Digital History

The Pre-Civil War South

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Digital History ID 3556



In the early 1790s, slavery appeared to be a dying institution. Slave imports into the New World were declining and slave prices were falling because the crops grown by slaves--tobacco, rice, and indigo--did not generate enough income to pay for their upkeep.

In Maryland and Virginia, planters were replacing tobacco, a labor-intensive crop that needed a slave labor force, with wheat and corn, which did not. At the same time, leading Southerners, including Thomas Jefferson, denounced slavery as a source of debt, economic stagnation, and moral dissipation. A French traveler reported that people throughout the South “are constantly talking of abolishing slavery, of contriving some other means of cultivating their estates.”

Then Eli Whitney of Massachusetts gave slavery a new lease on life. In 1792, just after graduating from Yale, Whitney traveled south in search of employment as a tutor. His journey was filled with disasters. During the boat trip, he became seasick. Before he could recover, his boat ran aground on rocks near New York City. Then he contracted smallpox. The only good thing to happen during his journey was that he was befriended by a charming southern widow named Catharine Greene, whose late husband, General Nathanael Greene, had been a leading general during the American Revolution. When he arrived in the South, Whitney discovered that his promised salary as a tutor had been cut in half. So he quit the job and accepted Greene’s invitation to visit her plantation near Savannah, Georgia.

During his visit, Whitney became intrigued with the problem encountered by southern planters in producing short-staple cotton. The booming textile industry had created a high demand for the crop, but it could not be marketed until the seeds had been extracted from the cotton boll, a laborious and time-consuming process.

From a slave known only by the name Sam, Whitney learned that a comb could be used to remove seeds from cotton. In just ten days, Whitney devised a way of mechanizing the comb. Within a month, Whitney’s cotton engine (gin for short) could separate fiber from seeds faster than 50 people working by hand.

Whitney’s invention revitalized slavery in the South by stimulating demand for slaves to raise short-staple cotton. Between 1792, when Whitney arrived on the Greene plantation, and 1794, the price of slaves doubled. By 1825 field hands, who brought $500 apiece in 1794, were worth $1,500. As the price of slaves rose, so too did the number of slaves. During the first decade of the 19th century, the number of slaves in the United States increased by 33 percent; during the following decade (after the African slave trade became illegal), the slave population grew another 29 percent.

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