By KWAME SOMBURU
Slavery existed in the South for almost 200 years before “Cotton became King.”
Only 81 bags of cotton were exported from the United States as late as 1790. But the introduction of the cotton gin three years later stimulated large-scale development of cotton as a cash crop. Cotton production doubled every decade from 100,000 bales in 1801 to 4.5 million in 1859.
Meanwhile, the slave population grew from 700,000 at the close of the American Revolution to 4 million in 1860.
The decade following the revolution had brought economic depression to the Southern plantations. Tobacco was the major crop for half of the South’s population, and its price dropped very low.
Other crops, like rice and indigo, were not able to compensate for the loss. Wool was encouraged, but large-scale production of wool without a good market for mutton was not profitable.
The weakness of Southern agriculture resulted in sharp drops in the price of slaves. In 1794, George Washington even advised a friend to shift from slaves to investment in some other form of property.
In these circumstances, the prosperity of Southern agriculture and the salvaging of the planters’ huge investments in slaves depended upon the coming of a new important cash crop. The cotton gin solved the problem. The gin enabled one person to clean more cotton in a day than 10 could clean in a month.
This coincided with the rise of a new market for cotton created by the Industrial Revolution in England. A profitable partnership developed between owners of prime cotton-growing land and chattel slave labor on this side of the Atlantic and owners of spinning mills, machines, and wage slaves on the other side.
Since “Cotton was King,” the planters were able to dictate the major domestic and foreign policies of the country. In 1800, led by Madison and Jefferson, they took the reins of power away from the Federalist Party, which represented the Northern merchant class.
For the next 60 years, the planters were the main force in the government, and planned its wars (on Indians, slaves, and foreign governments like Mexico), annexed new territories, and appointed their representatives to important posts-all in the interests of their slave-based economy.
Chains, whiskey, and prayer-meetings
But King Cotton took a heavy toll on the slaves. An abolitionist, Theodore Weld, wrote:
“We will prove that the slaves in the United States are treated with barbarous inhumanity; that they are overworked, underfed, wretchedly clad and lodged, and have insufficient sleep; that they are often made to wear round their necks iron collars armed with prongs, to drag heavy chains and weights at their feet while working in the field, and to wear yokes, and bells, and iron horns; that they are often stripped naked….”
Another witness wrote that slaves during cotton-picking season “usually labor in the field the whole of the daylight, and then spend a good part of the night in ginning and baling. … Another proof that the slaves … are overworked is the fact that so few of them live to old age. A large majority of them are old at middle age, and few live beyond 55.”
The slave masters utilized various ways to maintain the status quo in addition to violence and terror. Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, related a method that is still used today to keep Africans both at home and in the diaspora under control.
He stated that although “slaves would sometimes fight with each other, and even die at each other’s hands,” they “were trained …. to think and feel that their masters were superiors.”
Douglas also pointed out that both the drug of alcohol and the drug of religion were used to maintain slavery. “To enslave men successfully and safely,” he wrote, “it is necessary to keep their minds occupied with thoughts and aspirations short of the liberty of which they are deprived. … The drinking man could get plenty of whiskey, and the religious man could hold prayer-meetings, preach, pray, and exhort.”
Slaveholders often claimed that the slave trade was not immoral since it would “civilize” the enslaved Africans by exposing them to Christian teachings. But a former slave, Prince Johnson, drew a different picture of the Master’s church:
“None of us didn’t have no learnin’ at all. Dat is, us didn’t have no book learnin’. Twan’t no teachers or anything like dat, but us sure was taught to be Christians. Everything on dat place was a blue stockin’ Presbyterian. When Sunday come us dressed all clean and nice and went to church. Us went to de white folks’ church and set in de gallery.”
Resistance and revolt
Yet many in the enslaved Black population fought back. Some evidence is provided in Helen T. Catterall’s “Judicial Cases Concerning American Slavery and the Negro,” which lists only those cases that came before colonial or state supreme courts between 1640 and 1865.
According to the court records, 591 slaves sued for their freedom, 561 ran away from their masters, and 533 assaulted, robbed, poisoned, or murdered whites.
Many full-scale rebellions took place. One of the most important and carefully planned slave revolts occurred in Virginia in 1800. A 24-year-old slave named Gabriel planned it with his wife, brothers, and another slave. They recruited over a thousand slaves, and some writers say that almost 10,000 pledged their support.
Many of the recruits had served in the American Revolution, and had been promised freedom if the British were defeated. However, once the war was over, the promise was forgotten.
At the start of this revolt, two slaves, Tom and Pharoah, told their master about the conspiracy. The plotters were massacred.
But rebellions continued to take place. In 1826, 77 slaves mutinied on a Mississippi River steamer, killed five white men on board, and escaped to Indiana. In July 1845, 75 slaves from three Maryland counties armed themselves and began to march to the Pennsylvania state line until a group of whites routed them.
Many runaway slaves built communities of “maroons” in the swamps and mountains of the South. The maroons often engaged in guerrilla raids against nearby white settlements, sometimes making common cause with poor whites or Indians.
In 1818 and again in the 1830s, many runaway slaves fought heroically together with the Seminoles against the U.S. Army’s attempts to expel the Native American people from Florida.
“A nation of white people”
The rise in economic and political power by the Southern planters was reflected in the stifling of the already limited rights of “free” Black people. White society could not accept free African Americans, who, through their very existence, challenged white racial ideals as a justification for slavery.
When free Blacks were disenfranchised by the North Carolina Constitutional Convention in 1835, a white delegate, James W. Bryan, explained to the gathering:
“I do not acknowledge any equality between the white man and the free negro in the enjoyment of political rights. … This is a nation of white people-its offices, honors, dignities, and privileges are alone open to, and to be enjoyed by, white people.”
Racism and pro-slavery feeling extended to the North as well. After all, Northern investors dominated Southern agriculture and industry. Northern merchants shipped the cotton; Northern mills spun it into fabric.
Furthermore, the profitable smuggling of slaves by Northern captains began in 1808, when the law against slave importation began. Slave smuggling on U.S. ships to Cuba continued until 1886.
In 1829, the Rev. Samuel May, a prominent abolitionist, was told the following by “a New York merchant of first rank”:
“Mr. May, we are not such fools as not to know that slavery is a great evil, a great wrong. But it was consented to by the founders of our republic. It was provided for in the Constitution of our Union.
“A great portion of the property of the Southerners is invested under its sanctions; and the business of the North as well as the South has become adjusted to it. There are millions upon millions of dollars due from Southerners to the merchants and mechanics of this city alone, the payment of which would be jeopardized by any rupture between the North and South.
“We cannot afford, sir, to let you and your associates succeed in your endeavor to overthrow slavery. It is not a matter of principle with us. It is a matter of business necessity. … We mean, sir (said he with increased emphasis), we mean, sir, to put you Abolitionists down-by fair means if we can, by foul means if we must.”
And foul means were used quite regularly.
The Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy, a white Christian abolitionist, was run out of St. Louis because he was critical of a judge’s leniency in the trial of a person accused of burning a Black man alive. He was later killed in Alton, Ill., when a mob for the fourth time destroyed the printing press for his newspaper.
David Walker, a free Black from North Carolina, disappeared soon after the publication of his “Appeal” in 1829. The manuscript was an uncompromising condemnation of slavery, in which Walker advocated that Black people violently overthrow the slave system.
Wealthy pro-slavery interests in the North had some success in fanning the flames of racism among working-class and poor whites. Many whites in the Northern cities already harbored resentment against Black workers, whom they saw as competition for low-paying jobs.
Blacks were excluded from the white trade unions. The young Frederick Douglass, a manual worker though still a slave, was attacked by white shipyard apprentices in Baltimore.
In many cities, murderous white mobs descended on the communities of “free” Blacks. In Cincinnati in 1829, mobs helped to convince over half the Black population to flee the city rather than suffer violence and enforcement of the “Black Codes.”
Between 1829 and 1849, Philadelphia mobs set off half a dozen major anti-Black riots. In August 1834, a group of whites stormed through the main Black neighborhood for two nights. They dragged their victims from their beds and beat them, destroyed homes and churches, and forced hundreds to flee.
In 1835, an angry white crowd hurled boxes of abolitionist literature into the Delaware River while Philadelphia’s mayor stood by. And in May 1838, several thousand whites attacked the new Pennsylvania Hall, where a national conference for the abolition of slavery was about to take place. As the abolitionists watched, their hall was burned to the ground.
All of the heroic efforts of Blacks and their allies to fight back could do no more than make some dents in the powerful armor of the slave system. But with the expansion of manufacturing and the use of industrial wage workers, industrial capitalists in the North increasingly saw slavery as an obstacle to their profit-making interests.
This provided an opening that led to the destruction of the slavocracy and to the Civil War. In next month’s Socialist Action, we will discuss these developments.