April 1861 The Civil War

The Reign of King Cotton

In 1861, the grandson of John Quincy Adams argued that slavery could still end without war.

In a scene typical of Southern plantation life around the time of the war, African Americans prepare cotton for a cotton gin. (Timothy H. O'Sullivan/Library of Congress)

By the beginning of April 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union, and Confederate and Union soldiers had been pointing their guns at each other across Charleston Harbor for several months. But not everyone was convinced that a violent showdown was the only way to resolve the slavery question.

The 25-year-old Harvard graduate Charles Francis Adams Jr. (grandson of President John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of President John Adams) suggested in The Atlantic that natural economic forces could prove more effective than military ones in eradicating slavery. If the “peaceful laws of trade” were left to follow their natural course, he argued, the South’s cotton monopoly would crumble and the role of slavery in American life would fall away.

His theory was never put to the test: the month his article appeared, Brigadier General P. G. T. Beauregard’s men fired on Fort Sumter, and war broke out. Adams would go on to fight for the Union at Gettysburg, and would later become an authority on the railroad industry, assuming the presidency of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1884.

—Sage Stossel

In the youthful West a new cry … 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” … 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 … to try to disentangle the real questions at issue … Looking at the policy and tendency of the reign of King Cotton … to what end does it necessarily tend? To what results must it logically lead? …

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 …

Is there any result, any agency which can destroy this dynasty, and restore us as a people to the firm foundations upon which our experiment was begun? Can the present agitation effect this result? If it could, the country might joyfully bid a long farewell to “the canker of peace” and “hail the blood-red blossom of war with a heart of fire”; but the sad answer, that it cannot … seems almost too evident for discussion …The remedy we must look for—the only one which can meet the exigencies of the case—must be one which will restore to the South the attributes of a democracy. It must cause our Southern brethren of their own free will to reverse their steps,—to return from their divergence … It must lead them to new paths of industry. It must gently persuade them that a true national prosperity is not the result of a total abandonment of the community to the culture of one staple. It must make them self-dependent, so that no longer they shall have to import their corn from the Northwest, their lumber-men and hay from Maine, their manufactures from Massachusetts, their minerals from Pennsylvania, and to employ the shipping of the world …

The world at present pays them an annual bribe of some $65,000,000 to learn none of these lessons. Their material interest teaches them to bow down to the shrine of King Cotton. Here, then, lies the remedy with the disease. The prosperity of the country in general, and of the South in particular, demands that the reign of King Cotton should cease,—that his dynasty should be destroyed. This result can be obtained but in one way, and that seemingly ruinous. The present monopoly in their great staple commodity enjoyed by the South must be destroyed, and forever …

If saved at all from the blight of this monopoly, the South will be saved, not in New York or Boston, but in Liverpool,—not by the thinkers of America, but by the merchants of England. The real danger of the Cotton dynasty lies not in the hostility of the North, but in the exigencies of the market abroad … The operation of the laws of trade, as touching this monopoly, is beautifully simple. Already the indications are sufficient to tell us, that, under the sure, but silent working of those laws, the very profits of the Southern planter foreshadow the destruction of his monopoly. His dynasty rests upon the theory, that his negro is the only practical agency for the production of his staple. But the supply of African labor is limited, and the increased profit on cotton renders the cost of that labor heavier in its turn,—the value of the negro rising one hundred dollars for every additional cent of profit on a pound of cotton. The increased cost of the labor increases the cost of producing the cotton. The result is clear and the history of the cotton-trade has twice verified it. The increased profits on the staple tempt competition … It is not credible that all the land adapted to the growth of the cotton-plant is confined to America; and, at the present value of the commodity, the land adapted to its growth would be sought out and used, though buried now in the jungles of India, the wellnigh impenetrable wildernesses of Africa, the table-lands of South America, or the islands of the Pacific … Already, under the increased consumption, one-third of the cotton consumed at Liverpool is the product of climes other than our own … To-day, India, for home-consumption and exportation, produces twice the amount of cotton produced in America; and, under the increased profit of late years, the importation into England from that country has risen from 12,324,200 pounds in 1830, to 77,011,839 pounds in 1840, and, finally, to 250,338,144 pounds in 1857, or nearly twenty per cent. of the whole amount imported, and more than one-fourth of the whole amount imported from America … The interior of Africa, the great unknown and unexplored land, which for centuries has baffled the enterprise of travelers, seems about to make known her secrets under the persuasive arguments of trade, and to make her cotton, and not her children, her staple export in the future. In the last fact is to be seen a poetic justice. Africa, outraged, scorned, down-trodden, is, perhaps, to drag down forever the great enslaver of her offspring …

The reign of King Cotton at present prices may be expected to continue some ten years longer … 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 … 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 … And thus the peaceful laws of trade may do the work which agitation has attempted in vain.

Read the full text of this article here.

Presented by

What LBJ Really Said About Selma

"It's outrageous what's on TV. It looks like that man is in charge of the country."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


What LBJ Really Said About Selma

"It's going to go from bad to worse."


Does This Child Need Marijuana?

Inside a family's fight to use marijuana oils to treat epilepsy


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In