Slavery, Capitalism, and Cotton: A History of How One Crop Became a Catalyst for the American Civil War

The American Civil War was a crucial event in our country’s history which ultimately shifted the socio-political and socio-economic structure of the Union, and in particular, the South. While the primary aim of the war was to maintain the state of the Union, this goal eventually included the abolition of slavery and emancipation of said slaves. Both the agrarian society of the South, along with their industrialized and more intellectually, morally progressive counterparts in the North, had struggled between the notion of free labour and the morality of slavery for generations. The catalyst for increased hostility between the North and the South can be directly correlated to one familiar crop in particular, cotton, which received a substantial boost in global demand during the late 18th century. With the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney in 1793, the industry of cotton production exploded and with it, the mass influx of slaves into the Southern most areas of the country. Eventually, tensions between the industrialized North and the agrarian South mounted due the shifting economic landscape, in addition to the cultural and socio-political climate, of two sectionalized portions of the country practicing two differing forms of capitalism. With tensions between the North and South at an all time high, one could easily infer that the abolition of slavery was beneficial to the Union both morally and economically.

During the late 18th century, the United States had to take on their own means of producing cotton, gathering knowledge about its horticulture from the West Indies and Mediterranean. While cotton was initially grown primarily for domestic consumption, many farmers grew bigger batches of cotton during and after the war for independence from Great Britain. To compensate for the lack of imported cloth from their former mother country, as well as consistently keep slaves at work who usually grew tobacco and rice, farmers in the United States ramped up production of the now highly demanded resource. Additionally, these farmers also began taking notice of the rising prices of textile cotton from Europe and had managed to acquire long-staple cotton seeds from the Bahamas, which when grown in the Sea Islands of Georgia, had a superior quality to the former. In 1793, Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin, a technological advancement that could rapidly remove the seeds from the newly cultivated upland cotton. Overnight, the invention of the cotton gin sent farmers into the interior of Georgia and South Carolina, subsequently bringing with them thousands of slaves. This overwhelming expansion of the production of cotton effectively revitalized the slave trade and slavery itself in the United States, forcefully relocating hundreds of thousands of African Americans to the deep South and additionally importing an estimated 170,000 slaves before the international slave trade was closed in 1808.(Beckert 109) With the mass influx of slaves into these territories, the global success of this booming business heavily relied on its traders, slave pens, slave auctions, and the consequent physical and psychological violence against those enslaved. With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803, the United States had acquired a landmass of seemingly unlimited agrarian potential, that was perfectly suitable for cotton throughout the southern regions, and offered expanded influences westward. An increased Sectional friction can be observed as the North began exercising increased caution at the prospect of the expansion of slavery through the newly acquired territories.  

While the industry of cotton, and the internal slave trade grew, we see the eventual expansion into more western territories. Socio-economic tensions between the North and the South would continue due to the revamped nature of Cotton Capitalism in the South. The booming cotton industry saw small southern farms develop into large plantations which generated massive wealth to the plantation owners, who made up only 12 percent of Southern slave owners but usually owned over 25 slaves. This wealth was generated on the backs of enslaved labor and required no other forms of compensation other than shelter, food, “relative health”, and workability. In this process, the new South effectively eliminated their consumer society with a system of capitalism revolving around the cotton industry and slavery. So, while 25% of white southerners owned slaves, usually 5 or less, the rest of the slave owning population were more likely to be heavily involved in cotton, and subsequently controlled a majority of the South’s wealth and power. These variables played significant roles in the Southern Oligarchs’ reliance on slavery, the institution itself, in its continued economic progression. The mere reason the South’s slave based and cotton driven society was able to function during the first half of the 19th century was that its cotton was being heavily exported to textile factories in France and Great Britain, alongside the first ebbings of Northern Industry. By the 1850’s, the South was producing 70 percents of the all the world’s cotton and had become its own booming economy.(Fellman, Gordon & Sutherland 26)

Meanwhile, the slave-free north was undergoing changes to its own economy. Reeling in from the Industrial Revolution spreading from the United Kingdom and into Europe, the new-industrialized North began to develop its own textile mills and factories which could ultimately utilize cheap southern cotton and produce fabrics and clothes for the consumer public. Most importantly, the industrialized North produced a strong working class who were paid wages, even if very little, to stimulate a prevalent consumer economy that encouraged dynamic production of other goods from areas across the region. Growing food businesses had made their way into the free states and their rural areas, growing crops that satisfied the needs of the market rather than subsistence. The duality of a progressive industrial, and market driven economy in the North, also attracted mass immigration from around the globe. With this influx of immigration to the North’s factories, the population grew steadily and with that, the large consumer based economy grew with it. Politically, this migration of lower class workers into textile mills and northern factories was significant because unlike the vast population of African American slaves in the South, this group counted as 5/5ths of a person on the voting ballot and granted more power to the developing Northern political identity.(Baptist 324) The pro-slavery political powers in the South had, until this point, made sure that their interests and ways of life were protected through federal law. The industrialization of the North’s economy was effectively accompanied by a veneration of a free wage economic system, which empowered the working class, and ultimately created moral and progressive changes in thinking by a collective and intellectual recognition. With events like the Second Great Awakening and the rise of staunch abolitionism, the North began to regard slavery as a morally sinful practice which fared no good to anybody. Looking at the economic aspects of it, slavery also began to make less sense as a foundation for an entire economy, which is essentially what developes in the South. The exportation of southern cotton ultimately developed an economically barren consumer society, in which only wealthy slave-owning plantation owners could benefit. Although the South was producing nearly all of the world’s cotton, this wealth was driven into few hands and destroyed what the North had been successful in creating; a mildly educated class of low wage workers who could ultimately participate and benefit from a large consumer economy. Additionally, their newly reinvigorated moral concepts about freedom and the pursuit of happiness for all men, regardless of color, made the South’s increasing reliance and practice of enslavement unjust and “pure sin”. Eventually, tensions would rise, leading to Southern secession in an attempt to maintain their traditional Socio-Economic environment.

After the South had seceded and lost the Civil War, cotton plantations that had been seized by the Union army were left untended. The United States government had been fully aware of the economic importance of the South’s incredibly lucrative cotton industry and sought to salvage it under a newly slave-free society. While ultimately hindering the dream of many former slaves to own this newly freed up land in the South, the government empowered the Union army’s southern presence and Freedman’s Bureau, a group dedicated to mediate between landowning, cash-poor planters and those formerly enslaved. The earnings of the cotton industry from overseas markets generated so much income that the Freedman’s Bureau, along with many newly-deemed “Radical” Republicans, mandated that both the formerly enslaved and enslavers would enter “sharecropping” agreements during the Reconstruction years, in which African American households would work their own plot of land as a tenant, in exchange for paying the landlord a share of the cotton crop they grew. (Baptist 407-408) Additionally, Congress had passed the 14th Amendment in 1868, which granted former slaves equal citizenship under United States law.

While it seemed as though the South would transform itself into something different than what it was, the realities of post-slavery fared to be a bigger challenge than expected for the cotton industry. Firstly, the new sharecroppers of cotton, both white and black, would cease to do this manual labor of picking at the excessive and demoralizing pace when confronted with whippings, torture and other types of violence. While the cotton produced in the United States prior to the Civil War had reached all time highs in barrels produced, it wasn’t until 1875 when this number would be surpassed despite the considerable increase in people producing cotton in the years post-emancipation. It was after this period that the production of cotton had significantly declined in the United States, as the many enslaved cotton pickers in the late 1850s who had picked cotton at well over 200 pounds per day would eventually be replaced by their great-grandchildren in the 1930s, picking about half that number. (Baptist 410) Additionally, the backlash against Reconstruction in the South by its former white rulers to protect their racial and economic superiority had developed a political and financial remoteness to the region. Despite the consistency of many to change the economy and diversify Southern businesses from just cotton, the demoralized and impoverished South’s only components to offer at the time were natural resources and impoverished workers. Factories and mining industries would spring up in the South by mostly offered extremely low-wage work and inevitably couldn’t compete with the heavily-capitalized Northern industries in the North, which were heavily influential on business legislation and manipulating price structures during the Reconstruction era. By the time the 1930’s rolled around, both black and white southerners were both equally poor and worked on farms in which they didn’t and could never own.

While it is certainly evident that the booming industry of cotton during the early to mid 19th century could be attributed to the rising tensions preceding the Civil War, it is important to question whether or not slavery itself had anything to do with this. After the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, the crop’s reputation was suddenly invigorated as a type of “white gold” that could be cultivated over and over again with a seemingly endless chain of supply and demand, yielding profits for those with the ingenuity to plant it. The new technology which made it quicker and easier to separate its seeds was ultimately the driving force of a surge in what was an already controversial and highly debated system of labor. While slavery existed in the United States way before the boom of cotton production, it became more of a business itself when cotton became the most profitable crop to yield in a stretch of souther land almost perfectly designed to harvest it. The mass influx of slaves during this time period also correlated with African American suffering, while sufficing the needs of a global economy’s most fundamental commodity. Through both research from historians and accounts from those who survived this principal event in time, it can be inferred that the persecution and misery of enslaved African Americans during the massive cotton migrations led to an increase in productivity and large financial gains for plantations owners, as well as other players in the global economy of the 19th century. It’s clear that the brutality and mercilessness of slave owners involved in the cotton industry during the years before the Civil War were ultimately factors in the demand for raw cotton from the North and foreign states like Great Britain and France. The surge of industrialization in these areas benefitted from the slave-driven economies of the South, while also morally demeaning the institution as a whole. As time went on, the North and its industrialized European counterparts began to realize that free-wage labor capitalism not only created large consumer societies which bolstered and solidified dynamic markets, but also that a multi-racial and essentially “free” citizenship in which the need for labor could satisfied with a growing and content population. After the Civil War ended and slaves were emancipated, many industrial capitalists in the North attempted to implement these economic changes for the Southern cotton industry with sharecropping, but inevitably never properly ensured the equality and financial empowerment of the formerly enslaved and their descendants.

Looking back at the Civil War and the economic state of the country prior to its beginnings, it’s apparent that the cotton crop and its massive industry boom played a major factor in causes for the bloodiest conflict in American history, as well as the eventually emancipation of of millions of slaves. Both North and South economies revolved around two completely different and separate divisions of labor which ultimately reached a tipping point politically, economically, and morally. While the abolition of slavery was not an initial goal of the Northern Union at the beginning of the war, it eventually became a primary goal to ultimately reshape the functionality of Southern labor once the war was over. Industrialized society in the North practiced a free-wage labor system which not only acted more effective economically, but also adhered to the cultural and moral shift in consciousness about equality and race. The cotton industry under a slave-based system thrived on the backs and suffering of countless African Americans, but was efficiently replaced with a system that failed to truly compensate and ensure true equality for former slaves economically. While marginally better consumer societies were eventually developed using capitalist tactics such as sharecropping and low wages, the industrial capitalists in the North continued to benefit financially off of the cotton industry now by both poor white and black farmers. By looking at all of these aspects about this time period, it is clearly evident that the influence of cotton and its players domestically and abroad, played a pivotal role in the war and the eventual abolition of slavery.


  1. Beckert, S. (2004). Empire of Cotton: A Global History . London: Macmillan.

2. Fellman, M., Gordon, L. J., & Sutherland, D. E. (2003). This Terrible War: The Civil War and Its Aftermath (3rd ed.). New York: Longman.
3. Baptist, E. E. (2014). The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American capitalism. New York: Basic Books, a member of the Perseus Books Group.


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