Cotton and Race in the Making of America

Cotton and Race in the Making of America

The Human Costs of Economic Power

Book - 2009
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Since the earliest days of colonial America, the relationship between cotton and the African-American experience has been central to the history of the republic. America's most serious social tragedy, slavery and its legacy, spread only where cotton could be grown. Both before and after the Civil War, blacks were assigned to the cotton fields while a pervasive racial animosity and fear of a black migratory invasion caused white Northerners to contain blacks in the South. Gene Dattel's pioneering study explores the historical roots of these most central social issues. In telling detail Mr. Dattel shows why the vastly underappreciated story of cotton is a key to understanding America's rise to economic power. When cotton production exploded to satiate the nineteenth-century textile industry's enormous appetite, it became the first truly complex global business and thereby a major driving force in U.S. territorial expansion and sectional economic integration. It propelled New York City to commercial preeminence and fostered independent trade between Europe and the United States, providing export capital for the new nation to gain its financial "sea legs" in the world economy. Without slave-produced cotton, the South could never have initiated the Civil War, America's bloodiest conflict at home. Mr. Dattel's skillful historical analysis identifies the commercial forces that cotton unleashed and the pervasive nature of racial antipathy it produced. This is a story that has never been told in quite the same way before, related here with the authority of a historian with a profound knowledge of the history of international finance. With 23 black-and-white illustrations.
Publisher: Chicago : Ivan R. Dee, 2009
ISBN: 9781566637473
Branch Call Number: 338.17351 D2629C 2009
Characteristics: xiv, 416 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm


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Dec 14, 2010

This is a hefty, somewhat intimidating book but reading it is well worth your time. The author maintains that if it wasn’t for the cotton-friendly climate of the Southern states, slavery would’ve died out and the Civil War might never have happened.

Instead there was a period of intense “cotton fever” among rapacious white men which resulted in a high need for unskilled labor to work the cotton fields. At times, the cost of an enslaved person was $1500 so if the planters hadn’t made huge profits, the author believes slavery would’ve become financially untenable. Since there wasn’t a comparable crop in the north that was as lucrative and needed as many workers, slavery was never widely used in the northern states.

The author makes a convincing argument that the decision of the northern states, and later “free states”, to not use slavery or even outlaw it, was not related to a desire to give equal rights to the enslaved people. Rather it was an economic decision, as noted above, coupled with a harsh racism which made hostile environments for any black people who might wander their way. These states were primarily concerned with keeping their jobs, towns and states for white people.

Many northern states passed laws that prohibited black people from even entering their states and/or otherwise limited the freed people’s ability to support themselves and live freely. Sadly, even some abolitionists were in favor of exporting black people to a different country after they were freed from slavery; this had been proposed by no less than Abraham Lincoln, among many others.

The “western” states that were desperately trying to lure settlers never attempted to attract freed black people living in America; instead they conducted advertising campaigns in European countries, hence the large numbers of Scandinavians and Germans in the Midwest. And many Northerners were also deeply involved in slavery as investors, as middle-men, as slave ship builders and shipping magnates. New York City was the main money center for slavery.

When voting rights were finally given to black men, it was not done out of chivalry. The author maintains the Republican party needed the votes of the black men after the Civil War in order to win elections in the South. It wasn’t too long however before the voting rights were obstructed by odious requirements to own property, prove literacy, pay poll taxes etc until the black population was essentially disenfranchised.

90% of people of color lived in the South until the northern states and cities experienced severe labor shortages during WWI, and even more during WWII. Then, out of economic need and greed, the racist laws were repealed or ignored although the racism lingers even to this day, despite President Obama’s election.

This book does not make one proud of being an American. Our history is appalling.


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