Now for a brief history lesson about cotton in the United States. Often when people in the U.S. talk about cotton the conversation inevitably turns to slavery and how the cotton industry influenced slavery. When you go down this route of discussion the Civil War also comes up, and rightfully so. Though these are bitter subjects to discuss, it is important to know the role that cotton has played in shaping the United States as we know it today.
“King Cotton.” That was a common phrase used in the pre-Civil War days describing cotton’s importance to the economy in the South. The first written example of this phrase that I know of came in David Christy’s 1855 book Cotton is King. Christy explains the power of King Cotton and how it helped grow the South’s economy, with slave labor of course. What is interesting is that in the final pages of his book he notes that “King Cotton cares not whether he employs slaves or freemen. It is the cotton, not the slaves, upon which his throne is based. Let freemen do his work as well, and he will not object to the change.” And as I’ll discuss below that is exactly what happened. King Cotton was also referred to in U.S. Senator James Hammond’s (D-SC) floor speech in 1858 where he proclaimed that “Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, should they [Northerners] may war on us [Southerners], we could bring the whole world to our feet. What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years? England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her save the South. No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King.” Obviously Hammond was over stating the impact cotton had globally at that time and when war did start between the states, England and the rest of the world did not topple. But it is important to look at cotton production in those days to see the rationale behind he and Christy’s declaration that Cotton is King.
Good data is hard to come by pre 1865, but it appears that the South was responsible for two thirds of the entire world exports of cotton by 1860. Because of the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 by Eli Whitney, cotton acreage was allowed to greatly expand, and with it the economies of many southern states (of course this also increased the amount of slaves in the South). Some accounts indicate that cotton production increased by eight fold in just ten years after the introduction of the cotton gin. This rapid increased allowed for new railroads to be built, new ships set sail to take cotton across the Atlantic, and many job opportunities popped up moving cotton along the vast expansion of rivers across the South. By 1861 the South was producing 4.5 million bales of cotton, by 1864 it produced only 300,000 bales. Most reports indicate that farmers quickly had to shift into other food crops because of the inability to export cotton during the Civil War. After the war though, cotton acreage quickly picked back up (mainly due to the high price cotton was demanding during the low production years for the Civil War). In 15 years after the Civil War, Georgia alone quadrupled its cotton production from 246,000 bales in 1866 to 1,050,000 bales in 1880. Cotton obviously was still profitable and the cotton industry was vital to the rebuilding of the South.
Although the South rapidly increased its production of cotton after the Civil War, the rest of the world did as well. Again, data from this far back is hard to come by, but all indications are that England turned to India during the U.S. Civil War for cotton and thus India became a major exporter of cotton.
So, King Cotton helped build the South in the Antebellum days, helped rebuild it after the Civil War, and caused many other nations to start growing it for export. Cotton still remains a vital part of the Southern economy. As noted in The Cotton Story: Part 1, cotton provides $2.5 billion to the Georgia economy and supports over 15,000 jobs.