On today’s date, March 14, 220 years ago in 1794 a Massachusetts-born, Yale-educated engineer named Eli Whitney was granted a patent on a new machine called the “Cotton Gin” (“Gin” being short for “engine”). Whitney apparently intended nothing more with his invention (original patent is pictured above) than to make the business of cotton production easier and more efficient. And of course to make some money into the bargain. But what Mr. Whitney could not have known was that his invention would profoundly divide his county, laying the bitter seeds of a terrible and destructive Civil War that would break out 35 years after his death.
What Exactly Did the Cotton Gin Do?
Cotton had been a lucrative but troublesome crop to cultivate before the advent of Mr. Whitney’s cotton gin. It had to be looked after and maintained in great abundance. This was because the fibers it produced grew in little pods which had to be harvested. Then these pods had to have the cotton removed and these fibers had to be separated from the sticky seeds which were embedded in them. Whitney graduated from Yale in 1792 and moved to South Carolina to accept a job as a tutor. His landlady had a small crop of cotton, and Whitney got into discussions with planters in the
area about the fact that this seed extraction made cotton very unprofitable because it had to be done by hand – a grueling, labor intensive process. Whitney believed that this could be done mechanically and came up with a device that could do it (above). It consisted of a wooden cylinder which was lined with slender spikes. These spikes would pull the cotton fibers through a comb-like mesh. The teeth of this mesh were small enough that while the cotton fibers would easily be pulled through the seeds would not fit, and would fall outside. The effect of this on cotton production was clear. Before the gin, it would take a single slave working by hand some ten hours to separate a single pound of cotton from the seeds. Whereas working with the gin, it would be possible for a team of two or three slaves to produce fifty pounds of cotton in a single day.
What Exactly Was the Effect of the Cotton Gin?
The effect that this labor saving device had on the Southern economy in America was profound. The United States had always been an agricultural nation. This was particularly so in the American south with its warm climate and rich soil. A large labor force in the form mostly of African slaves was needed to maintain and harvest such crops as sugar, rice, and tobacco in addition to
cotton. But these other crops were perishable and therefore not in such demand. Whereas cotton would last for it’s entire shipping period. Before the cotton gin slavery was dying out on its own. But with the cotton gin, cotton exports skyrocketed. Cotton production went from 750,000 bales in 1830 to 2.85 million bales in 1850. By 1860, the Southern states produced two thirds of the worlds’ cotton. And the population of slaves increased along with the cotton production from 700,000 in 1790 to 3.2 million in 1850. In short, because of Whitney’s cotton gin, cotton became very profitable, and a large cheap labor force of slaves was needed to maintain this crop and its profitability.
Two Different Economies & Two Different Systems
As a result of all of this, the Southern economy became a one-crop affair, which was dependent upon slavery. On the other hand, the Northern states in America became primarily industrial. And northern society evolved as different classes of people interacted in the north’s more urban social setting. The South for its part remained in it’s rural, and plantation setting, and thus in a modern
and evolving world the South remained stuck in an antiquated social system. Thus were the bitter seeds of civil war planted in two very different economic systems based on two VERY different social orders: a northern economy based on a free, wage earning labor force, and a southern economy based on a labor force which was captive to the morally repugnant system of legalized human slavery. A clash was inevitable, and it came a mere 35 years after the death of Eli Whitney (above) on January 8, 1825 at age 59 from a very modern scourge: prostate cancer.