Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin – A Mixed Legacy

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December 8, 2020

Eli Whitney and the Cotton Gin – A Mixed Legacy

“Progress has different meanings for different people… what was progress for white people was enslavement and further degradation for African Americans.”

— Margaret Washington, Associate Professor of History, Cornell University

Eli Whitney is thought of by some as the Father of American Technology. Throughout his life, he had a talent for creating things people needed – nails, hairpins, canes, muskets and more. However, his most well-known patent – the cotton gin – also had the devastating effect of expanding the institution of enslavement; making it even more profitable. By 1850, cotton was 50% of our GDP, and a multi-billion dollar institution worth more than all the manufacturing and railroad companies combined.

"Eli Whitney," portrait of the inventor. Courtesy of the Yale University Art Gallery, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Early Life

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, on December 8, 1765. After his graduation from Yale College (now Yale University) in 1792, he considered becoming a lawyer. First, however, Whitney decided to work as a tutor to pay off his school debts. Although the tutoring jobs he was offered ultimately didn’t work out, one of the positions took him to Georgia where he was invited to spend time on the plantation owned by Catherine Greene, widow of Revolutionary War general, Nathanael Greene. There, he met a fellow Yale grad, Phineas Miller, who managed Greene’s plantation at the time and later became Greene’s second husband.

While living on the plantation, Whitney witnessed the difficulties of growing short-staple cotton that had to be picked and cleaned by hand. He took the problem as a challenge and designed a cotton “gin” (derived from the word “engine”). The gin could remove the seeds from cotton quicker and more efficiently than the plantation’s enslaved labor. Whitney and Miller became business partners and, with the financial support of Greene, began to manufacture the gin for general use. Whitney and Miller patented the cotton gin in 1794.

“Cotton is King”

The cotton gin revolutionized cotton production in the United States – benefitting Southern plantations, Northern textile mills, financial institutions, shipping companies and multiple other businesses and individuals connected to the institution of slavery. An enslaved person could produce approximately 5 pounds of lint cotton a day.  Whitney’s hand powered cotton gin could produce approximately 50 pounds of lint cotton a day.  By the time of the Civil War, steam powered cotton gins were producing approximately 2,500 pounds of lint cotton a day.  Soon cotton became the South’s most important crop and the leading U.S. export. Yet the cotton gin also had a significant human cost. Although cotton production became more efficient with the cotton gin, more enslaved labor was needed to plant and harvest the cotton as the number and size of plantations grew to keep up with demand.

Eli Whitney s Cotton Gin Patent Drawing, 03/14/1794 [National Archives Identifier: 305886]; National Archives and Records Administration Records of the Patent and Trademark Office Record Group 241

Westward Expansion

The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 opened the Mississippi River Valley to agricultural development.  However, millions of acres of land in this area, as well as the southeast, legally belonged to Native Americans.  In order to remove Indigenous people from their ancestral lands, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act of 1830.  At least 50,000 Native Americans were forcefully moved to lands west of the Mississippi, River.  This forced removal, that killed thousands of men, women and children, is known as the “Trail of Tears.”  Following their removal, massive numbers of enslaved people and planters from Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Kentucky and Tennessee moved onto this land to produce cotton.

As slave owners benefited from the success of cotton, the lives of the enslaved people they owned were often made even more challenging.  Tobacco farmers who now found their crop in less demand were able to sell their enslaved property to cotton plantation owners for higher prices. Cotton farmers, who may have considered freeing their enslaved property, found them too valuable to lose. Northern slave owners, who lived in states that were gradually abolishing slavery, chose to sell them south for a profit, rather than lose money from their legal emancipation.  Even the lives of free African Americans in the North were made more precarious as they faced the risk of being kidnapped and sold to Southern plantation owners with few repercussions.

Impact on Enslavement

In 1790 there were six slave states in the U.S. By 1860, the number of slave states grew to 15 and more than one third of the U.S. Southern population were enslaved. During this time period, the enslaved population grew from roughly 790,000 to 4,000,000, and annual cotton production grew from around 2,000 bales to 4,800,000 bales. Approximately one million enslaved people were sold from northern states and the upper south to the lower south to meet the demand for producing cotton.  This process became known as the internal slave trade. The internal slave trade became the largest forced migration in American history, and led to the destruction of numerous families.

Conclusion

It is impossible to remember Eli Whitney’s invention of the cotton gin without also recognizing his contribution to antebellum slavery in the United States. His legacy therefore, will always be tarnished with his impact on slavery.

However, it is important to note that Whitney also figured out how to manufacture muskets by using a machine method, making the parts interchangeable. This technique also proved to be revolutionary, allowing for the mass production of muskets beginning in 1798.

The National Archives says it best, “If [Whitney’s] genius led King Cotton to triumph in the South, it also created the technology with which the North won the Civil War.”

Recommended reading:

  • In Search of the Promised Land:  A Slave Family in the Old South, by John Hope Franklin
  • The Half Has Never Been Told:  Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward E. Baptist

Lyn Martin, Docent
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

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