In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Ed Baptist of Cornell University explores the cultural and economic importance of cotton in antebellum America.
Ed Baptist as an associate professor of history at Cornell University where his teaching and research interests are focused on the nineteenth-century United States, and particularly, the history of slavery in the South. His work has been featured in numerous peer-reviewed journals and he holds a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Ed Baptist – Cotton and the American Economy
A film critic describing a scene in Django Unchained talked about a scene where blood sprayed out over “white flowers” in a field of toiling slaves. Those weren't flowers. That was cotton. Much has changed since the 19th century when cotton was recognizable on sight—and when cotton made the US, as we know it today.
Cotton, like oil today, was the world's most widely traded commodity, and the US monopolized the world’s market—like OPEC. Cotton was half of US exports before the Civil War. Cotton brought foreign investment that created industry, railroads, and banks—many are still around today. The nation grew from irrelevant backwater into the world’s biggest economy.
The US dominated the world market because US slaves made higher-quality, cheaper cotton than free farmers anywhere. Slaves worked more efficiently because they had no choice. Slaveowners’ productivity demands constantly increased. And rising cotton profits encouraged migration west onto more fertile soil, creating a domestic slave trade that destroyed African Americans’ families, scattered communities, and left individuals isolated, less able to resist.
Industrial growth and slavery’s expansion fed each other. As slaves’ productivity grew, raw cotton prices dropped. This lowered cloth prices, expanding global textile consumption. Clothes became so cheap that business couldn’t move all the supply—leading them to create fashion magazines dedicated to convincing consumers that styles should change every year.
The struggle over whether some of or all of the West would become slave—and cotton--territory was what led to Civil War, and ultimately, to the end of slavery. But much of what enslaved people made when they made cotton persists: the inequalities of race, the benefits of accrued wealth, and on most of our bodies, every day, the fabric of our lives.