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

Thus the monopoly of King Cotton hangs upon a thread. Its profits must fall, or it must cease to exist. If subject to no disturbing influence, such as war, which would force the world to look elsewhere for its supply, and thus unnaturally force production elsewhere, the growth of this competition will probably be slow. Another War of 1812, or any long-continued civil convulsions, would force England to look to other sources of supply, and, thus forcing production, would probably be the death-blow of the monopoly. Apart from all disturbing influences arising from the rashness of his own lieges, or other causes, the reign of King Cotton at present prices may be expected to continue some ten years longer. For so long, then, this disturbing influence may be looked for in American politics; and then we may hope that this tremendous material influence, become subject, like others, to the laws of trade and competition, will cease to threaten our liberties by silently sapping their very foundation. As in the course of years competition gradually increases, the effect of this competition on the South will probably be most beneficial. The change from monopoly to competition, distributed over many years, will come with no sudden and destructive shock, but will take place imperceptibly. The fall of the dynasty will be gradual; and with the dynasty must fall its policy. Its fruits must be eradicated by time. Under the healing influence of time, the South, still young and energetic, ceasing to think of one thing alone, will quickly turn its attention to many. Education will be more sought for, as the policy which resisted it, and made its diffusion impossible, ceases to exist. With the growth of other branches of industry, labor will become respectable and profitable, and laborers will flock to the country; and a new, a purer, and more prosperous future will open upon the entire Republic. Perhaps, also, it may in time be discovered that even slave-labor is most profitable when most intelligent and best rewarded,—that the present mode of growing cotton is the most wasteful and extravagant, and one not bearing competition. Thus even the African may reap benefit from the result, and in his increased self-respect and intelligence may be found the real prosperity of the master. And thus the peaceful laws of trade may do the work which agitation has attempted in vain. Sweet concord may come from this dark chaos, and the world receive another proof, that material interest, well understood, is not in conflict, but in beautiful unison with general morality, all-pervading intelligence, and the precepts of Christianity. Under these influences, too, the very supply of cotton will probably be immensely increased. Its cultivation, like the cultivation of their staple products by the English counties mentioned by Smith, will not languish, but flourish, under the influence of healthy competition.—These views, though simply the apparently legitimate result of principle and experience, are by no means unsupported by authority. They are the same results arrived at from the reflections of the most unprejudiced of observers. A shrewd Northern gentleman, who has more recently and thoroughly than any other writer travelled through the Southern States, in the final summary of his observations thus covers all the positions here taken. "My conclusion," says Mr. Olmsted, " is this,— that there is no physical obstacle in the way of our country's supplying ten bales of cotton where it now does one. AU that is necessary for this purpose is to direct to the cotton-producing region an adequate number of laborers, either black or white, or both. No amalgamation, no association on equality, no violent disruption of present relations is necessary. It is necessary that there should be more objects of industry, more varied enterprises, more general intelligence among the people, — and, especially, that they should become, or should desire to become, richer, more comfortable, than they are." It is not pleasant to turn from this, and view the reverse of the picture. But, unless our Southern brethren, in obedience to some great law of trade or morals, return from their divergence,— if, still being a republic in form, the South close her ears to the great truth, that education is democracy's first law of self-preservation,— if the dynasty of King Cotton, unshaken by present indications, should continue indefinitely, and still the South should bow itself down as now before its throne,—it requires no gift of prophecy to read her future. As you sow, so shall you reap; and communities, like individuals, who sow the wind, must, in the fulness of time, look to reap the whirlwind. The Constitution of our Federal Union guaranties to each member composing it a republican form of government; but no constitution can guaranty that universal intelligence of the people without which, soon or late, a republican government must become, not only a form, but a mockery. Under the Cotton dynasty, the South has undoubtedly lost sight of this great principle ; and unless she return and bind herself closely to it, her fate is fixed. Under the present monopolizing sway of King Cotton, — soon or late, in the Union, or out of the Union, — her government must cease to be republican, and relapse into anarchy, unless previously, abandoning the experiment of democracy in despair, she take refuge in a government of force. The Northern States, the educational communities, have apparently little to fear while they cling closely to the principles inherent in their nature. With the Servile States, or away from them, the experiment of a constitutional republic can apparently be carried on with success through an indefinite lapse of time; but though, with the assistance of an original impetus and custom, they may temporarily drag along their stumbling brethren of the South, the catastrophe is but deferred, not avoided. Out of the Union, the more extreme Southern States — those in which King Cotton has already firmly established his dynasty — are, if we may judge by passing events, ripe for the result. The more Northern have yet a reprieve of fate, as having not yet wholly forgotten the lessons of their origin. The result, however, be it delayed for one year or for one hundred years, can hardly admit of doubt. The emergency which is to try their system may not arise for many years; but passing events warn us that it may be upon them now. The most philosophical of modern French historians, in describing the latter days of the Roman Empire, tells us that " the higher classes of a nation can communicate virtue and wisdom to the government, if they themselves are virtuous and wise: but they can never give it strength; for strength always comes from below; it always proceeds from the masses." The Cotton dynasty pretends not only to maintain a government where the masses are slaves, but a republican government where the vast majority of the higher classes are ignorant. On the intelligence of the mass of the whites the South must rely for its republican permanence, as on their arms it must rely for its force; and here again, the words of Sismondi, written of falling Rome, seem already applicable to the South: —"Thus all that class of free cultivators, who more than any other class feel the love of country, who could defend the soil, and who ought to furnish the best soldiers, disappeared almost entirely. The number of small farmers diminished to such a degree, that a rich man, a man of noble family, had often to travel more than ten leagues before falling in with an equal or a neighbor." The destruction of the republican form of government is, then, almost the necessary catastrophe; but what will follow that catastrophe if is not so easy to foretell. The Republic, thus undermined, will fall; but what shall supply its place? The tendency of decaying republics is to anarchy; and men take refuge from the terrors of anarchy in despotism. The South least of all can indulge in anarchy, as it would at once tend to servile insurrection. They cannot long be torn by civil war, for the same reason. The ever-present, all-pervading fear of the African must force them into some government, and the stronger the better. The social divisions of the South, into the rich and educated whites, the poor and ignorant whites, and the servile class, would seem naturally to point to an aristocratic or constitutional-monarchical form of government. But, in their transition state, difficulties are to be met in all directions; and the well-ordered social distinctions of a constitutional monarchy seem hardly consistent with the time-honored licentious independence and rude equality of Southern society. The reign of King Cotton, however, conducted under the present policy, must inevitably tend to increase and aggravate all the present social tendencies of the Southern system,— all the anti-republican affinities already strongly developed. It makes deeper the chasm dividing the rich and the poor; it increases vastly the ranks of the uneducated; and, finally, while most unnaturally forcing the increase of the already threatening African infusion, it also tends to make the servile condition more unendurable, and its burdens heavier.

The modern Southern politician is the least far-seeing of all our short-sighted classes of American statesmen. In the existence of a nation, a generation should be considered but as a year in the life of man, and a century but as a generation of citizens. Soon or late, in the lives of this generation or of their descendants, in the Union or out of the Union, the servile members of this Confederacy must, under the results of the prolonged dynasty of Cotton, make their election either to purchase their security, like Cuba, by dependence on the strong arm of external force, or they must meet national exigencies, pass through revolutions, and destroy and reconstruct governments, making every movement on the surface of a seething, heaving volcano. All movements of the present, looking only to the forms of government of the master, must be carried on before the face of the slave, and the question of class will ever be complicated by that of caste. What the result of the ever-increasing tendencies of the Cotton dynasty will be it is therefore impossible to more than dream. But is it fair to presume that the immense servile population should thus see upturnings and revolutions, dynasties rising and falling before their eyes, and ever remain quiet and contented?" Nothing," said Jefferson, "is more surely written in the Book of Fate than that this people must be free." Fit for freedom at present they are not, and, under the existing policy of the Cotton dynasty, never can be. Whether under any circumstances they could become so is not here a subject of discussion; but, surely, the day will come when the white caste will wish the experiment had been tried. The argument of the Cotton King against the alleviation of the condition of the African is, that his nature does not admit of his enjoyment of true freedom consistently with the security of the community, and therefore he must have none. But certainly his school has been of the worst. Would not, perhaps, the reflections applied to the case of the French peasants of a century ago apply also to them?" It is not under oppression that we learn how to use freedom. The ordinary sophism by which misrule is defended is, when truly stated, this: The people must continue in slavery, because slavery has generated in them all the vices of slaves; because they are ignorant, they must remain under a power which has made and which keeps them ignorant; because they have been made ferocious by misgovernment, they must be misgoverned forever. If the system under which they live were so mild and liberal that under its operation they had become humane and enlightened, it would be safe to venture on a change; but, as this system has destroyed morality, and prevented the development of the intellect,— as it has turned men, who might, under different training, have formed a virtuous and happy community, into savage and stupid wild beasts, therefore it ought to last forever." Perhaps the counsellors of King Cotton think that in this case it will; but all history teaches us another lesson. If there be one spark of love for freedom in the nature of the African,— whether it be a love common to him with the man or the beast, the Caucasian or the chimpanzee, — the love of freedom as affording a means of improvement or an opportunity for sloth, — the policy of King Cotton will cause it to work its way out. It is impossible to say how long it will be in so doing, or what weight the broad back of the African will first be made to bear; but, if the spirit exist, some day it must out. This lesson is taught us by the whole recorded history of the world. Moses leading the Children of Israel up out of Egypt,— Spartacus at the gates of Rome, — the Jacquerie in France, — Jack Cade and Wat Tyler in England, — Nana Sahib and the Sepoys in India,— Toussaint l'Ouvcrture and the Hardens, — and, finally, the insurrection of Nat Turner in this country, with those in Guiana, Jamaica, and St. Lucia: such examples, running through all history, point the same moral. This last result of the Cotton dynasty may come at any moment after the time shall once have arrived when, throughout any great tract of country, the suppressing force shall temporarily, with all the advantages of mastership, including intelligence and weapons, be unequal to coping with the force suppressed. That time may still be far off. Whether it be or not depends upon questions of government and the events of the chapter of accidents. If the Union should now be dissolved, and civil convulsions should follow, it may soon be upon us. But the superimposed force is yet too great under any circumstances, and the convulsion would probably be but temporary. At present, too, the value of the slave insures him tolerable treatment; but, as numbers increase, this value must diminish. Southern statesmen now assert that in thirty years there will be twelve million slaves in the South; and then, with increased numbers, why should not the philosophy of the sugar-plantation prevail, and it become part of the economy of the Cotton creed, that it is cheaper to work slaves to death and purchase fresh ones than to preserve their usefulness by moderate employment? Then the value of the slave will no longer protect him, and then the end will be nigh. Is this thirty or fifty years off? Perhaps not for a century hence will the policy of King Cotton work its legitimate results, and the volcano at length come to its head and defy all compression.

In one of the stories of the "Arabian Nights" we are told of an Afrite confined by King Solomon in a brazen vessel; and the Sultana tells us, that, during the first century of his confinement, he said in his heart, — "I will enrich whosoever will liberate me"; but no one liberated him. In the second century he said, — "Whosoever will liberate me, I will open to him the treasures of the earth"; but no one liberated him. And four centuries more passed, and he said,— "Whosoever shall liberate me, I will fulfil for him three wishes"; but still no one liberated him. Then despair at his long bondage took possession of his soul, and, in the eighth century, he swore,— " Whosoever shall liberate me, him will I surely slay!"

Let the Southern statesmen look to it well that the breaking of the seal which confines our Afrite be not deferred till long bondage has turned his heart, like the heart of the Spirit in the fable, into gall and wormwood; lest, if the breaking of that seal be deferred to the eighth or even the sixth century, it result to our descendants like the breaking of the sixth seal of Revelation,— "And, lo! there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth of hair, and the moon became as blood, and the heaven departed as a scroll, when it is rolled together; and the kings of the earth, and the great men, and the rich men, and the chief captains, and the mighty men, and every free man hid themselves in the dens and in the rocks of the mountains, and said to the mountains and rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us, for the great day of wrath is come!'" On that day, at least, will end the reign of King Cotton.

(1) "In truth," the institution of slavery, as an agency for cotton-cultivation, "is an expensive luxury, a dangerous and artificial state, and, even in a worldly point of view, an error. The cost of a first-class negro in the United States is about .£300, and the interest on the capital invested in and the wear and tear of this human chattel are equal to 10 per cent., which, with the cost of maintaining, clothing, and doctoring him, or another 5 per cent., gives an annual cost of £45; and the pampered Coolies in the best paying of all the tropical settlements, Trinidad, receive wages that do not exceed on an average on the year round 6s. per week, or about two-fifths, while in the East Indies, with perquisites, they do not receive so much as two-thirds of this. In Cuba, the Chinese emigrants do not receive so much even as one-third of this."— Cotton Trade of Great Britain, by J. A. Maun. — In India, labor is 80 per cent. cheaper than in the United States.

(2) De Bow's Review, January, 1850. Quoted in Olmsted's Back Country, p. 451.

(3) Except when used by the accomplished statistician, there is nothing more fallacious than the figures of the census. As the author of this article is a disciple neither of Buckle nor De Bow, they have not been used at all; but a few of the census figures are nevertheless instructive, as showing the difference between the Free and the Servile States in respect to popular education. According to the census of 1860, the white population of the Slave States amounted to 6,184,477 souls, and the colored population, free and slave, brought the total population up to an aggregate of 9,612,979, of which the whole number of school-pupils was 581,861. New York, with a population of 3,097,394 souls, numbered 675,221 pupils, or 93,360 more than all the Slave States. The eight Cotton States, from South Carolina to Arkansas, with a population of 2,137,264 whites and a grand total of 3,970,337 human beings, contained 141,032 pupils; the State of Massachusetts, with a total population of 994,514, numbered 176,475, or 35,443 pupils more than all the Cotton States. In popular governments the great sources of general intelligence are newspapers and periodicals; in estimating these, metropolitan New York should not be considered; but of these the whole number, in 1860, issued annually in all the Slave States was 81,038,698, and the number in the not peculiarly enlightened State of Pennsylvania was 84,898,1172, or 3,859,974 more than in all the Slave States. In the eight Cotton States, the whole number was 80,041,991; and in the single State of Massachusetts, 64,820,564, or 34,778,573 more, and in the single State of Ohio, 30,473,407, or 431,416 more, than in all the above eight States.

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