Many people are aware that advancing technology has an effect on society and individual behavior. From the displacement of human labor from the production process to video game or social media addiction, technology often seems to benefit only a relatively small number of people at the expense of everyone else.
This is not really the fault of advancing technology, but of ownership patterns and the financing of new capital. To illustrate, let us take the example of two inventions that changed the economic and political face of America, the cotton gin and the McCormick reaper. Today we will look at the cotton gin.
|Signing of the U.S. Constitution|
Although it seems counter intuitive, chattel slavery was beginning to look like a dying institution in late eighteenth century America. The framers of the U.S. Constitution were even able to get a sunset date for the importation of new slaves inserted into the document, with the obvious intent of following the growing anti-slavery sentiment and gradually abolishing the institution.
Then came Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin in 1793. Whitney began to work on his project after moving to Georgia in search of work. Farmers were desperately searching for a way to make cotton pay, so a woman named Catharine Green financed Whitney’s invention. Whitney created two types: a small, hand-cranked version and a large one that use horse- or water-power.
Prior to Whitney’s invention, cotton had required considerable labor to clean and separate the fibers from the seeds, taking a slave an average of ten hours to clean a single pound. The first version of the cotton gin operated by two slaves could clean fifty pounds a day, a 2,500% increase in processing capacity that eliminated the bottleneck to supplying the world with inexpensive fiber.
Practically overnight the whole picture of U.S. southern agriculture changed. Cotton changed from a crop at which no one was able to make a living, to a veritable gold mine. As a result, from 1803 to 1937 cotton was the single largest export of the United States. Fortunes were built and maintained on the cultivation of cotton, and it had all been made possible by the invention of the cotton gin.
Demand for slaves and land increased in proportion. Cotton is easy to grow but depletes soil of essential nutrients. Absent a program of rotating crops or otherwise restoring the land, cotton cultivation — and slavery — had to keep moving west into the new territories. The Missouri Compromise of 1820, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 attempted to maintain a balance of political power between slave states and free states, but economic pressures were building up. Cotton was simply too profitable.
In 1855 David Christy, a former abolitionist, published Cotton is King. (David Christy, Cotton is King, or, The Culture of Cotton, and its Relation to Agriculture, Manufactures and Commerce; to the Free Colored People; and to Those Who Hold that Slavery is In Itself Sinful; by an American. Cincinnati, Ohio: Moore, Wilstach, Keys, 1855.)
Christy claimed that the economic survival of the United States and the British Empire depended on the slave cultivation of cotton. Economic necessity therefore dictated slavery must continue. True, Christy was not the first one to make these arguments but he did give them their most persuasive form. See, for example, “Whig Principles: What’s Left of Them” from the Democratic magazine, The United States Review, December 1854, Vol. 34, No. 12, 465-477.
Two years later the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that not only changed the entire basis of the government of the United States, it changed history — and not for the better. This was Scott v. Sandford, (60 U.S. 393 (1857)) known to history as the Dred Scott case, one of the worst decisions ever handed down by a court of law in a presumably free society.
The facts are straightforward. Dred Scott (1799-1858) argued that since he had been taken to a state where slavery was illegal, he was ipso facto free. Scott had previously attempted to purchase his freedom, but his master refused. The Missouri Supreme Court held for Scott but was overturned on appeal to the United States Supreme Court.
|Roger Brooke Taney|
In his opinion Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney (1777-1864) ignored thousands of years of natural law theory as well as the Virginia Declaration of Rights and the Declaration of Independence. Contrary to the intent of the framers, Taney held that “persons” and “citizens” are synonymous terms in the U.S. Constitution. Since citizenship is granted by the State (so Taney argued), so are the “natural” rights that confer personality. (Ibid.)
In Taney’s line of reasoning, because Dred Scott was not a citizen but an “inferior being,” he was ipso facto not a person. He therefore had no standing in the court and could not sue for anything, much less his freedom: “[W]hether emancipated or not, [Negroes have] no rights or privileges but such as those who [hold] the power and the Government might choose to grant them.” (Ibid.)
Taney’s decision changed the U.S. Constitution from a delegation of rights from people in order to create a government, to a grant of rights from the government to create persons. He rejected the theory, pivotal in the formation of the United States, that certain rights inhere by nature in human beings, making them automatically and irrevocably persons.
As a Catholic, Taney’s decision is incomprehensible unless it is assumed that, as had many Americans by this time, he imbibed the doctrines of the New Christianity, Neo-Catholicism, and European type liberalism. If that was in fact the case, Taney would have assumed as a matter of course that sovereignty resides not in the human person, but in the abstraction of the collective — exactly as de Lamennais had asserted in his “theory of certitude.”
|Hugues Felicite Robert de Lamennais|
As a Neo-Catholic, Taney’s decision would have been a logical development resulting from the principles of European type democracy and liberalism. Reinforced by political and economic pressure from the South, and the growing acceptance of positivism among intellectuals, the opinion in Scott prepared the ground for an enormous expansion of State power.
Thus, as analyzed by constitutional scholar William Winslow Crosskey (1894-1968) in his study, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States (1953), the question decided in the Dred Scott case was not, as many authorities today claim, whether a black human being could be a citizen as that term is used in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, the Court decided the more fundamental issue — over which it had no jurisdiction! — of whether a black human being could be a person — “person” being something that has rights, status, and a position in society by nature itself, not by a grant from the State or any authority other than God.
In effect then, according to Taney, the United States government in the person of the Supreme Court has the power of God and can deny to anyone it chooses rights previously regarded as inherent in each and every human being. Specifically, as Crosskey explained, Scott decided whether any “‘man of African descent, whether a slave or not,’ could enjoy, under the Constitution of the United States, any right or protection whatsoever. All such men were left, by the principles of the Dred Scott case, to the absolute, unrestrained power of the separate states.” (William Winslow Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution in the History of the United States. Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press, 1953, 1084.)
As Crosskey, who died before the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, (410 U.S. 113 (1973).) commented regarding the decision,
This, to the present-day mind, seems an unbelievable decision; but to those familiar with the political demands of the South of the time when the decision was rendered, such a tenor in the Court’s holding will not be difficult to credit. For it was exactly what the South, for a long time, had been demanding. (Crosskey, Politics and the Constitution, op. cit., 1089.)