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In 1794 Eli Whitney received a US patent for his cotton gin. Though simpler versions of the cotton gin had been used for centuries, Whitney’s invention was efficient and effective in processing short staple cotton, a crop that could be more easily grown in a variety of climates. The long-reaching impact of Whitney’s cotton gin on American history and culture is profound. As stated by Joan Brodsky Schur,
“Whitney (who died in 1825) could not have foreseen the ways in which his invention would change society for the worse. The most significant of these was the growth of slavery. While it was true that the cotton gin reduced the labor of removing seeds, it did not reduce the need for slaves to grow and pick the cotton. In fact, the opposite occurred. Cotton growing became so profitable for the planters that it greatly increased their demand for both land and slave labor. In 1790 there were six slave states; in 1860 there were 15. From 1790 until Congress banned the importation of slaves from Africa in 1808, Southerners imported 80,000 Africans. By 1860 approximately one in three Southerners was a slave.”1
During the early 19th century, slavery was on a decline in the United States. The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 (which took effect in 1808) prohibited the importation of any new slaves from Africa into the United States. In addition, the Missouri Compromise passed in 1820 prohibited slavery in states that were part of the Louisiana purchase, except Missouri. Slavery was most common in Southern states where agriculture supported the economy, but by the early 19th century Southern crops were diverse and there were limited areas where crops requiring extensive use of slave labor were grown.2
Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made the processing of short staple cotton easy, and turned it into a lucrative, easily grown crop. The Southern economy became almost completely dependent on cotton, and though Whitney’s cotton gin made processing the cotton less labor intensive, more slaves were required to plant, grow and harvest the cotton. Though not the only factor leading to the American Civil War, slavery was a primary source of dispute between the North and South.
The cotton gin can’t be blamed for the history of American slavery, but it certainly played a role in promoting, prolonging, and expanding the practice. Long after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished in the United States, the cultural impact of the practice, particularly in the South, remains. Racial tension between African Americans and Caucasians in the southern American states impact political views, economics, and daily life.
Though to my knowledge none of my ancestors were slave owners, the residual social implications of our country’s history of slavery impacted me considerably as a child growing up in a small, traditional southern town. There was always a clear divide between races in school, church, and even the grocery store. Respected adults in town expressed racist views unchecked, and resentment from the African American community was prevalent. As an adult, I often choose my words and mind my actions carefully; afraid to offend or appear to hold those same small-town, small-minded views.
Mr. Whitney certainly could not have known the significance of his invention, or its longstanding impact on American history. Without the cotton trade and its impact on the South, our history and culture would probably be very different.