The Reign of King Cotton

In 1861, the grandson of President John Quincy Adams (and great-granson of President John Adams) argued that the nature of the cotton trade itself contained the seeds of slavery's demise

To every age and to all nations belong their peculiar maxims and political or religious cries, which, if collected by some ingenious philosopher, would make a striking compendium of universal history. Sometimes a curious outward similarity exists between these condensed national sentences of peoples dissimilar in every other respect. Thus, to-day is heard in the senescent East the oft-repeated formula of the Mussulman's faith, "There is no God but Allah, and Mahomet is his Prophet," while in the youthful West a new cry, as fully believed, not less devout, and scarcely less often repeated, arises from one great and influential portion of the political and social thinkers of this country, — the cry that "There is no King but Cotton, and the African is its High-Priest." According to the creed of philosophy, philanthropy, and economy in vogue among the sect whose views take utterance in this formula, King Cotton has now reigned supreme over the temporal affairs of the princes, potentates, and people of this earth for some thirty years. Consequently, it is fair to presume that its reign has fully developed its policy and tendencies and is producing its fruit for good or evil, especially in the land of its disciples. It is well, therefore, sometimes to withdraw a little from the dust and smoke of the battle, which, with us at least, announces the spread of this potentate's power, and to try to disentangle the real questions at issue in the struggle from the eternal complications produced by short-sighted politicians and popular issues. Looking at the policy and tendency of the reign of King Cotton, as hitherto developed and indicated by its most confidential advisers and apostles and by the lapse of time in the so-called Slave States, to what end does it necessarily tend? to what results must it logically lead?

What is coarsely, but expressively, described in the political slang of this country as "The Everlasting Nigger-Question" might perhaps fairly be considered exhausted as a topic of discussion, if ever a topic was. Is it exhausted, however? Have not rather the smoke and sweat and dust of the political battle in which we have been so long and so fiercely engaged exercised a dimming influence on our eyes as to the true difficulty and its remedy, as they have on the vision of other angry combatants since the world began? It is easy to say, in days like these, that men seem at once to lose their judgment and reason when they approach this question, — to look hardly an arm's length before them,— to become mere tools of their own passions; and all this is true, and, in conceding it all, no more is conceded than that the men of the present day are also mortal. How many voters in the last election, before they went to the polls, had seriously thought out for themselves the real issue of the contest, apart from party names and platforms and popular cries and passionate appeals to the conscience and the purse? In all parties, some doubtless were impelled by fanaticism, — many were guided by instinct, — more by the voice of their leaders, — most by party catchwords and material interests, — but how many by real reflection and the exercise of reason? Was it every fifth man, or every tenth? Was it every fiftieth? Let every one judge for himself. The history of the reigning dynasty, its policy and tendency, are still open questions, the discussion of which, though perhaps become tedious, is not exhausted, and, if conducted in a fair spirit, will at least do no harm. What, then, is all this thirty years' turmoil, of which the world is growing sick, about? Are we indeed only fighting, as the party leaders at the North seem trying to persuade us, for the control, by the interests of free labor or of slave-labor, of certain remaining national territories into which probably slavery never could be made to enter? — or rather is there not some deep innate principle,—some strong motive of aggrandizement or preservation, — some real Enceladus, — the cause of this furious volcano of destructive agitation? If, indeed, the struggle be for the possession of a sterile waste in the heart of the continent, — useless either as a slave-breeding or a slave-working country, — clearly, whatever the politician might say to the contrary, the patriot and the merchant would soon apply to the struggle the principle, that sometimes the game is not worth the candle. If, however, there be an underlying principle, the case is different, and the cost of the struggle admits of no limit save the value of the motive principle. He who now pretends to discuss this question should approach it neither as a Whig, a Democrat, nor a Republican, but should look at it by the light of political philosophy and economy, forgetful of the shibboleth of party or appeals to passion. So far as may be, in this spirit it is proposed to discuss it here.

"By its fruits ye shall know it." Look, then, for a moment, at the fruits of the Cotton dynasty, as hitherto developed in the working of its policy and its natural tendency,— observe its vital essence and logical necessities, — seek for the result of its workings, when brought in contact with the vital spirits and life-currents of our original policy as a people,—and then decide whether this contest in which we are engaged is indeed an irrepressible and inextinguishable contest, or whether all this while we have not been fighting with shadows. King Cotton has now reigned for thirty years, be the same less or more. To feel sure that we know what its policy has wrought in that time, we must first seek for the conditions under which it originally began its work.

Ever since Adam and Eve were forced, on their expulsion from Paradise, to try the first experiment at self-government, their descendants have been pursuing a course of homoeopathic treatment. It was the eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge which caused all their woes; and in an increased consumption of the fruit of that tree they have persistently looked for alleviation of them. Experience seems to prove the wisdom of the treatment. The greater the consumption of the fruit, the greater the happiness of man. Knowledge has at last become the basis of all things, — of power, of social standing, of material prosperity, and, finally, in America, of government itself. Until within a century past, political philosophy in the creation of government began at the wrong end. It built from the pinnacle downward. The stability of the government depended on the apex, — the one or the few, — and not on the base, — the foundation of the many. At length, in this country, fresh from the hand of Nature, the astonished world saw a new experiment tried, — a government systematically built up from the foundation of the many, — a government drawing its being from, and dependent for its continued existence on, the will and the intelligence of the governed. The foundation had first been laid deep and strong, and on it a goodly superstructure of government was erected. Yet, even to this day, the very subjects of that government itself do not realize that they, and not the government, are the sources of national prosperity. In times of national emergency like the present,—amid clamors of secession and of coercion,— angry threats and angrier replies,—wars and rumors of wars,—what is more common than to hear sensible men — men whom the people look to as leaders—picturing forth a dire relapse into barbarism and anarchy as the necessary consequence of the threatened convulsions? They forget, if they ever realized, that the people made this government, and not the government the people. Destroy the intelligence of the people, and the government could not exist for a day; — destroy this government, and the people would create another, and yet another, of no less perfect symmetry. While the foundations are firm, there need be no fears of the superstructure, which may be renewed again and again; but touch the foundations, and the superstructure must crumble at once. Those who still insist on believing that this government made the people are fond of triumphantly pointing to the condition of the States of Mexico, as telling the history of our own future, let our present government be once interrupted in its functions. Are Mexicans Yankees? Are Spaniards Anglo-Saxons? Are Catholicism and religious freedom, the Inquisition and common schools, despotism and democracy, synonymous terms? Could a successful republic, on our model, be at once instituted in Africa on the assassination of the King of Timbuctoo? Have two centuries of education nothing to do with our success, or an eternity of ignorance with Mexican failure? Was our government a lucky guess, and theirs an unfortunate speculation? The one lesson that America is destined to teach the world, or to miss her destiny in failing to teach, has with us passed into a truism, and is yet continually lost sight of; it is the magnificent result of three thousand years of experiment: the simple truth, that no government is so firm, so truly conservative, and so wholly indestructible, as a government founded and dependent for support upon the affections and good-will of a moral, intelligent, and educated community. In our politics, we hear much of State-rights and centralization, — of distribution of power,—of checks and balances,— of constitutions and their construction,— of patronage and its distribution,— of banks, of tariffs, and of trade, — all of them subjects of moment in their sphere; but their sphere is limited. Whether they be decided one way or the other is of comparatively little consequence: for, however they are decided, if the people are educated and informed, the government will go on, and the community be prosperous, be they decided never so badly, — and if decided badly, the decision will be reversed; but let the people become ignorant and debased, and all the checks and balances and wise regulations which the ingenuity of man could in centuries devise would, at best, but for a short space defer the downfall of a republic. A well-founded republic can, then, be destroyed only by destroying its people,—its decay need be looked for only in the decay of their intelligence; and any form of thought or any institution tending to suppress education or destroy intelligence strikes at the very essence of the government, and constitutes a treason which no law can meet, and for which no punishment is adequate.

Education, then, as universally diffused as the elements of God, is the life-blood of our body politic. The intelligence of the people is the one great fact of our civilization and our prosperity, — it is the beating heart of our age and of our land. It is education alone which makes equality possible without anarchy, and liberty without license. It is this which makes the fundamental principles of our Declaration of Independence living realities in New England, while in France they still remain the rhetorical statement of glittering generalities. From this source flow all our possibilities. Without it, the equality of man is a pretty figure of speech; with it, democracy is possible. This is a path beaten by two hundred years of footprints, and while we walk it we are safe and need fear no evil; but if we diverge from it, be it for never so little, we stumble, and, unless we quickly retrace our steps, we fall and are lost. The tutelary goddess of American liberty should be the pure marble image of the Professor's Yankee school-mistress. Education is the fundamental support of our system. It was education which made us free, progressive, and conservative; and it is education alone which can keep us so.

With this fact clearly established, the next inquiry should be as to the bearing and policy of the Cotton dynasty as touching this question of general intelligence. It is a mere truism to say that the cotton - culture is the cause of the present philosophical and economical phase of the African question. Throughout the South, whether justly or not, it is considered as well settled that cotton can be profitably raised only by a forced system of labor. This theory has been denied by some writers, and, in experience, is certainly subject to some marked exceptions; but undoubtedly it is the creed of the Cotton dynasty, and must here, therefore, be taken for true.(1) With this theory, the Southern States are under a direct inducement, in the nature of a bribe, to the amount of the annual profit on their cotton-crop, to see as many perfections and as few imperfections as possible in the system of African slavery, and to follow it out unflinchingly into all its logical necessities. Thus, under the direct influence of the Cotton dynasty, the whole Southern tone on this subject has undergone a change. Slavery is no longer deplored as a necessary evil, but it is maintained as in all respects a substantial good. One of the logical necessities of a thorough slave-system is, in at least the slave-portion of the people, extreme ignorance. Whatever theoretically may be desirable in this respect among the master-class, ignorance, in its worst form,— ignorance of everything except the use of the tools with which their work is to be done,— is the necessary condition of the slaves. But it is said that slaves are property, without voice or influence in the government, and that the ignorance of the black is no obstacle to the intelligence of the white. This possibly may be true; but a government founded on ignorance, as the essential condition of one portion of its people, is not likely long to regard education as its vital source and essence. Still the assertion that the rule of education does not apply to slaves must be allowed; for we must deal with facts as we find them; and undoubtedly the slave has no rights which the master is bound to respect; and in speaking of the policy of the Cotton dynasty, the servile population must be regarded as it is, ignoring the question of what it might be; it must be taken into consideration only as a terrible inert mass of domesticated barbarism, and there left. The question here is solely with the policy and tendency of the Cotton dynasty as affecting the master-class, and the servile class is in that consideration to be summarily disposed of as so much labor owned by so much capital.

The dynasty of Cotton is based on the monopoly of the cotton-culture in the Cotton States of the Union; its whole policy is directed to the two ends of making the most of and retaining that monopoly; and economically it reduces everything to subserviency to the question of cotton-supply; — thus Cotton is King. The result necessarily is, that the Cotton States have turned all their energies to that one branch of industry. All other branches they abandon or allow to languish. They have no commerce of their own, few manufactories, fewer arts; and in their abandonment of self in their devotion to their King, they do not even raise their own hay or corn, dig their own coal, or fell their own timber; and at present, Louisiana is abandoning the sugar-culture, one of the few remaining exports of the South, to share more largely in the monopoly of cotton. Thus the community necessarily loses its fair proportions; it ceases to be self-sustaining; it exercises one faculty alone, until all the others wither and become impotent for very lack of use. This intense and all-pervading devotion to one pursuit, and that a pursuit to which the existence of a servile class is declared essential, must, in a republic more than in any other government, produce certain marked politico-philosophical and economical effects on the master-class as a whole. In a country conducted on a system of servile labor, as in one conducted on free, the master-class must be divided into the two great orders of the rich and poor, — those who have, and those who have not. That the whole policy of the Cotton dynasty tends necessarily to making broader the chasm between these orders is most apparent. It makes the rich richer, and the poor poorer; for, as, according to the creed of the dynasty, capital should own labor, and the labor thus owned can alone successfully produce cotton, he who has must be continually increasing his store, while he who has not can neither raise the one staple recognized by the Cotton dynasty, nor turn his labor, his only property, to other branches of industry; for such have, in the universal abandonment of the community to cotton, been allowed to languish and die. The economical tendency of the Cotton dynasty is therefore to divide the master-class yet more distinctly into the two great opposing orders of society. On the one hand we see the capitalist owning the labor of a thousand slaves, and on the other the laboring white unable, under the destructive influence of a profitable monopoly, to make any use of that labor which is his only property.

What influence, then, has the Cotton dynasty on that portion of the master class who are without capital? Its tendency has certainly necessarily been to make their labor of little value; but they are still citizens of a republic, free to come and go, and, in the eye of the law, equal with the highest; — on them, in times of emergency, the government must rest; their education and intelligence are its only sure foundations. But, having made this class the vast majority of the master-caste, what are the policy and tendency of the Cotton dynasty as touching them? The story is almost too old to bear even the shortest repetition. Philosophically, it is a logical necessity of the Cotton dynasty that it should be opposed to universal intelligence ; — economically, it renders universal intelligence an impossibility. That slavery is in itself a positive good to society is a fundamental doctrine of the Cotton dynasty, and a proposition not necessary to be combated here; but, unfortunately, universal intelligence renders free discussion a necessity, and experience tells us that the suppression of free discussion is necessary to the existence of slavery. We are but living history over again. The same causes have often existed before, and they have drawn after them the necessary effects. Other peoples, at other times, as well as our Southern brethren at present, have felt that the suppression of general discussion was necessary to the preservation of a prized and peculiar institution. Spain, Italy, Germany, France, the Netherlands, England, and Scotland have all, at different times, experienced the forced suppression of some one branch of political or religious thought. Their histories have recorded the effect of that suppression; and the rule to be deduced therefrom is simply this: If the people among whom such suppression is attempted are ignorant, and are kept so as part of a system, the attempt may be successful, though in its results working destruction to the community; — if, however, they are intelligent, and the system incautiously admits into itself any plan of education, the attempt at suppression will be abandoned, as the result either of policy or violence. In this respect, then, on philosophical grounds, the Cotton dynasty is not likely to favor the education of the masses. Again, it is undoubtedly the interest of the man who has not, that all possible branches of industry should be open to his labor, as rendering that labor of greater value; but the whole tendency of the Cotton monopoly is to blight all branches of industry in the Cotton States save only that one. General intelligence might lead the poor white to suspect this fact of an interest of his own antagonistic to the policy of the Cotton King, and therefore general intelligence is not part of that monarch's policy. This the philosophers of the Cotton dynasty fairly avow and class high among those dangers against which it behooves them to be on their guard. They theorize thus: — "The great mass of our poor white population begin to understand that they have rights, and that they, too, are entitled to some of the sympathy which falls upon the suffering. They are fast learning that there is an almost infinite world of industry opening before them, by which they can elevate themselves and their families from wretchedness and ignorance to competence and intelligence. It is this great upheaving of our masses which we have to fear, so far as our institutions are concerned." (2)

Further, the policy of the Cotton King, however honestly in theory it may wish to encourage it, renders general education and consequent intelligence an impossibility. A system of universal education is made for a laboring population, and can be sustained only among a laboring population; but if that population consist of slaves, universal education cannot exist. The reason is simple; for the children of all must be educated, otherwise the scholars will not support the schools. It is an absolute necessity of society that in agricultural districts cultivated by slave-labor the free population should be too sparsely scattered to support a system of schools, even on starvation wages for the cheapest class of teachers.

Finally, though it is a subject not necessary now to discuss, the effect of the Cotton monopoly and dynasty in depressing the majority of the whites into a species of labor competition in the same branch of industry as the blacks, because the only branch open to all, can hardly have a self-respect-inspiring influence on that portion of the community, but should in its results rather illustrate old Falstaff's remark,—that "there is a thing often heard of, and it is known to many in our land, by the name of pitch ; this pitch, as ancient writers do report, doth defile: so doth the company thou keepest."

Such, reason tells us, should be the effect on the intelligence and education of the free masses of the South of the policy and dynasty of King Cotton. That experience in this case verifies the conclusions of reason who can doubt who has ever set foot in a thorough Slave State, —or in Kansas, or in any Free State half-peopled by the poor whites of the South ?— or who can doubt it, that has ever even talked on the subject with an intelligent and fair-minded Southern gentleman? Who that knows them will deny that the poor whites of the South make the worst population in the country? Who ever heard a Southern gentleman speak of them, save in Congress or on the hustings, otherwise than with aversion and contempt? (3)

Here, then, we come at once to the foundation of a policy and the cause of this struggle. Whether it will or no, it is the inevitable tendency of the Cotton dynasty to be opposed to general intelligence. It is opposed to that, then, without which a republic cannot hope to exist; it is opposed to and denies the whole results of two thousand years of experience. The social system of which the government of to-day is the creature is founded on the principle of a generally diffused intelligence of the people; but if now Cotton be King, as is so boldly asserted, then an influence has obtained control of the government of which the whole policy is in direct antagonism with the very elementary ideas of that government. History tells us that eight bags of cotton imported into England in 1784 were seized by the custom-house officers at Liverpool, on the ground that so much cotton could not have been produced in these States. In 1860, the cotton-crop was estimated at 3,851,481 bales. Thus King Cotton was born with this government, and has strengthened with its strength; and today, almost the creature of destiny, sent to work the failure of our experiment as a people, it has led almost one-half of the Republic to completely ignore, if not to reject, the one principle absolutely essential to that Republic's continued existence. What two thousand years ago was said of Rome applies to us:—" Those abuses and corruptions which in time destroy a government are sown along with the very seeds of it and both grow up together; and as rust eats away iron, and worms devour wood, and both are a sort of plagues born and bred with the substance they destroy; so with every form and scheme of government that man can invent, some vice or corruption creeps in with the very institution, which grows up along with and at last destroys it." No wonder, then, that the conflict is irrepressible and hot; for two instinctive principles of self-preservation have met in deadly conflict: the South, with the eager loyalty of the Cavalier, rallies to the standard of King Cotton, while the North, with the earnest devotion of the Puritan, struggles hard in defence of the fundamental principles of its liberties and the ark of its salvation.

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