A Reflection on the Cotton Economy

December 21, 1850

Through my 50 years of journalism, I have been present for the rise of the cotton industry. When I first began my writing, cotton was rarely present in southern farms, dominated by unstable crops such as tobacco and rice. These crops were either horribly unreliable, with constantly fluctuating prices (tobacco) or unfortunately impractical, needing excessive irrigation and long growing seasons(rice). I have seen first hand the wishes of all southern farmers come true with a better, more effective crop of cotton. Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin (more specifically the commercialization of the cotton gin) allowed for a major increase in cotton production, but came with a noteworthy price. A dramatic shift in slavery. Over my 50 years, the number of slaves in America has more than doubled. The country is now faced with an awkward dilemma; human rights or a strong economy. A theme I had noticed, that only became more apparent as time went on, was the tie between a very profitable crop (cotton) and the slavery of the south. We are willing to give up the rights of these men and women solely for profit. This trend shines a light through a major fault in the expansion and growth of America. If we need to rely on slave labor to boost our economy, how free of a nation are we?

The painting above depicts a group of old white men trading and inspecting cotton. This painting is of one of the final steps in cotton production, when it is taken to be inspected and immediately shipped either overseas or north to be manufactured into, usually, cotton clothing. This image is a good representation of the cotton economy because it shows that the cotton business was the key moneymaker at the time. These men are all clearly wealthy, given their clothing, and seem to be quite content with their sales and/or purchases. The cotton economy may be based around slavery, but these men have made it as profitable as it has become. The inspectors purposefully choose to disregard some cotton in order to keep prices high. Not depicted in this image is the farmers (more likely slaves) who produced that cotton. And that is, likely, on purpose. When it comes to trading crops, the people who usually make the most money are the middlemen, traders, shippers, and others who buy it cheap off farmers then sell it very high price to buyers overseas.

The economic increase of the cotton economy  has dramatically shifted the lives of many farmers in the south. The increase in price of cotton has caused many large plantations to begin focusing on cotton. Their sudden influx in money has allowed for these large plantations to become even larger through an ability to purchase more slaves. The largest plantations have entered a vicious cycle of more and more slavery. Of course, the large plantation owners, being the holders of most political power in the south, have created a resonating affect on the southern farming communities. Slaves are becoming more common (Note: still less than 50%  of farmers have slaves, but the number has increased over the past 12 years). However, the rise of “King Cotton” and the cotton economy has positively impacted many white people’s lives in America. The increase in trade to Britain has benefitted the farmers (through purchase of cotton), traders (though shipment of cotton), and even middle class members of society(through the 90% drop in the price of cotton based clothes). Overall, the cotton economy has shown a dramatic shift in nearly all parts of American life, be it good or bad. Hopefully, the American people begin putting even more pressure on these slave owners. While the cotton economy has brought about many benefits, the level of slavery associated with the industry is simply awful.

Thank you for reading,

Benjamin Thomas

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