The invention of the cotton gin changed everything as far as slavery in America was concerned. Suddenly, where it took one slave ten hours or more to pick the seeds out of a single pound of cotton, a team of three slaves could process fifty pounds in the same amount of time — more than 1,500% increase in production . . . and that was the early model.
The demand for slaves rose dramatically. From around 700,000 in 1790, there were an estimated 3.2 million in 1850. Legal importation of slaves was banned in 1808, but smuggling was widespread. The hideous breeding farms were in full operation. By 1860, one in three southerners was a slave.
Vast fortunes were being made in cotton, and any slave that could stagger was thrown into the fields. From a marginal product competing with linen and wool, cotton became the principal clothing fiber. Cotton fueled the mills of Manchester and drove the Industrial Revolution — all on the backs of slaves. U.S. production reached 750,000 bales per annum by 1830, and by 1850 was 2.85 million bales — two-thirds of the world’s annual production. Cotton, as former abolitionist David Christy proclaimed in 1855, was King, and all must bow before him.
Christy’s book, Cotton is King, polarized the debates on slavery. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had breathed new life into the abolitionist movement. Sentimental, even maudlin, relying on a contrived plot and painting a very distorted picture of conditions for most slaves, it nevertheless dealt a serious blow to pro-slavery forces. Beneath the purple prose and overblown plot was the simple human truth that every human being has a natural right to be free, and nothing, not even the economic survival of the United States, could change that.
Christy, however, presented a deceptively reasonable case for the economic necessity of slavery. His philosophical argument, while glib, was easily demolished by anyone with a passing knowledge of western philosophy from Aquinas down to John Locke. It was his economic argument that carried the day, and set southern agrarian capitalism against northern industrial and commercial capitalism.
According to Christy — and he cited page after page of hard financial data to support his thesis — the economic and political survival of the United States and the British Empire depended absolutely on the slave cultivation of American agricultural products, chiefly cotton. As he summed up, after weeping crocodile tears over the plight of the slave,
“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. Thus far the experiments in this respect have failed, and they will not soon be renewed. . . . His Majesty, King Cotton, therefore, is forced to continue the employment of his slaves; and, by their toil, is riding on, conquering and to conquer! He receives no check from the cries of the oppressed, while the citizens of the world are dragging forward his chariot, and shouting aloud his praise!”
Powerful, yes — but still not enough to set the match to the fuse. That was to come in 1857, two years after the publication of Cotton is King, with one of the most disgraceful episodes in American legal history: Scott v. Sandford (60 U.S. 393 (1857)), the notorious Dred Scott case.