References to phenomena that make up the “fabric of history” are usually metaphorical, but in the case of cotton, the fiber truly did help weave the fabric of American history. Cotton was, above all, a crucial factor in the nation's economic development. But cotton cultivation was also a source of conflict (racial, sectional, and between social classes) before the Civil War, and after the war, cotton fields and factories engendered debate over the extent to which the federal government could change society and the economy through centralized planning.
Cotton was grown in the New World and in Asia for centuries before Europeans settled in America. English colonists first cultivated cotton to make homespun clothing. Production significantly increased when the American Revolution cut off supplies of European cloth, but the real expansion of production came with the rising demand for raw cotton from the British textile industry. This led to the development of an efficient cotton gin as a tool for removing seeds from cotton fibers in 1793. The breeding of superior strains from Mexican cotton and the opening of western lands further expanded production. (During the early 1800s, the center of production moved south and west, from cotton's early national cradle in South Carolina and Georgia to the black belt of Alabama and Mississippi.) Production rose from 2 million pounds in 1791 to a billion pounds in 1860; by 1840, the United States was producing over 60 percent of the world's cotton. The economic boom in the cotton South attracted migrants, built up wealth among the free inhabitants, encouraged capitalization of investments like railroads, and facilitated territorial expansion.
Cotton also contributed to the national economy. The crop comprised more than half the total value of domestic exports in the period 1815-1860, and in 1860, earnings from cotton paid for 60 percent of all imports. Cotton also built up domestic capital, attracted foreign investment, and contributed to the industrial growth of the North. In the early 1800s, northeastern merchants began channeling commercial profits into industrial production of cloth (using southern cotton). These early textile factories and the concomitant growth of the working class created political and social problems in the new Republic; reactions ranged from fears about the fragmentation of the polity into distinct economic classes to celebrations of free labor as the strongest foundation for the nation.
Just as cotton mills revealed the problem of inequality among white Americans, cotton fields expressed the racial inequality inherent in black slavery. The relation of cotton to slavery is complex. Except in the Upper South slavery was not declining in the 1790s. The crop was, therefore, not responsible for perpetuating slavery where it already existed, though it certainly was responsible for the continuing expansion of the institution westward. Whites' acceptance of black slavery, combined with their gradual removal of southern Indians from cotton lands, demonstrated the extent to which they assumed that the political and economic liberties of whites were inversely related to those of people of color.
By the 1830s, the South's political economy—resting on cotton and slaves—was a key factor in sectional tension between North and South. The possibility that cotton cultivation would continue to move west and the prospect that new slave states would thereafter enter the Union were the most significant causes of this tension. Although slavery was not necessary for growing cotton (three-quarters of southern whites held no slaves, and much of the South's cotton was produced by free workers), southern whites assumed that slavery was an efficient method of increasing production, and they wanted to take slaves wherever cotton might be grown. They believed that their continuing to use slaves to grow cotton in new, western territories was their right. Northern whites assumed otherwise and sought to curtail the expansion of slavery in the nation. Although slavery alone was not the cause of the Civil War, controversy over whether the South's peculiar institution would continue expanding (and over the role of the federal government in regulating its expansion) was central to the impending crisis.
After the war, cotton cultivation provided new debate over the role of the federal government in economic affairs. Although declining in overall importance in the American economy, cotton production actually expanded after 1865. Out of the disarray that followed emancipation, southern landowners constructed new forms of servitude—tenantry and sharecropping. These coercive institutions (involving the extension of goods or credit to rural inhabitants in exchange for their labor) controlled poor whites as well as newly freed blacks. Rural poverty, overproduction, and the resulting low prices for cotton all contributed to the South's postwar stagnation. The region's woes increased after 1894 with the arrival of the boll weevil, which savaged cotton crops.
The Great Depression exacerbated the South's chronic poverty. But the proposed cure—federal supervision of agriculture—provoked controversy. Federal intervention had begun with the creation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, especially its Extension Service (1914), which attacked the problem of the boll weevil with federal funds and agents. Intervention continued with the New Deal, after Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration and its rural unit, the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (aaa). The aaa drafted monetary incentives to landholders for reducing production of cotton, in hopes of raising the crop's price. Responding to this experiment with centralized power, critics on the Right complained of its invasive meddling with the market, while critics on the Left pointed out that the truly impoverished—tenants and sharecroppers—gained little from the program. Indeed, although southern landholders reduced the acreage of their cotton fields by 30 to 50 percent, there was no parallel decline in tenantry—the most glaring manifestation of rural poverty—as planners had hoped there would be. Federal policy, in fact, probably worsened conditions for sharecroppers and tenants.
After the 1930s, cotton cultivation moved farther west, especially into Texas and California. This shift began a trend toward “agribusiness”—large estates dependent on mechanization—a trend that accelerated after World War II. In the meantime, many rural southerners left farming for the textile industry as cotton mills closed in the Northeast and reopened in the old cotton South. Cotton's contribution to the domestic textile industry weakened, nonetheless, because of increased importation of foreign textiles and increased use of synthetic fibers. The South's calls for tariffs to regulate foreign competition formed a new chapter in the continuing debate over federal regulation of the economy. And western cotton cultivation, because of its dependence on irrigation, raised new questions about its potentially destructive effects on the environment.
Stuart Bruchey, The Wealth of the Nation: An Economic History of the United States (1988); Pete Daniel, Breaking the Land: The Transformation of Cotton, Tobacco, and Rice Cultures since 1880 (1985); Gavin Wright, The Political Economy of the Cotton South: Households, Markets, and Wealth in the Nineteenth Century (1978).
Joyce E. Chaplin
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Cotton. The History Channel website. 2013. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/cotton. Accessed Dec 4, 2013.