Donald Elder: Events in American History: The Cotton Gin

Nov 28, 2016 by

An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: Events in American History: The Cotton Gin

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

  1. Professor Elder, one event that has been seen from many different perspectives is the invention of the cotton gin. Some blamed it for the Civil War, others say it revolutionized industry in America. What was going on at that time period?

    Since the earliest days of Egyptian civilization, people in the Nile river delta region had recognized that they could weave the fiber of the cotton plant (which flourished in that region) into cloth. That fiber proved difficult to harvest, however, because of the plant’s seeds. Embedded in the cotton bolls, they proved remarkably hard to remove by hand.

    Because of this, efforts took place through the ages to develop a tool to help remove the seeds, though with only limited success. Into this void stepped an American named Eli Whitney. A graduate of Yale College, Whitney had become the tutor for the children of the Revolutionary War hero Nathaniel Greene. Because of his contributions to the American cause during that conflict, the state of Georgia had given him a plantation in 1785. After he passed away the next year, his wife continued to operate the plantation, and in 1792 had hired Whitney to educate her children.

    Occasionally, Mrs. Greene would entertain other local planters, and they would frequently lament about how painstakingly removing seeds from the cotton that grew in abundance in that area made it difficult to turn a profit on the crop.

    Intrigued, Whitney then set about to develop a machine to perform the task of removing seeds. Whitney soon perfected a device that used a roller, a comb-like grate, and spikes to remove the seeds without damaging the fiber of the plant. He applied for a U.S. patent, which he received on March 14, 1794. This had an immediate impact on the nation, as the invention of the cotton gin (a shortened version of the word “engine”) made the growing of cotton economically viable.

    To make things even more fortuitous for those who planted cotton, the Industrial Revolution in Europe had created a huge demand for that product. Within a few years, textile plants began to spring up in the United States as well. Because of this, plantations devoted to the cultivation of cotton soon sprang up throughout the American South. In a burst of creative innovation, Eli Whitney had thus fueled a cotton boom that would continue virtually unabated until the American Civil War.

  2. There seems to be two names associated with the “cotton gin”: Eli Whitney and Samuel Slater. Who is generally regarded as the inventor and were there contributions from the other individual?

    As we just saw, Eli Whitney rightly deserves recognition as the inventor of the cotton gin. Samuel Slater played his part in the story by bringing the concept of the textile factory to the United States. Born in the English countryside, Slater had gone to work in an English cotton mill at the age of ten. A quick learner, he soon mastered every aspect of the business.

    Accordingly, he hoped to become the owner of his own cotton mill, but he soon recognized that the class system in operation in England would prevent him from ever achieving his dream. Learning that individuals in the United States desired to start their own textile factories, Slater contemplated emigrating there. England, however, had placed an obstacle in his path, passing a law that forbade the export of anything relating to textile factories—including individuals who worked in them.

    Ingeniously, Slater disguised himself one day as a farm laborer, and booked passage to America.

    He couldn’t take any plans with him, but he memorized them and thus brought the plans with him anyway. He arrived in the United States in 1789, and moved to Rhode Island. There he entered into a partnership with Moses Brown, Smith Brown, and William Almy, and by 1793 had constructed a textile factory in Pawtucket entirely from memory. In a serendipitous fashion, Whitney’s invention a year later provided Slater with ample supplies of cotton to process into cloth. Whitney and Slater thus both deserve credit for their innovations.

  3. What was the immediate impact in terms of industry and the economy?

    Unlike some other inventions that only gradually began to change the business landscape, Whitney’s cotton gin gained instant acceptance among cotton growers. Unfortunately for Whitney, he had invented a very simple machine, one that any relatively skilled blacksmith could make. As such, counterfeit copies of his cotton gin soon sprang up throughout the American South. Whitney pursued a legal recourse and eventually won redemption in 1807, but by that time virtually anyone who wanted a cotton gin had already obtained one. Whitney would eventually become a wealthy man through his other manufacturing endeavors, but he profited little from the cotton gin. Slater, on the other hand, amassed a great deal of wealth through the manufacture of cotton cloth. Others followed him into that line of business, and soon the American textile industry rivaled that of England. By the time of the Civil War, textile mill owners and cotton-growing plantation owners constituted some of the wealthiest citizens in the United States.

  4. Some things cause a reverb or ramifications and repercussions around the world. Did the “cotton gin” have that impact?

    Clearly, the cotton gin had an effect that went far beyond the borders of the United States. Because it made cotton available at much lower prices because of reduced labor costs, textile factories the world over became dependent on that crop. When the American Civil War interrupted the delivery of cotton to Europe, the textile owners there began to search the world for other areas where cotton would grow. This had a profound impact on Egypt and India, two areas where cotton cultivation proved feasible. And during the American Civil War, a number of Union military operations—most notably, the Red River Campaign of 1864—had a goal of securing cotton producing areas for use by Northern textile factories. The cotton gin thus did have both an immediate and lasting impact on the whole world.

  5. Now the proverbial 64 thousand dollar question: did it, or did it not lead to the Civil War?

    In and of itself, the cotton gin did not cause the American Civil War. It did, however, create a situation where such a war became possible. Although historians and economists are not in total agreement on the subject, most experts believe that in 1790 slavery seemed on its way out of existence. Areas where slavery had flourished due to the cultivation of tobacco had seen a switch to wheat production, because that crop required far less labor quite a few slave holders had freed their slaves. With the invention of the cotton gin, however, this process changed. Because cultivating cotton required a significant amount of labor, individuals hoping to grow that crop bought slaves to do the work. But as the use of slave labor increased, so did a growing sentiment in the North that slavery was not economically in the best interests of the American economy. Most historians believe that the collision of these two attitudes regarding the existence of slavery led directly to the American Civil War. In that sense, by increasing the demand for slave labor, the cotton gin did indeed create a national argument that it took a war to decide.

  6. What have I neglected to ask?

    I drive quite frequently from my home in New Mexico to Lubbock, Texas, and on the way I pass many cotton processing plants. Although much more sophisticated in their design and powered in a vastly different many, these plants use the same basic concept that Eli Whitney invented in 1794. That fact speaks volumes to the lasting impact of his creation.

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