Slavery arrived in the New World before the Pilgrims, and it might not have survived to see Southern secession had it not been for Eli Whitney’s cotton gin.
Generations of early Americans tolerated slavery, most hoping the country would outgrow it by “slow, sure and imperceptible degrees,” as George Washington said, according to Joseph Ellis’ biography, “His Excellency.”
Ending slavery was the logical outcome of the revolution Washington led against the British, a fact he acknowledged in his will, which freed his own slaves upon his wife’s death.
Washington, like other founders, also thought slavery inefficient. Only a fraction of Mount Vernon’s more than 300 slaves worked, he once noted. The rest remained because he did not desire to break up families.
James Madison once reported that the owner of a 10-acre free farm in Pennsylvania made more money than he did working 2,000 acres with slaves, according to historian Paul Johnson.
The Founding Fathers, waiting for slavery’s demise, perhaps did not foresee the impact of Whitney’s machine, which separated seed from cotton and gave rise to King Cotton in the South. Nor could they have anticipated the Second Great Awakening, a religious movement that fueled the rise of abolitionism, mostly in the North. The South, rather than moving away from slavery in the early 19th century, actually became more dependent on it, writes historian Allan Nevins: “It was not relaxing the laws which guarded the system, but reinforcing them ... The South was further from a just solution to the slavery problem in 1830 than it had been in 1789.” The transformation was such that in 1837, one of that generation’s leading lights, South Carolinian John Calhoun, argued that slavery was a “positive good.” Calhoun’s disciple, Jefferson Davis, shared that view. Four years after Calhoun’s remark, an observer traveling through the South by boat witnessed a Kentucky slave owner and his 12 newly-purchased slaves, who were chained at the wrists and looked like “so many fish upon a trot-line.”
If slavery was “good,” wondered the observer, how was it that no man desired it for himself?
“I never knew a man who wished to be himself a slave,” he later wrote. Thus, Abraham Lincoln had begun moving toward a position he would elucidate in later years: “He who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves, and under a just God cannot long retain it.”
Quick Fact: Cotton’s Machine
Eli Whitney was a Yale graduate who took a job as a tutor on a Georgia plantation to pay off his college debts. There he invented a machine to comb the sticky seeds from cotton, allowing the crop to flourish throughout the South. The region’s cotton yield, as a result, doubled in each decade after 1800, according to the Eli Whitney Museum.