Coming out of the American Revolution, the nation faced a slave problem that most today could scarcely imagine and that was unemployment. The Slave labor force had grown from reproduction and from importing of slaves by the northern slave traders in a situation that, using modern business terms, was more of supplier push than buyer pull. That is the suppliers wanted to sell their human cargo more than buyers wanted to buy it. When, during the Constitutional Convention, it was determined that the slave trade would be allowed to continue until 1808 instead of being ended at that time, the popular impression is that Southerners wanted the trade to continue and the Northern representatives simply agreed to it as a concession through negotiation but it was New England interests that wanted this and the provision was more of a concession to them.  The Duke de Rochefoucault Liancourt, traveling in the States in 1795 described,

Nearly 20 vessels from the harbors of the northern states are employed in the importation of Negros to Georgia and the West India Isles. The merchants of Rhode Island are the conductors of this accursed traffic, which they are determined to preserve in until the year 1808, the period fixed for its final termination. They ship one negro for every ton burden (Kettell 1860, p. 18).

Quoting from Southern Wealth and Northern Profits written by Thomas Prentice Kettle in 1860, he described the situation following the revolution as follows:

At the close of the War of Independence, the country was composed of exhausted Colonies, having a population of 3,172,464 whites. The government was heavily in debt and without credit, the channels of trade flooded with irredeemable and depreciated paper that had driven away specie, national bankruptcy and individual insolvency were the rule. The people were destitute as were capital and manufactures; the employment of the shipping apparently destroyed, and the future presenting little hope. There were 751,363 black slaves, who were without employment that would earn their own support, and their fate and that of their masters gave ample cause of uneasiness, as well to statesmen as to owners. To abandon the blacks to their fate, under the plea of philanthropy, suggested itself to many. The employment of Northern ships was mostly the slave trade, while the South, having fairly less employment for the blacks, was determined to stop their arrival, – a measure which the north regarded as depriving it of its legitimate business.  Thus growing jealously was added to other evils. The lapse of seventy years has changed all that…(Kettell 1860, p. 3).

The author, in a book that is largely an economic history of the antebellum period written just prior to the War for Southern Independence and compiled from census data, then went on to contrast the dramatic changes over a 70 year interval and explain what caused them. Three inventions changed the world and allowed for rapid and dramatic advancement of industry.  They were the steam-engine, allowing for up-river transport of commercial loads and increased railroad capacity, the cotton jenny, a multi-headed machine for spinning cotton or wool, and the cotton-gin, used to mechanically clean seeds from cotton. These dramatically increased the availability of clothing and textile products, providing employment for millions in the western world, and broadly increased the standard of living as opposed to simply impacting the wealthy. This was the main pillar of the first industrial revolution which created capital and disposable income for expanding markets leading to an ongoing string of new and useful innovations. These initial steps very literally and dramatically changed the world for all who came after them.

Prior to Eli Whitney inventing the cotton-gin in 1793 it took a day to clean a pound of cotton by hand in a very labor intensive and painstaking process. Quoting again from Kettle in 1860, he wrote, “The blacks, numerous as they were at the South, had no employment that paid their support; cotton was indeed grown, but the difficulty of cleaning it from the seed was so great that a man could prepare but one pound per day for market. (Kettell 1860, p. 20).”  With the cotton-gin 50 pounds of cotton could be processed by one person in one day without tearing or damaging the fiber (Mitcham 2020, p. 15). This, along with the development the petite gulf strain of cotton, led to an explosion in the production of “white gold” feeding mills in the north and in England and clothing the world. Southern cotton production increased from app. 5 million pounds a year in 1793 to 500 million in 1835 (Mitcham 2020, p. 15) creating great wealth for the planters who owned and managed the land that produced it and the industrialist who oversaw the manufacturing process it fed. The effect on the demand for labor, and in this case predominantly slave labor, was dramatic.  The transformation was well stated by Judge Johnson who was presiding over a suit brought by Whitney in Savannah Georgia to protect his patent:

The whole of the interior was languishing, and its inhabitants were emigrating for want of some object to engage their attentions and employ their industry, when the invention of this machine at once opened views to them which set the whole country in active motion. From childhood to age, it has presented to us a lucrative employment.  Individuals who were depressed with poverty and sunk in idleness, have suddenly risen to wealth and respectability. Our debts have been paid off, our capitals have increased, and our lands trebled in values.  We cannot express what weight of obligation which the country owes to this invention. The extent of it cannot now be seen.

Cotton led to the population of the South beyond the eastern seaboard in a remarkably short period of time as shown in the following population table. Prior to 1820 the cotton producing states of the lower South were very nearly unpopulated but then grew rapidly in a few decade prior to the war.  Still the population and population density remained low and the relative population of the slave states steadily dropped. This was not due so much to the increase in the population of the North in general but specifically of the Midwest. Much of the move inland in the South was due to the discovery of the bottom lands of the Mississippi valley that could raise cotton much cheaper than the Atlantic coast.  The expansion was funded largely by capital originating from the North and from Europe.

Alabama   127,901309,527590,756771,623964,201
Arkansas   14,27330,38897,574209,897435,450
Florida    34,73054,47787,445140,424
Louisiana  76,556153,407215,739352,411517,762708,002
Mississippi 8,85040,35275,448136,621375,651606,326791,305
Missouri  20,84566,586140,455383,702682,0441,182,012
North Carolina393,751478,103555,500638,829737,987753,419869,039992,622
South Carolina249,073345,591415,115502,741581,185594,398668,507703,708
Texas      212,592604,215
Total Slave States1,961,3722,607,2233,456,8814,452,7805,808,4697,290,7199,612,76912,240,293
Total US3,929,8275,305,9257,239,8149,638,13112,866,02017,069,45323,191,87634,443,321
% Total49.91%49.14%47.75%46.20%45.15%42.71%41.45%35.54%

Meanwhile, as the demand for the slave workforce grew sharply in the South, it had fallen off dramatically everywhere in the western world with the rise in overall population and increased mechanization. There had arisen a global abolitionist movement led by British abolitionist William Wilberforce that led to the abolition of the slave trade in the British West Indies in 1807, emancipation there in 1830’s, and a global abolitionist movement (Mitcham 2020, p. 15) although abolishing slavery was only a practical goal in the western world. In the case of England, emancipation didn’t affect the English Isles, which had long had excess population as opposed to a labor shortage prior to the industrial revolution, but rather ended slavery in British processions in the Caribbean 8000 miles away. This resulted in economic calamity and a flow of economic refugees to the United States. Even in the sugar plantations of Brazil and Cuba, which was labor intensive work, the number of free blacks was rapidly approaching the number of slaves.  In Mexico gradual manumission had practically ended slavery before it was abolished in 1829. The South was going against the flow of history but not of global economics. Still all of this directly impacted only a minority of the white Southern population and was probably of more direct and general benefit to those in the North. Southerners who were not planters were generally put at a relative disadvantage by the institution while the populations of the North and Europe who received slave produced agricultural products broadly benefited from it.

James (Jim) Pederson

James (Jim) Pederson is a systems engineer specializing in data analytics for a major a aerospace company who is a self taught independent historian and active member of Sons of Confederate Veterans. He currently resides in Texas.

Leave a Reply