How did plantation crops and the slavery system change between 1800-1860? Why did these changes occur?

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mybrothermycroft eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Between 1800 and 1860, the entire economy of the United States had changed, and nowhere more so than in the South. Early settlers chose coastal locations, where soil was moister and long-staple cotton was easy to grow. This cotton was very high quality and rapidly found a large market in Europe. Demand rapidly outpaced supply. This demand in turn led to three developments: farmers switched from other less profitable crops to cotton; many new farmers moved into the Southern cotton belt because of the economic opportunity it presented; and farmers also increasingly had to choose less desirable upland locations where the soil was less rich and much drier. The long-staple cotton didn't grow there as well, and the quality was less negatively affected. European demand was such that most of the European nations were actually on better terms with the South than they were with the North. In terms of trade, cotton had made the South quite powerful, but it depended on constant production of new cotton. 

To address this demand, the cotton gin opened up the drier upland soils by allowing high quality cotton to come from lesser quality plants in lesser quality locations. The gin also encouraged smaller cotton farms that required more manual labor. So cotton production continued to soar and to spread from wealthy coastal landowners to smaller hardscrapple farmers. They often didn't own their own gins, so they were at the mercy of the major merchants who bought and ginned their raw cotton. 

See where this is headed? The South developed a dependence on one crop, which increasingly was controlled by merchants and wealthy coastal landowners. The majority of the cotton farmers did not do as well, but were so dependent on cotton that they willingly became foot soldiers when the Civil War began, so as to protect their livelihood and smaller farms. The gin allowed the production of high quality cotton from low quality raw product, which then allowed cotton to be grown elsewhere. South America, India, and other countries began to compete with the South and the trading strength of the South began to weaken. Ultimately, this was a bad economic model, and the fact that the short-staple cotton required more slaves -- a hot point with the North and with some of their European trading partners -- caused the position of the South to weaken. Before they knew it, they were initiating a Civil War but had lost the trading clout they had counted on and ended up sending their upland cotton farmers into battle. It became very bloody and the South was divided within itself between the coastal barons of Savannah and Atlanta and the inland farmers. Ultimately, trade drove change in cotton, the spread of the cotton gin, the spread of slavery, and the simultaneous weakening of trade links with Europe. The South doomed itself by its efforts to expand in the cotton trade with lower grade cotton, and the Civil War was lost before it started. The economic desolation of the South after the Civil War came about because the trade was disrupted long enough and had already been weakening, so even if slavery hadn't been abolished, the heyday of cotton was over and all these cotton growers had nothing to live on. 

mkoren eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The crops grown on plantations and the slavery system changed significantly between 1800-1860. This occurred for a few reasons. In the early 1800s, plantation owners grew a variety of crops. These crops included tobacco, hemp, wheat and vegetables in the Upper South. In the Deep South, plantation owners grew cotton, sugar, and rice. Cotton could be profitable, but there was a very limited area where long stable cotton could be grown. With this cotton, machines could easily separate the seeds from the cotton. Short staple cotton could be grown inland. However, the seeds had to be separated by hand. This was very difficult to do. Slaves were used to do work on all of these plantations. However, the invention of the cotton gin totally changed things in the south. The cotton gin was a machine that made it much easier to separate the seeds from short staple cotton. Since there was a lot of land available inland, plantation owners could now grow lots and lots of cotton. This would allow them to make a lot of money. Thus, slavery became much more important. It is questionable if slavery would have spread if the cotton gin wasn’t invented. Now, because demand for cotton was high worldwide, the plantation owners needed slaves more than ever. They could make a lot more money by selling cotton. By 1860, cotton was the main export of the south. Thus, the invention of the cotton gin and high demand for cotton changed the kinds of crops grown in the south and increased the need for slaves.

austinmitchell | Student

Between the years 1800 and 1860, slave-owning planters in the American South enjoyed increased production and a shift in focus from cash crops such as tobacco and sugar to cotton due to a combination of factors. Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1792 and the consequent effects of the Industrial Revolution on the textile industry gave plantation owners a much greater incentive to switch to cotton, as a single slave could produce a much greater financial return through cotton than through any other cash crop at the time.

The slavery system underwent a significant change in 1808 when the United States banned the importation of slaves. By cutting off the supply of new slaves, a subsequent demand for domestic slaves grew. This produced a domestic slave market and an international slave smuggling market, both of which had never existed before. According to Ulrich Phillips, a noted historian of the Old South, one out every four Virginia families owned slaves by the year 1840, and that year's U.S. Census counts more than two million slaves in the Lower South alone. This accounted for almost half of the total population of the area.

The slave economy grew to eclipse that of any other American industry at the time, setting a dangerous precedent that could not be sustained much longer. By the year 1860, a slave population of four million meant that slaves outnumbered free citizens by a ratio of 7:1. These conditions led to Southern secession, the formation of the Confederacy and the American Civil War.


Phillips, Ulrich B. "The Economic Cost of Slaveholding in the Cotton Belt"

Phillips, Ulrich B. American Negro Slavery; a Survey of the Supply, Employment, and Control of Negro Labor, as Determined by the Plantation Regime.

pholland14 | Student

Between 1800 and 1860, slavery grew exponentially in the Lower South and inserted itself more and more into our politics.  Eli Whitney's invention of the cotton gin in 1793 allowed one slave to do more work, as this saved time picking the seeds out of the cotton.  This allowed the large plantation owners to make more money and encouraged them to plant more acreage in cotton every year.  The cotton gin had greater consequences as well.  Cotton is a crop that requires warm temperatures and nutrient-rich soil; this meant that plantation owners were always looking for new ways to expand.  Southern congressmen and then-president Polk pushed through the Mexican War which many abolitionists saw as a war to expand the slave power.  The Ostend Manifesto was an attempt to gain Cuba as a potential slave state.  

The cotton gin also made field hands much more valuable; before the Civil War, the South had more money in slaves than the United States had in railroads and banks combined.  The size of this investment in slavery meant that the government could not simply by the slaves and set them free.  Slave owners began to try to justify their slave ownership.  Slaveowners did not loan out their slaves for infrastructure projects, as this took away resources that could go towards getting more cotton.  

The growth in American slavery due to the cotton gin also had economic ramifications.  The abundance of cotton made textiles cheaper and created jobs in the Northeast and in Britain.  Many garment workers in the antebellum period would not be able to work if not for the efforts of slaves in the Lower South.  In the Civil War Southern statesmen hoped that the shortage of cotton would force the British to recognize Southern independence.  

By 1860, the American slave issue was nearly impossible to resolve.  One side clung to the idea that the slaves should be free due to humanitarian concerns and market fairness, while the other side claimed class structure and property rights for keeping their slaves.  The Founders intended for the issue to die a natural death, but due to the amount of money involved through the exportation of cotton, the market grew instead.