America’s Long Journey: The Cotton Engine

We know so little about our destiny. Because Eli Whitney’s stepmother opposed his wish to attend college, he spent years working as a farm laborer and school teacher to save enough money, and was 27 years old before graduating from Yale College (Phi Beta Kappa) in 1792. He wanted to study law, but he didn’t have enough money. Perhaps he thought his life was frustrating his desires. Instead, it was using him to transform the world.

He took a ship for South Carolina, intending to take up a job as private tutor, and aboard ship met the widow and family of Nathanael Greene, who we will encounter as a Revolutionary War general. He was invited to visit the Greene plantation in Georgia, then being managed by Mrs. Greene’s future husband Phineas Miller, also a New Englander, also a Yale graduate.

While visiting the plantation, he observed the bottleneck in the process of producing cotton: separating fibers (called lint) from seeds. Hundreds of man-hours were required to clean a useful amount of lint. He was a New England Yankee – that is, an inventor by nature. Could he figure out a way to improve the process?

In pretty short order he had invented the “cotton engine,” which inevitably got shortened to “cotton gin.” (Whitney later said he got the idea for the mechanism by watching a cat trying to pull a chicken through a fence.) Basically, a drum stuck with hooks pulled the cotton fibers through a fine mesh that the seeds would not fit through, while brushes continuously removed the loose cotton lint to prevent jams. The thing could clean 50 pounds of lint per day.

Simple, but revolutionary. Too simple for Whitney’s good, actually. The machine was too easily imitated. Besides, he and Miller, as partners, weren’t thinking of manufacturing the gin. They thought they would clean their neighbors’ cotton – in exchange for 40% of the product! On paper, this probably looked pretty smart: The farmers would still be better off, because the gin would let them produce so much more cotton than otherwise, and they wouldn’t have to put out any cash for the service – and Whitney and Miller would have all that cotton to sell.

Of course it didn’t work out that way. Whitney patented the machine, but Whitney and Miller never could build enough gins to meet demand, and others began making and selling them. Patent-infringement lawsuits succeeded in eating up all the profits, and their cotton gin company went out of business in 1797. The cotton gin made Whitney famous, not rich.

But he sure did set consequences in motion. Before he invented the cotton gin, slave labor was mostly used to grow rice, tobacco, indigo, and cotton. There wasn’t much profit in any of it, and probably if the slaves had been white rather than black – and therefore had presented no problems of post-slavery social readjustment – they would have been freed as early as the Revolution. Certainly at the time the founding fathers were devising the Constitution, they assumed that slavery was a dying institution.

Then along came the cotton gin, and suddenly slavery was firmly fastened not only on the states where it had long existed, but all the way to the Mississippi and beyond.

Why? For the reason that people always exploit other people: It was profitable. It was more than profitable, it was terrifically profitable, it was the way to amass fortunes. Cotton exports went from less than 500,000 pounds in 1793 to 93 million pounds in 1810. Far from slavery dying out, the need for slaves to grow cotton led to the importation of 80,000 Africans before Congress banned the slave trade in 1808.

And this can’t be blamed just on southerners. New England factories and Northern shipping lines were founded on slavery just as firmly, and only slightly more indirectly, as any cotton plantation in Dixie. Southern cotton fed New England textile mills. Southern cotton provided more than half the value of all American exports between 1820 and 1860. Southern cotton, by 1860, provided as much as 80% of the supply of cotton to Great Britain’s voracious textile industry, and two-thirds of the supply for the entire world. Is it any wonder that Southern statesmen came to overrate their importance in the economy of the nation and the world, thinking that “Cotton is King”?

Eli Whitney was a Yankee inventor, finding a new way to overcome an old problem He wasn’t thinking to transform the textile industry, and the South, and he wasn’t thinking to invent one of the main indirect causes of the Civil War, and he certainly didn’t anticipate solving the problem and then reaping no benefit from his invention. But that’s what happened. First to last, it’s a story of unanticipated consequences.

One thought on “America’s Long Journey: The Cotton Engine

  1. Interesting. I had to go see where cotton is now. The US produces $25 billion of cotton a year now (40 billion pounds), employing 200,000 people, with Texas the largest producing state (Wikipedia). It’s ranked third in production, behind China and India. We lead in cotton exportation. Production was almost completely mechanized by 1944. Principal importers now of US cotton are Honduras, Mexico, Dominican Republic, and China. England gets their cotton from India and China.

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