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above: detail of Eli Whitney’s original patent for the cotton gin, March 14, 1794 (Records of the Patent and Trademark Office, National Archives)

Sins of Omission

The Machines of Enslavement

The historically ignorant and leftist-driven “1619 Project” of The New York Times posits a grand design to enslave blacks in the American Colonies and to perpetuate the institution by revolting against British rule and establishing the American Republic. That slavery in the colonies was the result of the genetic constraints imposed by malaria rather than a grand design was a subject I discussed in “Slavery’s Ironic Twist of Fate” (Chronicles, November 2020). It’s also clear that the perpetuation of slavery in the new nation was an unintended consequence of the invention of the cotton gin and the planting of a new variety of cotton.

The principal crop of the colonial South was tobacco, although in South Carolina it was rivalled by rice. In the early decades of colonial settlement, tobacco cultivation was highly profitable. Pipe smoking became all the rage in Europe and fertile land in Virginia’s Tidewater was one of many areas to be cleared of trees and native plants in order to grow tobacco.

Tobacco cultivation was nothing new in the region. American Indians had been growing and smoking tobacco for generations by the time the first whites arrived. Reports of Indians smoking tobacco pipes began with the voyages of Columbus, but the practice didn’t gain popularity in England until Walter Raleigh returned from a New World voyage in 1586. He brought with him a handful of colonists from the struggling settlement of Roanoke—the rest of the colonists would mysteriously disappear—as well as maize, potatoes, and tobacco.

Raleigh and the Roanoke colonists demonstrated pipe smoking in the English royal court, and soon English aristocrats were taking up the practice and unknowingly becoming addicted to nicotine. Even Queen Elizabeth began smoking. At the time, smoking was promoted as a treatment for tapeworms, tetanus, bad breath, and other common maladies, and as a prophylactic for various diseases, including cancer. The general populace aped the royals and other aristocrats and the practice spread throughout Britain and Ireland and then across continental Europe.

When James I came to power in 1603, he put an import duty on tobacco and tried to discourage smoking, calling it “lithesome to the eye, hateful to the nose, harmful to the brain, dangerous to the lungs, and in the black and stinking fume thereof, nearest resembling the horrible stygian smoke of the pit that is bottomless.” The Catholic Church thought smoking sinful and prohibited it from holy places.

Despite the actions of the king and the church, smokers were undeterred and the practice continued to grow as well as the demand for tobacco. John Rolfe became famous not only for his affair with Pocahontas but also for pioneering tobacco farming in Virginia. Until the settlement of Jamestown, most tobacco came from Spanish possessions in the Caribbean and South America. The most popular tobacco came from Trinidad; the variety grown by Indians in Virginia was harsh and bitter by comparison. Although Spain prohibited the selling of Trinidadian tobacco seeds to non-Spaniards, Rolfe somehow obtained a bag of seed and by 1614 sent four barrels of what he called his Orinoco tobacco to England. It was a huge success and tobacco farms sprung up all along the James River. 

The rush for brown gold was on. By 1640 more than 3 million pounds of tobacco were being shipped annually to England, an export trade that increased more than eightfold to 25 million pounds by 1680.

By the middle of the 17th century, tobacco had also become popular in the form of snuff, again a practice made fashionable by aristocrats. During the Great Plague of London in 1665-66 the use of snuff rose dramatically, since it was thought to prevent contracting the plague. In the American colonies chewing tobacco became more popular than snorting snuff. By the middle of the 18th century cigar smoking started to gain popularity. At first cigars were produced only on the islands of the Caribbean, but eventually they became an American product as well.

Tobacco was the cash crop that created great wealth for the Southern colonies during the 17th and 18th centuries. However, it became ever more subject to worldwide competition and great fluctuations in market price. Moreover, tobacco was very hard on the soil, drawing out nutrients, especially nitrogen, and leaving it infertile. After three or four years, tobacco fields were simply abandoned. This led to erosion and the sedimentation of rivers.

All this meant that by the time of the American Revolution, the thriving tobacco culture of the Southern colonies was declining sharply. Profit margins were narrow and many of the old plantations were in debt. Slaves were becoming a liability—no matter the price of tobacco, slaves still had to be housed, clothed, and fed.

It was clear to many slaveholders that the “peculiar institution” was on the way out. If not for the introduction of a new cash crop, slavery would have been crushed to death by mounting debt. Then a combination of events conspired to breathe new life into the moribund practice.

When most Americans think of the Old South, they think of cotton plantations, but those developed well after the American Revolution. Cotton was grown only on the sea islands of Georgia because the variety of cotton then cultivated was long-staple or black-seed cotton, which was highly sensitive to frost and required a long growing season. Bathed in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream, only the sea islands provided the climatic conditions needed for long-staple cotton.

The variety of cotton that made the crop king in the South—and resuscitated slavery—was short-staple cotton. Short-staple or upland cotton could be grown in areas that experienced frosts and freezes, and required a much shorter growing season than long-staple. However, removing short-staple seeds from their tight mesh of cotton fiber was a labor-intensive and time-consuming process that rendered the crop commercially unviable. A machine to separate the seeds from the fiber was invented in 1742 by a Louisiana planter, Claude Joseph DuBreuil, but it had limited success.

Then in 1793, Massachusetts-born and Yale-educated inventor Eli Whitney visited Gen. Nathanael Greene’s plantation near Savannah, Georgia. The Revolutionary War hero Greene had died 10 years earlier but his family still resided there. The manager of the plantation, Phineas Miller, explained to Whitney the difficulty they had separating the fiber from the seeds of short-staple cotton. Whitney put his Yankee ingenuity to work and developed a cotton engine—or ’gin for short—that could do the job efficiently and cheaply. Whitney received a patent for the cotton gin in 1794 and he and Miller formed a cotton gin manufacturing company.

Cotton now began to be planted throughout the South. From less than 200,000 pounds of cotton produced in 1790, production rose to nearly 2 million pounds in 1800. By 1820, production had soared to 160 million pounds; 320 million by 1830; a billion by 1850; and nearly 2.5 billion pounds by 1860. Cotton was king.

The most productive cotton plantations were in lands that hadn’t been robbed of their nutrients, which lay to the west of the old tobacco region. From western Georgia through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and into Texas, the Cotton Belt developed. 

Growing apace with the great expansion of cotton was the great expansion of the plantation workforce of slaves. In 1790, there were slightly less than 700,000 slaves in the United States. In 1860, there were nearly 4 million. Since the importation of slaves became illegal in 1808, slaves thereafter came from domestic sources, mostly worn-out tobacco plantations.

In 1857 a committee of the South Carolina legislature, tasked with investigating the domestic slave trade, estimated that from 1840 to 1850 more than 200,000 slaves were exported from the Southeast to the Southwest, a region later termed “the Deep South.” A good field hand sold for about $800 (roughly $80,000 today) in the Southeast, but double or more that amount in the Southwest.

Most slaveholders in the old tobacco regions detested the domestic slave trade and considered slave traders despicable. Yet when faced with failing plantations and mounting debts, the tobacco planters often sold their surplus slaves “down river.” On the other hand, many planters who were financially well-fixed began manumitting their slaves. The famous Virginia aristocrat and political leader, John Randolph of Roanoke, freed his 400 slaves in his will saying, “I give and bequeath to all my slaves their freedom, heartily regretting I have ever been the owner of one.” He also provided money and land for their resettlement in Ohio.

By 1860 there were a half million free blacks, half of them residing in the South and half in the North. Some 3,000 of the free blacks in the South were slaveholders themselves, holding more than 20,000 of their fellow blacks in bondage.

While the cotton economy enriched the owners of the large plantations and insured that millions of blacks would live as slaves, it didn’t do much for most Southern whites, who saw the most fertile bottom lands owned by a small number of powerful families. Depending on the era, only 25 percent or so of Southern whites owned slaves or belonged to a family who did.  Moreover, of the 350,000 slave-holding families in 1860, only 32,000 owned 10 or more slaves, and only 8,000 owned 50 or more. We hear a lot about the upper one percent today. Of the white population of the South these elite plantation families were the upper half-a-percent.

The establishment and development of slavery in the American colonies and its later expansion in the new nation of the United States had nothing to do with some kind of grand design by conspiring whites, as the “1619 Project” would have it. Instead, it was the consequence first of malaria, a disease that ravaged whites and not blacks, and then of an entirely unanticipated boom in a new cash crop, made possible only by a Yankee’s invention, and through pure happenstance.   

Roger D. McGrath

Roger D. McGrath

Corresponding editor Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes. A U.S. Marine veteran and former history professor at UCLA, he has appeared on numerous documentaries, including "The Real West," "Biography," "Tales of the Gun," "Cowboys & Outlaws," and "Wild West Tech."

 

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