What was the role of cotton production and slavery in the South's economic and social development?

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poetrymfa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Cotton production was critical to the economic success of the South, and slavery was a crucial (albeit horrific and inhumane) means of meeting the high demands of that industry. 

The American South evolved as an agrarian society in which crops like tobacco, sugar, rice, wheat, hemp, and, of course, cotton supported the economy. Cotton, in particular, was in huge demand in the nineteenth century. It was largely responsible for the boom in the production of textiles overseas.

In fact, cotton served as the leading American export from 1803 to 1937 and was foundational to the Industrial Revolution; 77 percent of the 800 million pounds of cotton being used in Great Britain were directly produced in the South. The invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney expedited this process, but it was truly slavery that made it possible in the first place.

Karl Marx once commented, "Without slavery, you have no cotton."

In order to keep up with the European demand for cotton, the transatlantic slave trade provided forced laborers directly from Africa. In addition to this tragic violation of human rights and life, over a million African Americans living in the Upper South were sold off to the Deep South to feed "King Cotton." 

Socially speaking, it is clear that the demand for cotton prolonged slavery and, in doing so, arguably contributed to causing the Civil War. However, it also kept America in good standing with Europe because of the European market's dependency on cotton exports.