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Be careful what you wish for
Eli Whitney’s labor-saving (!?) invention (Moments that Made America)
The law of unintended consequences is a persistent and powerful force in human history. Eli Whitney did not intend to expand the realm of slavery in America when he invented the cotton gin. If anything, he hoped his invention would reduce the demand for enslaved labor. But expanding slavery is exactly what Eli Whitney accomplished.
On a visit to a Southern plantation not long after graduating from college, Whitney observed what a laborious process the separating of cotton seeds from cotton fibers was. A worker might spend a whole day cleaning the seeds from a single pound of cotton fiber.
From boyhood, Whitney had possessed an inventive mind, and he thought there had to be a better way. He soon discovered one. He devised a hand-powered engine that pulled the cotton fibers through a mesh that separated out the cotton seeds. This “gin”—short for engine—allowed a worker to clean fifty pounds of cotton in a day. In other words, one worker now did the work of fifty.
Whitney patented his invention in 1794, and soon the cotton gin was in operation on plantations throughout the South.
At first blush, the cotton gin fueled the hopes of those who looked to modernization to allow the elimination of slavery from the United States. This group included many slaveholders, prominent men such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who winced at the contradiction between the equalitarian ideals of the new American republic and the gross inequality of slavery. Modernization was allowing the Northern states to dispense with slavery; Washington and Jefferson hoped it would do the same in the South.
Whitney’s invention greatly reduced the need for labor in the cleaning of cotton; other inventions might do the same in the growing of cotton. Washington and Jefferson looked on slavery as nothing better than a necessary evil: necessary to the operation of the Southern economy, evil in its treatment of the slaves themselves, starting with their lack of freedom. Inventions like Whitney’s cotton gin promised to make slavery less necessary, allowing clearer focus on its evils, which would lead to its eradication.
That’s not how things turned out. In fact, the cotton gin increased the demand for enslaved labor in the South, rather than decreasing it. The cleaning process had been the bottleneck in the cotton-production process; by eliminating the bottleneck, Whitney dramatically reduced the cost of producing cotton fiber. Cotton cloth, woven from from cotton fiber, had previously been a luxury item, with its market confined to the wealthy; now it became a mass-consumption item purchased by ordinary people.
As demand for cotton soared, so did demand for all the factors that went into cotton production. New lands, taken from Indian tribes by treaty, guile and force, were opened to cotton cultivation on the Gulf Coast Plain. The new plantations required thousands upon thousands of new slaves. The market price of slaves rose sharply, until they typically were the most valuable part of the property of plantation owners in the South.
The cotton boom breathed new life into slavery even in those states that didn’t grow much cotton. Tobacco, the cash-crop precursor to cotton, had worn out the soil in Virginia and other older states. George Washington had diversified out of tobacco before he died, hoping the end of tobacco might foretell the end of slavery.
But planters in those older states found a new cash crop: slaves. Compared to the West Indies and Brazil, the United States was a healthful place for enslaved men and women, who reproduced at a steady rate. Their offspring could be, and were, sold to the new plantations in the cotton belt from Alabama to Texas.
As the number and value of slaves grew, so did resistance by their owners to the idea of emancipation. The hope of Washington and Jefferson that the South would willingly end slavery vanished. Slavery became more entrenched than ever. And it became more aggressively expansionist, for in expansion lay future profits.
As for Eli Whitney, he never made much money from his invention. The basic concept of the cotton gin was straightforward, and copycats undercut his patent.
Yet he had other tricks up his sleeve. He pioneered a new method of producing guns for the United States army, based on the principle of interchangeable parts. Much as the cotton gin had lowered the price of cotton cloth, so Whitney’s method reduced the price of weapons—making them far more available when Southern expansionism encountered Northern resistance, and America exploded into civil war. By then Whitney was long dead, and so didn’t have to reflect that one of his inventions helped cause the Civil War, while another made it especially deadly.