeding slaves was overweighing the worth of the labor they could get. The falling demand of tobacco was not creating enough funds to pay for slaves and the indigo grown along the Southern coast was losing value from the cheaper East Indies indigo. But once the cotton gin was introduced across the South, the need for slaves rose exponentially. This really revitalized slavery. The number of slaves rose from 700,000 in 1790 to 3.2 million in 1850. This made one in every three Southern a slave. Before the cotton gin, there were only six slave states. By the Civil War, there were fifteen. A single cotton gin could produce up to fifty-five pounds of cleaned cotton a day whereas before it required one man a days’ work to clean a single pound. With this fluffy, white gold being able to be processed at such a fast pace, plantation owners became land hungry almost overnight. Since they could buy such a large workforce, they needed more land to plant cotton. Plantations exploded in size within years. Instead of having just a few acres of crops, plantations were growing hundreds and hundreds of acres of cotton. The amount of cotton produced in the south doubled each decade after 1800. Within just years, cotton had flourished and the Southern states had a new number one cash crop never seen...
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