What Cotton Hath Wrought

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David Blight on the stakes of the Civil War:


by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined. So, of course, the war was rooted in these two expanding and competing economies - but competing over what? What eventually tore asunder America's political culture was slavery's expansion into the Western territories. 

After the Mexican War in the late 1840s, with the opening of the vast new Southwest - added to the massive remainder of the Louisiana Purchase territories from Kansas and Nebraska to the Western high plains, Americans now had to decide which kind of future their country would embrace: a free-labor society, where every small farmer's or urban immigrant's children could get a fresh start with cheap land, or a slave-labor society where an oligarchy of large landowning slaveholders would dominate the West's economy and politics.
Old hands know that David Blight's lecture series is required viewing/listening around these parts. What caught me here was this last bit about why so many Northerners, whatever their feelings about black people, came to oppose slavery.

I am going to try to sketch this out, with the assumption that the historians in the room will correct where I'm wrong: Joe Farmer and Jack Farmer have the same plot of land, and the same burning desire to succeed. If Joe Farmer moves into, say, Missouri with 100 slaves, and Jack Farmer moves in with no slaves, obviously Joe Farmer has some advantages. Moreover if Joe Farmer comes from a state where slavery is still legal, and Jack Farmer doesn't, Joe Farmer likely has some advantages in terms of securing a supply of "good slaves." Jack Farmer, even if he wanted to have slaves, doesn't come from a social circle where there are a lot of slave owners. He doesn't know much about slave labor, and doesn't know many people who know much about. He lacks cultural capitol, no?

If Jack Farmer were from Mississippi, he would likely be held in sway by anything from kinship ties (my uncle owns slaves), economic ties (my cotton is processed on plantation where slaves work), to social ties (I enjoy the closed fraternity of white men.) It is in this last instance where one can accurately speak of white privilege. In the South, it didn't matter whether you owned slaves or not--all black people constituted a social class a rung below all white people. Jack Farmer in New England had no such ties and thus had little incentive to promote an economic order where wealth was held in the hands of a few, and competition was depressed.

What I appreciate about Blight is the hard numbers. Daniel Walker Howe is similarly good in What God Hath Wrought. I'm finishing a chapter on cotton now that has the following incredible passage, demonstrating how America's 19th century wealth was basically built on enslaved Africans:

The rapid rise of "the Cotton Kingdom" wrought a momentous transformation, Cotton became a driving force in expanding and transforming the economy not only of the South but of the United States as whole--indeed of the world. While the growing of cotton came to dominate economic life in the Lower South, the manufacture of cotton textiles was fueling the industrial revolution on both sides of the Atlantic. Most of the exported American cotton went to Britain, in particular to the port of Liverpool, convenient to the textile mills of Lancashire.

During the immediate postwar years of 1816 to 1820, cotton constituted 39 percent of U.S. exports; twenty years later the proportion had increased to 59 percent, and the value of the cotton sold overseas in 1836 exceed $71 million. By giving the United States its leading export staple, the workers in the cotton fields enabled the country not only to buy manufactured goods from Europe but also to pay interest on its foreign debt and continue to import more capital to invest in transportation and industry. Much of Atlantic civilization in the nineteenth century was built on the back of the enslaved field hand.
It's interesting how Howe implicates the North in slavery. Indeed, reading this chapter you get the sense that Northerners should never wax to eloquently about their justness. What you see is the New England mills booming from cotton picked by slaves. Also you get the sense that what really separates the North and South is an accident of geography. The South's growing season is longer. For this and other reasons, slavery made more sense there.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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