The Market Revolution, Industrialization, and New Technologies

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Focussing on cotton growing and its difficulties and history, why did Whitney's gin completely energize cotton growing and revitalize slavery?

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It is an indisputable fact that the cotton gin invented by Eli Whitney revolutionized the production of raw cotton into the usable cotton fiber. If you have ever looked at a cotton plant at harvest, the seeds are deeply entwined within the fibrous strands of the plant. Having to hand pick and comb seeds from the fiber was an extraordinarily difficult process. However, while we generally believe mechanization increases efficiency, the premise that the cotton gin revitalized slavery is arguably not a direct correlation. Slavery most certainly was not in decline at the time the cotton gin was invented. Let’s look at some facts and determine if the relationship between the increase in cotton production from the invention of the cotton gin was solely responsible for the rise in slavery.

What is a historical fact is that the demand for cotton worldwide soared in the 1800s. By the time Whitney patented his cotton gin and the cotton gin became widely used on farms, employment in textile mills in Great Britain and America was exploding. By 1860, nearly one-fifth of the total twenty-million people employed in Great Britain was in textile mills. World demand and industrialization drove the need for cotton. Cotton production increased because of new mechanization and world demand for the fiber that was easily spun into clothing as well as other products. Demand for cotton increased the amount of cotton planted, resulting in a higher number of laborers in the form of slaves to meet the demand for cotton. According to research by Weber State, the slave population in the United States in was at 654,121 in 1790. By 1800, the slave population had grown to 851,452, over one million in 1810, and by 1860, the number of slaves was 3,950,000.

While the majority of slaves were laborers in agriculture, other crops like tobacco required large amounts of slave labor to continue to supply the market with products. However, where the cotton trade was booming, so was the number of slaves. By 1850, more than half of the slaves were working the cotton fields. The correlation between the rise in the number of slaves and cotton boom is clearly founded on historical evidence. What is not so clear is if one technology, Whitney’s cotton gin, can be the single factor in the substantial growth of the number of slaves in the United States.

The cotton gin was invented in 1793 by Eli Whitney, or some historians believe it was designed by Catherine Greene, one of the original financial investors in Whitney’s cotton gin. Because women were not allowed to file for patents, Whitney used her design to patent, build, and market the cotton gin. Putting that piece of historical trivia aside, during the 1790s, the United States was in the throes of an industrial revolution. In 1790, Samuel Slater brought new technology from England to open the first mechanized textile spinning mills, significantly increasing the speed at which cotton fibers were spun into threads and cloth. This was three years before the cotton gin was invented. Keep in mind it would take a few years before the cotton gin was a standard tool used by cotton growers. The pressure to grow more cotton could have just as quickly been the result of faster production capabilities worldwide than one invention that would not appear on cotton farms for some years later.

A balanced argument based on historical evidence, which there is a significant amount that is not explored in this answer due to constraints on the length of the response, is the worldwide demand for cotton and the industrial revolution created the need for increased cotton production. The pressure to grow more cotton plants resulted in an increase in the number of slaves. The cotton gin certainly improved the rapidity at which the raw cotton plant was changed into usable fiber and reduced the amount of time required to get the product to textile mills. Whitney’s invention was notable in that process, but other forces were in play, and while the cotton gin was a significant contributor to the increasing the number of slaves in the United States, it was one of many. The slave trade was not revitalized as much as institutionalized into the economic system of the United States. The tragedy of which using forced human capital as a shortcut to wealth the modern economy still bears.

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The cotton gin made it easier to grow and process the cotton, which made the slave states want to grow more and more cotton. Since they wanted more cotton, they needed more slaves to grow up. The cotton gin did not take the place of slaves. It created a greater demand for them.
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By "making slavery pay," it stimulated the internal slave trade by encouraging westward expansion. Those in Virginia, for instance, now profited by selling slaves southward to new lands opened for cultivation. It also spelled the end of Indian claims on lands in the Southeast, especially the Cherokee, Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, and Chickasaw. It also led to changes in the nature of slavery itself, further commodifying slaves as the process of production became more "industrial."

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There was an old southern saying... The cotton gin made slavery pay. This is one of the great ironies of U.S. history. When Eli Whitney invented and patented the cotton gin (1793) the idea was that the new technology would ultimately decrease slavery in America. In addition, the Constitution's prohibition of the importation of slaves in 1808 would send slavery into its final decline...Wrong... The cotton gin was new technology but it was also a money maker for the large plantation owner.  Prior to the gin, seeds had to be picked from the raw cotton by hand, a time consuming effort. Now that it was done by a machine and faster than human labor the desire to increase planting production prevailed. After 1808 slaves were no longer imported to the U.S., however the number of slaves in the nation grew. This occurred by keeping female slaves pregnant, another horrific side effect of slavery in America.

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It's because short-staple cotton was the only kind that could grow in the South (outside of the Sea Islands), but that kind of cotton took too long to separate from the seed by hand.  So growing cotton wasn't economically feasible.  But then the cotton gin changed that by allowing the to clean the cotton much faster.  So the price of producing cotton went down.  Cotton now became "king" in the South.  It needed lots of labor and so many slaves were needed.

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