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...
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.