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lhc's post talks about an important point in the evolution of slavery, but I think it misses part of the point. Without the cotton gin, growing cotton simply wasn't economically feasible. Long-staple cotton, which grew near the sea, was great but couldn't be produced inland. Short-staple cotton, which could be grown inland, had tons of tiny seeds and so was way too time-consuming to clean -- slaves had to spend a long time picking the seeds out by hand. The cotton gin made it economically possible to grow and clean short-staple cotton. With the beginnings of the industrial revolution in the US, there was tremendous demand for clean cotton. Southern planters saw a good thing and expanded their operations to grow more and more cotton -- and use more and more slaves!
The institution of slavery, even in the South, had begun to die out by the late 1850's. Human labor had not only been aided by mechanical invention, but had begun to be wholly replaced by it. Machines were cheaper to maintain than humans, and by economic pressures alone, slavery was ending in the US. Had politicians been able to keep the country together another 10 years, the slavery issue would have been moot.
Slavery in 1800 was beginning to fade out, especially in the Northeast, where the Industrial Revolution had taken hold and the population was beginning to shift from the family farm to the city factory. Although this shift didn't happen overnight, it was beginning to make an impact on the demographics of the Northern states, where slavery hadn't actually been wildly profitable to begin with. In the South, ironically, a product of the Industrial Revolution, Eli Whitney's cotton gin, caused the "peculiar institution", to become more important than before. With the cotton gin, one slave could clean far more cotton than without it. Although the slave trade had been outlawed at this point, greedy slaveowners quickly figured out that with cotton gins and more slaves, they would be able to make more money than they had ever dreamed of. This launched another issue in the tragic story of slavery; by the time the Civil War begin, it was not unusual for slaveowners to procreate with their slaves to increase their property. In the North, by the time the war began, abolition was a full-fledged, fairly powerful movement, further exacerbating the tensions between the two sections. So in other words, slavery was important to the South in 1800, but absolutely necessary to fund the plantation lifestyle by 1860; slavery was present but dying out in the North in 1800, but seen as a societal evil to which no human should be subjected by 1860. And then the war started.
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