Economically, American society became incredibly dependent on slave labor in the 1800’s, which meant America couldn’t afford to get rid of it. During the late 18th century, people had thought that slavery was decreasing and it would soon die out because many slaves had escaped during the French and American revolutions, and many masters were freeing their slaves. However, southern planters were in desperate need of a way to separate the sticky seeds from the cotton that they grew, and Eli Whitney was able to invent a machine to do this. In 1792, he invented the cotton gin, and because cotton became easier to grow and sell, a huge boom in slavery occurred. There was a high demand for slave labor in the south to harvest cotton, and after the cotton gin, the price of slaves doubled. Also, during the first decade of the cotton gin, the slave population grew 33% and during the second decade it grew another 29%. (1) This shows how huge of an impact the cotton gin had on slavery. We also looked at a website that shows maps of how much cotton was produced in the south and how many slaves there were in the south, and it is clear how closely related they are. At the beginning in 1790, there were only 690,000 slaves in the south, however that started to increase rapidly, and by 1830 there were 2 million slaves in the south, 3 times the number in 1790. At its height in 1860, there were 3.954 million slaves. At the same time, the number of pounds of cotton produced per year in 1790 was 1.5 million pounds which grew quickly to an unbelievable 2.28 billion pounds of cotton by 1860. Cotton accounted for less than 7% of the nation’s total export revenue in 1790 making close to nothing, and in only 70 years cotton grew to account for 57% of the total export revenue and it produced $191.8 million. This rapid growth in slaves and cotton show how the cotton gin caused a high need for slaves, and the immense quantity of cotton produced from the slaves made so much money and accounted for so much of the nation’s revenue that America was dependent on it and couldn’t get rid of it; slavery was entrenched.
|Simultaneous increase of slavery and cotton- 1830|
|Simultaneous increase of slavery and cotton- 1860|
Slavery took a toll on slaves’ dignity as well as their bodies because they were treated like animals and property. We watched a PBS documentary called A Prince Among Slaves about Abdul Rahman, a prince from Futa Jallon who was captured and made a slave. His story tells about the many ways slaves were treated as less than humans as he goes from being a prince, to being a slave. When he was captured, the ship ride across the sea to Mississippi was inhumane. The conditions were jam packed as if they were animals in a cage and they barely got any food. So many died of starvation and disease but the traders didn’t care about their lives; it was cheaper to lose slaves than to pay for better conditions. Their lives were tossed aside like they weren’t humans. Also, when Abdul was auctioned off, he said he truly felt his dignity being lost because he was examined like an animal and given a price. Once he was sold, his master forced him to have his hair cut off, which was a sign of nobility and manhood in his culture. Normally, a man would fight to the death before he would part with his hair, but his culture and his life choices were taken away and he was considered inferior. Slaves also felt worthless and like they weren’t a part of society because America would celebrate Independence Day even though many people weren’t free. Frederick Douglass, a former slave and abolitionist leader, said in a speech called “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” in 1852, that the American slave feels it is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty…(is) mere bombast”. The celebration is hypocritical because so many of the people in America are not free and are considered property, and it makes them feel like they are not human; they are invisibly suffering. There are so many examples from so many slaves’ stories of how much they were treated as less than humans, and it is disturbing to think about today.
In treating slaves as less than humans and trying to suppress them, America ignored many amazing and useful qualities about them. For example, with Abdul, he knew how to grow cotton, read and write, and speak many different languages because he was a prince. He was also a great military leader. And although some of his talents were recognized when he was discovered to be a prince, he never realized his potential and all his useful skills. Many slaves had many useful and unique talents and characteristics that could have been used to help the world and society but instead were overlooked and shot down by slave owners and whites. There are so many individual qualities and potential in every person that can help improve our world, and it is terrible that so many people were not allowed to use these qualities and weren’t treated like humans because of their skin color in the 19th century.
(1): Readings adapted from: http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/cotton-gin-patent/#documents and http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/era.cfm?eraID=6&smtID=2