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Robert Kennedy's United States History Class

A New Nation and the Limits of Liberty

After reviewing the videos and text below, identify the conditions of African Americans as members of oppressed class and how did their condition shaped colonial, revolutionary America, and the early Republic by addressing at least five of the following factors: the Great Awakening, the Plantation System, the American Revolution, the war itself, the British Empire, and the U.S. Constitution, the Cotton Revolution, Slave revolts, Thomas Jefferson, and Andrew Jackson, and entertainment (minstrel shows).   

Africans in America America's Journey through Slavery 2 4 Revolution 1750 1805 

Africans in America America's Journey through Slavery 3 4 Brotherly Love 1791 1831 

The mounting body count of the French Revolution included that of the Queen and King, who were beheaded in a public ceremony in early 1793, as depicted in the engraving. While Americans disdained the concept of monarchy, the execution of King Louis XVI was regarded by many Americans as an abomination, an indication of the chaos and savagery reigning in France at the time. Charles Monnet (artist), Antoine-Jean Duclos and Isidore-Stanislas Helman (engravers), “Day of 21 January 1793 the death of Louis Capet on the Place de la Révolution,” 1794. Wikimedia,

In part, the Federalists were turning toward Britain because they feared the most radical forms of democratic thought. In the wake of Shays’ Rebellion, the Whiskey Rebellion, and other internal protests, Federalists sought to preserve social stability. And the course of the French Revolution seemed to justify their concerns.


In 1789, news had arrived in America that the French had revolted against their king. Most Americans had imagined that the idea of liberty was spreading from America to Europe, carried there by the returning French heroes who had taken part in the American Revolution.

Initially, nearly all Americans had sung the French Revolution’s praises. Towns all over the country had hosted speeches and parades on July 14 to commemorate the day it began. Women had worn neoclassical dress in honor of its republican principles, and men had pinned revolutionary cockades to their hats. John Randolph, a Virginia planter, named two of his favorite horses “Jacobin” and “Sans-Culotte” after French revolutionary factions.

In April 1793, a new French ambassador, “Citizen” Edmond-Charles Genêt, had arrived in the United States. During his tour of several cities, Americans had greeted him with wild enthusiasm. Citizen Genêt had encouraged Americans to act against Spain, a British ally, by attacking its colonies of Florida and Louisiana. When President Washington had refused, Genêt had threatened to appeal to the American people directly. In response, Washington had demanded that France recall its diplomat. In the meantime, however, Genêt’s faction had fallen from power in France. Knowing that a return home might cost him his head, he decided to remain in America.


Genêt’s intuition was correct. A radical coalition of revolutionaries had seized power in France. They had initiated a bloody purge of their enemies, the “Reign of Terror.” As Americans learned not only about Genêt’s impropriety but also the mounting body count in France, many of them began to have second thoughts about the French Revolution.

Americans who feared that the French Revolution was spiraling out of control tended to become Federalists. Those who remained hopeful about the revolution tended to become Republicans. Not deterred by the violence, Thomas Jefferson declared that he would rather see “half the earth desolated” than see the French Revolution fail. “Were there but an Adam and an Eve left in every country, and left free,” he wrote, “it would be better than as it now is.”8 Meanwhile, the Federalists sought closer ties with Britain.


Despite the political rancor, in late 1796 there came one sign of hope: the United States peacefully elected a new president. For now, as Washington stepped down and executive power changed hands, the country did not descend into the anarchy that many leaders feared.


The new president was John Adams, Washington’s vice president. Adams was less beloved than the old general, and he governed a nation that was deeply divided. The foreign crisis also presented him with a major test.


In response to Jay’s Treaty, the French government authorized its vessels to attack

American shipping. To resolve this, President Adams sent envoys to France in 1797. The French insulted these diplomats. Some officials, whom the Americans code-named “X,” “Y,” and “Z” in their correspondence, hinted that negotiations could begin only after the Americans offered a bribe. When the story became public, this “X.Y.Z. Affair” infuriated American citizens. Dozens of towns wrote addresses to President Adams, pledging him their support against France. Many people seemed eager for war. “Millions for defense,” toasted South Carolina representative Robert Goodloe Harper, “but not one cent for tribute.”9


By 1798, the people of Charleston watched the ocean’s horizon apprehensively because they feared the arrival of the French navy at any moment. Many people now worried that the same ships that had aided Americans during the Revolutionary War might discharge an invasion force on their shores. Some southerners were sure that this force would consist of black troops from France’s Caribbean colonies, who would attack the southern states and cause their slaves to revolt. Many Americans also worried that France had covert agents in the country. In the streets of Charleston, armed bands of young men searched for French disorganizers. Even the little children prepared for the looming conflict by fighting with sticks.


Meanwhile, during the crisis, New Englanders were some of the most outspoken opponents of France. In 1798, they found a new reason for Francophobia. An influential Massachusetts minister, Jedidiah Morse, announced to his congregation that the French Revolution had been hatched in a conspiracy led by a mysterious anti-Christian organization called the Illuminati. The story was a hoax, but rumors of Illuminati infiltration spread throughout New England like wildfire, adding a new dimension to the foreign threat.


Against this backdrop of fear, the French “Quasi-War,” as it would come to be known, was fought on the Atlantic, mostly between French naval vessels and American merchant ships. During this crisis, however, anxiety about foreign agents ran high, and members of Congress took action to prevent internal subversion. The most controversial of these steps were the Alien and Sedition Acts. These two laws, passed in 1798, were intended to prevent French agents and sympathizers from compromising America’s resistance, but they also attacked Americans who criticized the President and the Federalist Party.


The Alien Act allowed the federal government to deport foreign nationals, or “aliens,” who seemed to pose a national security threat. Even more dramatically, the Sedition Act allowed the government to prosecute anyone found to be speaking or publishing “false, scandalous, and malicious writing” against the government.10

These laws were not simply brought on by war hysteria. They reflected common assumptions about the nature of the American Revolution and the limits of liberty. In fact, most of the advocates for the Constitution and First Amendment accepted that free speech simply meant a lack of prior censorship or restraint—not a guarantee against punishment. According to this logic, “licentious” or unruly speech made society less free, not more. James Wilson, one of the principal architects of the Constitution, argued that “every author is responsible when he attacks the security or welfare of the government.”11


In 1798, most Federalists were inclined to agree. Under the terms of the Sedition Act, they indicted and prosecuted several Republican printers—and even a Republican congressman who had criticized President Adams. Meanwhile, although the Adams administration never enforced the Alien Act, its passage was enough to convince some foreign nationals to leave the country. For the president and most other Federalists, the Alien and Sedition Acts represented a continuation of a conservative rather than radical American Revolution.


However, the Alien and Sedition Acts caused a backlash, in two ways. First, shocked opponents articulated a new and expansive vision for liberty. The New York lawyer Tunis Wortman, for example, demanded an “absolute independence” of the press. Likewise, the Virginia judge George Hay called for “any publication whatever criminal” to be exempt from legal punishment. Many Americans began to argue that free speech meant the ability to say virtually anything without fear of prosecution.


Second, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson helped organize opposition from state governments. Ironically, both of them had expressed support for the principle behind the Sedition Act in previous years. Jefferson, for example, had written to Madison in 1789 that the nation should punish citizens for speaking “false facts” that injured the country. Nevertheless, both men now opposed the Alien and Sedition Acts on constitutional grounds. In 1798, Jefferson made this point in a resolution that the Kentucky state legislature adopted. A short time later, the Virginia legislature adopted a similar document that Madison wrote.


The Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions argued that the national government’s authority was limited to the powers expressly granted by the U.S. Constitution. More importantly, they asserted that the states could declare federal laws unconstitutional. For the time being, these resolutions were simply gestures of defiance. Their bold claim, however, would have important effects in later decades.


In just a few years, many Americans’ feelings towards France had changed dramatically. Far from rejoicing in the “light of freedom,” many Americans now feared the “contagion” of French-style liberty. Debates over the French Revolution in the 1790s gave Americans some of their earliest opportunities to articulate what it meant to be American. Did American national character rest on a radical and universal vision of human liberty? Or was America supposed to be essentially pious and traditional, an outgrowth of Great Britain? They couldn’t agree. It was upon this cracked foundation that many of conflicts of the nineteenth century would rest.


Free and Enslaved Black Americans and the Challenge to Slavery


Led by the slave Gabriel, close to one thousand slaves planned to attack Richmond in late August 1800 and end slavery in Virginia. Some of the conspirators would set diversionary fires in the city’s warehouse district. Others would attack Richmond’s white residents, seize weapons, and capture Virginia Governor James Monroe. On August 30th, two enslaved men revealed the plot to their master who notified authorities. Faced with bad weather, Gabriel and other leaders postponed the attack until the next night, giving Governor Monroe and the militia time to capture the conspirators. After briefly escaping, Gabriel was seized, tried, and hanged along with twenty-five others. Their executions sent the message that others would be punished if they challenged slavery. Subsequently, the Virginia government increased restrictions on free people of color.

Gabriel’s rebellion, as the plot came to be known, sent several messages to Virginia’s white residents. It suggested that enslaved blacks were capable of preparing and carrying out a sophisticated and violent revolution—undermining white supremacist assumptions about the inherent intellectual inferiority of blacks. Furthermore, it demonstrated that white efforts to suppress news of other slave revolts—especially the 1791 slave rebellion in Haiti—had failed. Not only did some literate slaves read accounts of the successful attack in Virginia’s newspapers, others heard about the rebellion firsthand after July 1793 when slaveholding refugees from Haiti arrived in Virginia with their slaves.


The Haitian Revolt (1791-1804) inspired free and enslaved blacks, and terrified whites throughout the United States. Port cities in the United States were flooded with news and refugees. Free people of color embraced the revolution, understanding it as call for full abolition and the rights of citizenship denied in the United States. Over the next several decades, black Americans continually looked to Haiti as an inspiration in their struggle for freedom. For example, in 1829 David Walker, a black abolitionist in Boston, wrote an Appeal that called for resistance to slavery and racism. Walker called Haiti the “glory of the blacks and terror of the tyrants” and said that Haitians, “according to their word, are bound to protect and comfort us.” Haiti also proved that, given equal opportunities, people of color could achieve as much as whites.2 In 1826 the third college graduate of color in the United States, John Russwurm, gave a commencement address at Bowdoin College, noting that, “Haytiens have adopted the republican form of government…[and] in no country are the rights and privileges of citizens and foreigners more respected, and crimes less frequent.”3 In 1838 the Colored American, an early black newspaper, professed that, “No one who reads, with an unprejudiced mind, the history of Hayti…can doubt the capacity of colored men, nor the propriety of removing all their disabilities.”4 Haiti, and the activism it inspired, sent the message that enslaved and free blacks could not be omitted from conversations about the meaning of liberty and equality. Their words and actions—on plantations, streets, and the printed page—left an indelible mark on early national political culture.


The black activism inspired by Haiti’s revolution was so powerful that anxious whites scrambled to use the violence of the Haitian revolt to reinforce pro-slavery, white supremacy by limiting the social and political lives of people of color. White publications mocked black Americans as buffoons, ridiculing calls for abolition and equal rights. The most (in)famous of these, the “Bobalition” broadsides, published in Boston in the 1810s, crudely caricatured African Americans. Widely distributed materials like these became the basis for racist ideas that thrived in the nineteenth century. These tropes divided white citizens and black non-citizens. But such ridicule also implied that black Americans’ presence in the political conversation was significant enough to require it. The need to reinforce such an obvious difference between whiteness and blackness implied that the differences might not be so obvious after all.

Henry Moss, a slave in Virginia, became arguably the most famous black man of the day when white spots appeared on his body in 1792, turning him visibly white within three years. As his skin changed, Moss marketed himself as “a great curiosity” in Philadelphia and soon earned enough money to buy his freedom. He met the great scientists of the era—including Samuel Stanhope Smith and Dr. Benjamin Rush—who joyously deemed Moss to be living proof of their theory that “the Black Color (as it is called) of the Negroes is derived from the leprosy.”5 Something, somehow, was “curing” Moss of his blackness. And in that whitening body of slave-turned-patriot-turned-curiosity, many Americans fostered ideas of race that would cause major problems in the years ahead.


The first decades of the new American republic coincided with a radical shift in understandings of race. Politically and culturally, Enlightenment thinking fostered beliefs in common humanity, the possibility of societal progress, the remaking of oneself, and the importance of one’s social and ecological environment—a four-pronged revolt against the hierarchies of the Old World. Yet a tension arose due to Enlightenment thinkers’ desire to classify and order the natural world. As Carolus Linnaeus, Comte de Buffon, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and others created connections between race and place as they divided the racial “types” of the world according to skin color, cranial measurements, and hair. They claimed that years under the hot sun and tropical climate of Africa darkened the skin and reconfigured the skulls of the African race, whereas the cold northern latitudes of Europe molded and sustained the “Caucasian” race. The environments endowed both races with respective characteristics, which accounted for differences in humankind tracing back to a common ancestry. A universal human nature, therefore, housed not fundamental differences, but rather the “civilized” and the “primitive”—two poles on a scale of social progress.


Informed by European anthropology and republican optimism, Americans confronted their own uniquely problematic racial landscape. In 1787, Samuel Stanhope Smith published his treatise Essay on the Causes of the Variety of Complexion and Figure in the Human Species, which further articulated the theory of racial change and suggested that improving the social environment would tap into the innate equality of humankind and dramatically uplift the nonwhite races. The proper society, he and others believed, could gradually “whiten” men the way nature spontaneously chose to whiten Henry Moss. Thomas Jefferson disagreed. While Jefferson thought Native Americans could improve and become “civilized,” he declared in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784) that blacks were incapable of mental improvement and that they might even have a separate ancestry—a theory known as polygenesis, or multiple creations. His belief in polygenesis was less to justify slavery—slaveholders universally rejected the theory as antibiblical and thus a threat to their primary instrument of justification, the Bible—and more to justify schemes for a white America, such as the plan to gradually send freed slaves to Africa. Many Americans believed nature had made the white and black races too different to peacefully coexist, and they viewed African colonization as the solution to America’s racial problem.

Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia sparked considerable backlash from antislavery and black communities. The celebrated black surveyor Benjamin Banneker, for example, immediately wrote to Jefferson and demanded he “eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas” and instead embrace the belief that we are “all of one flesh” and with “all the same sensations and endowed…with the same faculties.”6 Many years later, in his Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829), David Walker channeled decades of black protest, simultaneously denouncing the moral rot of slavery and racism while praising the inner strength of the race.


Jefferson had his defenders. Men such as Charles Caldwell and Samuel George Morton hardened Jefferson’s skepticism with the “biological” case for blacks and whites not only having separate creations, but actually being different species—a position increasingly articulated throughout the antebellum period. Few Americans subscribed wholesale to such theories, but many shared beliefs in white supremacy. As the decades passed, white Americans were forced to acknowledge that if the black population was indeed whitening, it resulted from interracial sex and not the environment. The sense of inspiration and wonder that followed Henry Moss in the 1790s would have been impossible just a generation later.


In the decades leading up to the Civil War, the Southern states experienced extraordinary change that would define the region and its role in American history for decades, even centuries, to come. Between the 1830s and the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, the American South expanded its wealth and population and became an integral part of an increasingly global economy. It did not, as previous generations of histories have told, sit back on its cultural and social traditions and insulate itself from an expanding system of communication, trade, and production that connected Europe and Asia to the Americas. Quite the opposite, the South actively engaged new technologies and trade routes while also seeking to assimilate and upgrade its most “traditional” and culturally engrained practices—such as slavery and agricultural production—within a modernizing world.


Beginning in the 1830s, merchants from the Northeast, Europe, Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean flocked to Southern cities, setting up trading firms, warehouses, ports, and markets. As a result, these cities—like Richmond, Charleston, St. Louis, Mobile, Savannah, and New Orleans, to name a few—doubled, and even tripled, in size and global importance. Populations became more cosmopolitan, more educated, and wealthier. Systems of class—lower-, middle-, and upper-class communities—developed where they had never clearly existed. Ports that had once focused entirely on the importation of slaves, and shipped only regionally, became homes to daily and weekly shipping lines to New York City, Liverpool, Manchester, Le Havre, and Lisbon. The world was, slowly but surely, coming closer together; and the South was right in the middle.


In November of 1785, the Liverpool firm of Peel, Yates, & Co. imported the first seven bales of American cotton ever to arrive in Europe. Prior to this unscheduled, and frankly unwanted, delivery, European merchants saw cotton as a product of the colonial Caribbean islands of Barbados, Saint-Domingue (now Haiti), Martinique, Cuba, and Jamaica. The American South, though relatively wide and expansive, was the go-to source for rice and, most importantly, tobacco.


Few knew that the seven bales sitting in Liverpool that winter of 1785 would change the world. But they did. By the early 1800s, the American South had developed a niche in the European market for “luxurious” long-staple cotton grown exclusively on the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina.1 But this was only the beginning of a massive flood to come, and the foundation of the South’s astronomical rise to global prominence. Before long, botanists, merchants, and planters alike set out to develop strains of cotton seed that would grow further west on the Southern mainland, especially in the new lands opened up by the Louisiana Purchase of 1803—an area that stretched from New Orleans in South to what is today Minnesota, parts of the Dakotas, and Montana.


The discovery of Gossypium barbadense—often called “Petit Gulf” cotton—near Rodney, Mississippi, in 1820 changed the American and global cotton markets forever.2 “Petit Gulf,” it was said, slid through the cotton gin—a machine developed by Eli Whitney in 1794 for deseeding cotton—more easily than any other strain. It also grew tightly, producing more usable cotton than anyone had imagined to that point. Perhaps most importantly, though, it came up at a time when land in the Southwest—southern Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and northern Louisiana—became readily available for anyone with a few dollars and big dreams. Throughout the 1820s and 1830s, the federal government implemented several forced migrations of Native Americans, establishing a system of reservations west of the Mississippi River upon which all eastern peoples were required to relocate and settle. This, enacted through the Indian Removal Act of 1830, allowed the federal government to survey, divide, and auction off millions of acres of land for however much bidders were willing to pay. Suddenly, farmers with dreams of owning a large plantation could purchase dozens, even hundreds, of acres in the fertile Mississippi River Delta for cents on the dollar. Pieces of land that in other, more developed places would cost thousands of dollars sold in the 1830s for several hundred, at prices as low as 40¢ per acre.3

Thousands of people, each one with his or her own dream of massive and immediate success, rushed to the area quickly becoming known as the “Cotton Belt.” Joseph Holt Ingraham, a writer and traveler from Maine, called it “mania.”4 William Henry Sparks, a lawyer living in Natchez, Mississippi, remembered it as “a new El Dorado” in which “fortunes were made in a day, without enterprise or work.” The change was astonishing. “Where yesterday the wilderness darkened over the land with her wild forests,” he recalled, “to-day the cotton plantations whitened the earth.”5 Money flowed from banks, many newly formed, on promises of “other-worldly” profits and overnight returns. Banks in New York City, Baltimore, Philadelphia, and even London offered lines of credit to anyone looking to buy land in the Southwest. Some even sent their own agents to purchase cheap land at auction for the express purpose of selling it, sometimes the very next day, at double and triple the original value—a process known as “speculation.”


The explosion of available land in the fertile cotton belt brought new life to the South. By the end of the 1830s, “Petit Gulf” cotton had been perfected, distributed, and planted throughout the region. Advances in steam power and water travel revolutionized Southern farmers’ and planters’ ability to deseed, bundle, and move their products to ports popping up along the Atlantic seaboard. Indeed, by the end of the 1830s, cotton had become the primary crop not only of the Southwestern states, but of the entire nation.

The numbers were staggering. In 1793, just a few years after the first, albeit unintentional, shipment of American cotton to Europe, the South produced around five million pounds of cotton, again almost exclusively the product of South Carolina’s Sea Islands. Seven years later, in 1800, South Carolina remained the primary cotton producer in the South, sending 6.5 million pounds of the luxurious long-staple blend to markets in Charleston, Liverpool, London, and New York.6 But as the tighter, more abundant and vibrant “Petit Gulf” strain moved west with the dreamers, schemers, and speculators, the American South quickly became the world’s leading cotton producer. By 1835, the five main cotton-growing states—South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana—produced more than 500 million pounds of “Petit Gulf” for a global market stretching from New Orleans to New York to London, Liverpool, Paris and beyond. That 500 million pounds of cotton made up nearly 55 percent of the entire United States export market, a trend that continued nearly every year until the outbreak of the Civil War. Indeed, the two billion pounds of cotton produced in 1860 alone amounted to more than 60 percent of the United States’ total exports for that year.7


The astronomical rise of American cotton production came at the cost of the South’s first staple crop—tobacco. Perfected in Virginia, but grown and sold in nearly every Southern territory and state, tobacco served as the South’s main economic commodity for more than a century. But tobacco was a rough crop. It treated the land poorly, sucking up nutrients at a rate with which the soil could not compete. Tobacco fields did not last forever. In fact, fields rarely survived more than four or five cycles of growth, which left them dried and barren, incapable of growing much more than patches of grass. Of course, tobacco is, and was, an addictive substance; but because of its violent pattern of growth, farmers had to move around, purchasing new lands, developing new methods of production, and even creating new fields through deforestation and westward expansion. Tobacco, then, was expensive to produce—and not only because of the ubiquitous use of slave labor. It required massive, temporary fields, large numbers of slaves and laborers, and constant movement.


Cotton was different, and it arrived at a time best suited for its success. “Petit Gulf” cotton, in particular, grew relatively quickly on cheap, widely available land. With the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, and the emergence of steam power three decades later, cotton became the average man’s commodity, the product with which the United States could expand westward, producing and reproducing Thomas Jefferson’s idyllic yeoman republic—a nation in control of its land, reaping the benefits of honest, free, and self-reliant work, a nation of families and farmers, expansion and settlement. But this all came at a violent cost. With the democratization of land ownership through Indian Removal, federal auctions, readily available credit, and the seemingly universal dream of cotton’s immediate profit, one of the South’s lasting “traditions” became normalized and engrained. And by the 1860s, that very “tradition,” seen as the backbone of Southern society and culture, would split the nation in two. The heyday of American slavery had arrived.

Cotton and Slavery


The rise of cotton, and the resulting upsurge in the United States’ global position, wed the South to slavery. Without slavery there could be no “Cotton Kingdom,” no massive production of raw materials stretching across thousands of acres worth millions of dollars, and employing, at different stages of the process, many hundreds of people. Indeed, cotton grew alongside slavery. The two moved hand-in-hand. The existence of slavery, and the absolute reliance the Southern economy came to have on the practice, became the defining factor in what would be known as the “Slave South.” Although slavery arrived in the Americas long before cotton became a profitable commodity, the use and purchase of slaves, the moralistic and economic justifications for the continuation of slavery, even the urgency to protect the practice from extinction before the Civil War all received new life from the rise of cotton and the economic, social, and culture growth spurt that accompanied its success.


Slavery had existed in the South since at least 1619, when a group of Dutch traders arrived at Jamestown with 20 Africans. Although these Africans remained under the ambiguous legal status of “unfree,” rather than actual slaves, their arrival set in motion a practice that would stretch across the entire continent over the next two centuries. Slavery was everywhere by the time the American Revolution created the United States, although Northern states began a process of gradually abolishing the practice soon thereafter. In the more rural, agrarian South, slavery became a way of life, especially as farmers expanded their lands, planted more crops, and entered into the international trade market. By 1790, four years after the ratification of the Constitution, 654,121 slaves lived in the South—then just Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and the “Southwest Territory” (now Tennessee). Just twenty years later, in 1810, that number had increased to more than 1.1 million individuals in bondage.8

The massive change in the South’s enslaved population between 1790 and 1810 makes sense, though. During that time, the South went from a region of four states and one rather small territory to a region of six states (Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee) and three rather large territories (Mississippi, Louisiana, and Orleans). The free population of the South also nearly doubled over that period—from around 1.3 million in 1790 to more than 2.3 million in 1810. It is important to note here that the enslaved population of the South did not increase at any rapid rate over the next two decades, until the cotton boom took hold in the mid-1830s. Indeed, following the constitutional ban on the international slave trade in 1808, the number of slaves in the South increased by just 750,000 in twenty years.


But then cotton came, and grew, and changed everything. Over the course of the 1830s, 40s, and 50s, slavery became so endemic to the “Cotton Belt” that travelers, writers, and statisticians began referring to the area as the “Black Belt,” not only to describe the color of the rich land, but also to describe the skin color of those forced to work its fields, line its docks, and move the products of others’ lands.


Perhaps the most important aspect of Southern slavery during this so-called “Cotton Revolution” was the value placed upon both the work and the body of the slaves themselves. Once the fever of the initial land rush subsided, land values became more static, and credit less free flowing. For Mississippi land that in 1835 cost no more than $600, a farmer or investor would have to shell out more than $3,000 in 1850. By 1860, that same land, depending on its record of production and location, could cost as much as $100,000.9 In many cases, cotton growers, especially planters with large lots and enslaved workforces, put up slaves as collateral for funds dedicated to buying more land. If that land, for one reason or another, be it weevils, a late freeze, or a simple lack of nutrients, did not produce a viable crop within a year, the planter would lose not only the new land, but also the slaves he or she put up as a guarantee of payment.


So much went into the production of cotton, the expansion of land, and maintenance of enslaved workforces that by the 1850s, nearly every ounce of credit offered by Southern, and even Northern, banks dealt directly with some aspect of the cotton market. And millions of dollars changed hands. Slaves, the literal and figurative backbones of the Southern cotton economy, served as the highest and most important expense for any successful cotton grower. Prices for slaves varied drastically, depending on skin color, sex, age, and location, both of purchase and birth. In Virginia in the 1820s, for example, a single female slave of childbearing years sold for an average of $300; an unskilled man above the age of 18 sold for around $450; and boys and girls below 13 years sold for between $100 and $150.10


By the 1840s, and into the 1850s, prices had nearly doubled—a result of both standard inflation and the increasing importance of enslaved laborers in the cotton market. In 1845, “plow boys” under the age of 18 sold for more than $600 in some areas, measured at “five or six dollars per pound.”11“Prime field hands,” as they were called by merchants and traders, averaged $1,600 at market by 1850, a figure that fell in line with the rising prices of the cotton they picked. For example, when cotton sat at 7¢ per pound in 1838, the average “field hand” cost around $700. As the price of cotton increased to 9¢, 10¢, then 11¢ per pound over the next ten years, the average cost of an enslaved male laborer likewise rose to $775, $900, and then more than $1,600.12


The key is that cotton and slaves helped define each other, at least in the cotton South. By the 1850s, slavery and cotton had become so intertwined, that the very idea of change—be it crop diversity, anti-slavery ideologies, economic diversification, or the increasingly staggering cost of purchasing and maintaining slaves—became anathema to the Southern economic and cultural identity. Cotton had become the foundation of the Southern economy. Indeed, it was the only major product, besides perhaps sugar cane in Louisiana, that the South could effectively market internationally. As a result, Southern planters, politicians, merchants, and traders became more and more dedicated—some would say “obsessed”—to the means of its production: slaves and slavery.In 1834, Joseph Ingraham wrote that “to sell cotton in order to buy negroes—to make more cotton to buy more negroes, ‘ad infinitum,’ is the aim and direct tendency of all the operations of the thorough going cotton planter; his whole soul is wrapped up in the pursuit.”13 Twenty-three years later, such pursuit had taken on a seemingly religious character, as James Stirling, an Englishman traveling through the South, observed, “[slaves] and cotton—cotton and [slaves]; these are the law and the prophets to the men of the South.”14


The Cotton Revolution was a time of capitalism, panic, stress, and competition. Planters expanded their lands, purchased slaves, extended lines of credit, and went into massive amounts of debt because they were constantly working against the next guy, the newcomer, the social mover, the speculator, the trader. A single bad crop could cost even most wealthy, landed planter his or her entire life, along with those of his or her slaves and their families. Although the cotton market was large and profitable, it was also fickle, risky, and cost intensive. The more wealth one gained, the more land he or she needed to procure, which led to more slaves, more credit, and more mouths to feed. The decades before the Civil War in the South, then, were not times of slow, simple tradition. They were times of high competition, high risk, and high reward, no matter where one stood in the social hierarchy. But the risk was not always economic in nature.


The most tragic, indeed horrifying, aspect of slavery was its inhumanity. All slaves had memories, emotions, experiences, and thoughts. They saw their experiences in full color, felt the pain of the lash, the heat of the sun, and the heartbreak of loss, whether through death, betrayal, or sale. Communities developed upon a shared sense of suffering, common work, and even family ties. Slaves communicated in the slave markets of the urban South, and worked together to help their families, ease their loads, or simply frustrate their owners. Simple actions of resistance, such as breaking a hoe, running a wagon off the road, causing a delay in production due to injury, running away, or even pregnancy, provided a language shared by nearly all slaves in the agricultural workforce, a sense unity that remained unsaid, but was acted out daily.


Beyond the basic and confounding horror of it all, the problem of slavery in the cotton South was twofold. First, and most immediate, was the fear and risk of rebellion. With nearly four million individual slaves residing in the South in 1860, and nearly 2.5 million living in the “Cotton Belt” alone, the system of communication, resistance, and potential violence amongst slaves did not escape the minds of slaveholders across the region and nation as a whole. As early as 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia that blacks and whites were “two warring nations” held at bay by the existence of slavery. If white slaveowners did not remain vigilant, Jefferson wrote, the presence of Africans in the Americas would “produce convulsions, which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”15


Southern writers, planters, farmers, merchants, and politicians expressed the same fears more than a half century later. “The South cannot recede,” declared an anonymous writer in an 1852 issue of the New Orleans-based De Bow’s Review. “She must fight for her slaves or against them. Even cowardice would not save her.”16 To many slaveholders in the South, slavery was the saving grace not only of their own economic stability, but also the maintenance of peace and security in everyday life. Much of pro-slavery ideology rested upon the notion that slavery provided a sense of order, duty, and legitimacy to the lives of individual slaves, feelings that Africans and African Americans, it was said, could not otherwise experience. Without slavery, many thought, “blacks” (the word most often used for “slaves” in regular conversation) would become violent, aimless, and uncontrollable.

Some commentators recognized the problem in the 1850s, as the internal slave trade—the legal trade of slaves between states, along rivers, and along the Atlantic coastline—picked up in the decade before the Civil War. The problem was rather simple. The more slaves one owned, the more money is cost to a) maintain them, and b) extract product from their work. As planters and cotton growers expanded their lands and purchased more slaves, their expectations increased.


And productivity, in large part, did increase. But it came on the backs of slaves with heavier workloads, longer hours, and more intense punishments. “The great limitation to production is labor,” wrote one commentator in the American Cotton Planter in 1853. And many planters recognized this limitation, and worked night and day, sometimes literally, to find the furthest extent of that limit.17 According to some contemporary accounts, by the mid 1850s, the expected production of an individual slave in Mississippi’s Cotton Belt had increased from between four and five bales (weighing about 500 pounds each) per day to between eight and ten bales per day, on average.18 Other, perhaps more reliable sources, such as the account book of Buena Vista Plantation in Tensas Parish, Louisiana, list average daily production at between 300 and 500 pounds “per hand,” with weekly averages ranging from 1,700 to 2,100 pounds “per hand.” Cotton production “per hand” increased by 600 percent in Mississippi between 1820 and 1860.19 Each slave, then, was working longer, harder hours to keep up with his or her master’s expected yield.


Here was capitalism with its most colonial, violent, and exploitative face. Humanity became a commodity used and worked to produce profit for a select group of investors, regardless of its shortfalls, dangers, and immoralities. But slavery, profit, and cotton did not exist only in the rural South. The Cotton Revolution sparked the growth of an urban South, cities that served as Southern hubs of a global market, conduits through which the work of slaves and the profits of planters met and funded a wider world.