Slavery Grows in 1800s America as Cotton and Sugar Production Increases
In the South, no one was digging canals or building factories. Tobacco, once the major crop, had worn out the soil in many areas, and many Southern planters were looking for a substitute. Cotton was a possibility because of the big demand for it, especially in England. But the variety of cotton that grew well in most of the South was difficult to de-seed.
In 1793, a teacher and inventor from Massachusetts named Eli Whitney visited a plantation in Georgia. Fascinated with the cottonseed problem, Whitney fiddled around and came up with a simple machine that rotated thin wire teeth through the slots of a metal grill. The teeth picked up the cotton fibers and pulled them through the slots, leaving the seeds behind.
Whitney’s cotton gin (short for “engine”) could do the work of 50 men. The result was a cotton boom. In 1793, the South produced about 10,000 bales of cotton. By 1820, that amount rose to more than 400,000. In 1794, a Frenchman in New Orleans named Jean Etienne Bore came up with a method of boiling off sugar cane until it turned into crystals, and the cultivation of sugar spread over the Southeast.
But growing cotton and sugar were labor-intensive activities, and that labor was supplied almost exclusively by slaves. Until the cultivation of cotton and sugar took off, slavery had appeared to be on the decline. A federal constitutional provision had outlawed the importation of any more slaves in 1808, but all the individual states had already banned the practice five years earlier.
And the prices of slaves had been steadily dropping, a sign that the economics of the system were too unfavorable to continue it.
Noneconomic reasons also factored in. A religious revival that swept the country in the late 18th and early 19th centuries did much to raise the level of opposition to slavery. In addition, many whites were fearful that an increase in the number of slaves could lead to a massive rebellion such as the one that had happened in Haiti in the 1790s.
But the rise of the cotton and sugar crops and the spread of tobacco to new areas increased the dependence of the South on slave labor. Ten to 20 slaves worked every 100 acres of cotton, and they became valuable “commodities.” In 1800, the average cost of a slave was about $50; by 1850, it was more than $1,000.
As the need for slaves increased, owners were anxious to increase their holdings through births. But as their value rose, slaves were sold from state to state as the market dictated, often breaking up families. In 1800, the number of slaves in America was put at about 900,000; by 1860, on the eve of the Civil War, the number was 4 million.
In summary, slave owners had a labor force they could force to work at no wages, and keep, sell, rape, or kill as they saw fit. To defend the system, the owners often fell back on the rationale that slavery was good for the slave and frequently mentioned in the Bible as a normal human condition.