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 …

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