What led to the consolidation of slavery as a labor system in the early republic, and how did slavery shape both the North and South?

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The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 played a significant role in the consolidation of slavery as the predominant labor system in the South and, later, in some western territories that permitted slavey, such as Arizona Territory. The absence of a substantial agricultural market in Arizona should give one...

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The invention of the cotton gin in 1793 played a significant role in the consolidation of slavery as the predominant labor system in the South and, later, in some western territories that permitted slavey, such as Arizona Territory. The absence of a substantial agricultural market in Arizona should give one an idea of how firmly entrenched slavery was as a labor system. However, one should not think that the Northern states operated completely separately from the South's "peculiar institution." All of the original thirteen colonies harbored slaves at one time or another. New York was among the last Northern states to abolish slavery, freeing the last of its slaves in 1827.

The invention of the cotton gin led to most Southern states choosing to make cotton a staple crop, given that it became the most profitable. Virginia, for example, had been a tobacco-growing state, but it switched to cotton, which proved to be more reliable and faster to cultivate. The cotton that they cultivated supplied textile mills in Great Britain and in Northern states, particularly in New England, where both the textile industry and the abolitionist movement flourished.

Too often, the North is discussed as though it operated outside of and separately from the system of slavery; however, this is not at all true. Slavery furnished the cotton that supplied textile mills, and the textile mills furnished the great profits that filled the coffers of major Northeastern banks.

To use a contemporary example to illustrate this point further, Brown University, when it was under the leadership of Ruth Simmons, recently acknowledged that it benefited from the slave trade and from industries, such as textiles, that depended on slavery. The family of the university's founder owned slaves and participated in the slave trade. Furthermore, Rhode Island was a hub for the trans-Atlantic slave trade, "mounting at least 1,000 voyages that carried more than 100,000 Africans into slavery over the course of a century." The report conducted by Brown University also cited numerous Northern businesses and industries that benefited from slavery.

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The roots of the consolidation of slavery lie in the staple crop system of agriculture in the South. During the early years of the republic, tobacco was the primary staple crop in many areas, along with rice and indigo in South Carolina. All were labor intensive and produced on a large scale. Slavery provided the necessary labor to sustain this system. It became entrenched and even expanded with the invention of the cotton gin, which allowed for more acreage to be devoted to cotton production. Cotton was very much in demand as a result of the textile revolution; and was also labor intensive. As a result, slavery became consolidated in the Southern states.

The Northern states did not rely on the large scale agricultural production that defined the economies of the Southern states. Such a development was impossible in the North as the climate, soil, and geography were unfavorable. The North therefore turned to industrial production as a major economic source. Industry did not readily lend itself to the use of slaves. Additionally, with the influx of immigrants in the early nineteenth century, a ready source of labor was available in the North. Immigrants could not move to the South, as there was no available land. Hence slavery offered no economic benefit to the North which soon focused on the brutality of the "peculiar institution."

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