Cotton is King

August 28, 1849

Welcome to the age of King Cotton. There is an air of excitement and joy in the south as cotton production has become a major export for America, booming the southern economy. Nearly all new farmers in the south are producing short-staple cotton. This dramatic shift comes after an age of unreliable and unstable crops, such as rice and tobacco. This wonderful change prompted me to wonder, not about how the farmers have reacted, but how other members of the trade are seeing this upsurge. I set out to find out the meaning behind this increase and to ask the big question: Will it last?

“Over the past 10 years, with the help of Whitney’s cotton gin, cotton production has increased 800%” said Alfred Huxley, a statistician in Baltimore, “Right now, all american exports average $211 million, with over half of that being cotton and we currently export 700 million pounds a year of the stuff (3).” Huxley has been analyzing the southern economy for the past 38 years. He has been to many more farms than I, but not for interviews. He goes out into the field to record changes in farm communities and put concrete numbers to vague feelings. “Theres a definite hierarchy,” he explained, “The larger plantations have much more political power in the area. But what’s interesting is the distribution of these large plantations.(3)” Huxley then proceeded to pull out a map of the south with shaded counties. Running his finger down the Mississippi River he points out, “This darkest shading? Thats the the densest slave population. With these kinds of maps we can see exactly where the large plantations are focused. Now, this is to be expected. Cotton, like any crop, requires irrigation and that is easiest along a big river.” He continued, explaining, “While this map only shows slave population, us in the business see this and see cotton. Cotton plantations, on average, have the most slaves (3).” Huxley has his doubts on whether the trend will continue. “For now, its great. We can’t be sure about how long it will last, and certainly can’t be confident in the fluctuations of pricing, but for now, its here.” He continued, “The crop itself is more stable than many others I’ve analyzed, but when you’re in this business, you have to be skeptical of any continuing trend.” A statistician helps us see the overarching trend, but what will really help us understand the longevity of the trend will be to talk to someone directly in the business. And that man is Brian Willett.

“It’s astounding” said Brian Willett, the local sales representative of Collin’s Line shipping company at the Port of Charleston, “This cotton boom has been a blessing on us all. There were general thoughts in the farming community about working in the cities, or even trying to move far out west, but cotton has become like gold.” When asked about the reason for this increase, he was quick to answer, “The boom of the cotton cloth and textile industry in Britain has directly affected the american cotton growers. Currently, 80% of the south’s cotton production goes to Britain through merchants in the north and 75% of all english cotton cloth is manufactured with southern cotton. You probably noticed the prices of cotton clothes dropped 90%, that is all thanks to all these southern farmers.” Willett clearly knew the trade like the back of his hand. Working at one of the major shipping ports for cotton has allowed for him to be exposed to both the farmers and the buyers. “It’s simply great for everyone,” Willett said with a smile “This export has not only caused a boost in the south’s economy, but the north’s economy as well through the trade and shipping. You would think that so much production would cause the prices to plummet,” he continued, “but it’s evened out around 11-12 cents a pound, which is quite a bit when they can produce so much so fast.”

I was not satisfied with his answers, nor Huxley’s for that matter. I had noticed a trend, and wanted to learn more, but slavery is certainly a touchy subject for some. I had done some research on my own and noticed that 70% of all slaves in America are involved in the cotton industry. I asked Willett about how he can say “it’s great” when nearly all of the profit has come from slavery. “Well, its just a part of the south, you must know that,” He said, attempting to, somehow, justify this level of slavery. “It’s a vicious cycle, I-I understand that, but it’s benefited nearly every other walk of life.” This allowed for me to see a whole new perspective on this “King Cotton” trend. As the cotton economy has flourished, the slave trade has flourished along with it.

To answer my initial question; Yes, but hopefully no. The desire for cotton may be long term, but the amount we are producing is unsustainable. As a country, we cannot continue to allow for this kind of labor to be unnoticed. Yes, the cotton economy has boosted the entire country’s economy. Yes, it is benefitting nearly all citizens. But at what moral cost?

Thank you for reading,

  Benjamin Thomas

Works Cited

  1. Origin of King Cotton: http://www.ushistory.org/us/27a.asp

  2. Large Overview of Cotton Economy: http://www.apstudynotes.org/us-history/topics/king-cotton/

  3. Hughes, Johnathan, and Louis Cain. American Economic History. 5 ed. Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley, 1998. Print.

  4. Historical Newspaper from 1851: http://bit.ly/I2dvud

  5. History of Cotton Production: http://www.history.com/topics/cotton

  6. Opinion Piece from NY Times about Slavery in the King Cotton years: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/03/26/when-cotton-was-king/?_r=0
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