APA History, APA US History

Cotton Gin and Slave Suicide

Part 1. Civil War and Industrialization: The Invention of the Cotton Gin. 

Read the following information and answer the comprehension and critical thinking questions. 

On March 14, 1794, Eli Whitney was granted a patent for his cotton gin. The cotton gin is a machine that separates the seeds from the fibers of cotton. Without a machine to do this, it is an extremely labor-intensive process. The gin, which is short for engine, consisted of a wooden drum with hooks on the outside that pulled cotton through a filter. The fibers fit through the filter, but the seeds did not. The machine revolutionized the business of cotton production, both for   better and for the worse. The year the gin was invented, the United States exported 500,000 pounds of cotton a year. Seventeen years later, the country exported 93 million pounds, becoming the country’s chief export.

Which brings us to the major negative effect of the cotton gin: Slavery.

Before the cotton gin, slave labor was used mostly in growing tobacco, rice and indigo, businesses that weren’t particularly profitable at the time. Cotton wasn’t very profitable either, until the invention of the cotton gin.

The total number of enslaved African-Americans increased almost 400 percent between 1790 and 1850, despite the importation of slaves being made illegal in 1808. Because of this, the cotton gin is sometimes cited as an indirect cause of the American Civil War.

Whitney planned to build cotton gins and then go into business processing cotton for the growers. His price, was 20 percent of the total cotton produced. This high price, combined with the relative simplicity of the invention, meant knockoffs would be inevitable. In fact, Whitney spent so much money fighting patent infringement that the company went out of business three years after the patent was granted.

Whitney would go on to work on creating guns with interchangeable parts, at the time the holy grail of the arms business. His business ended up achieving interchangeability, but was not the first. He then died at the age of 58 of prostate cancer.

Lately, Eli Whitney’s long-standing claim as the sole inventor of the cotton gin has come under fire. Some historians credit a woman who supported Whitney, Catherine Greene. Mrs. Catharine Greene, the widow of a prominent general in the Revolutionary War, lived on a plantation in Georgia. She hired Eli Whitney as a tutor. Once there, he got interested in the cotton ginning problem. Mrs. Greene supported him, giving him food, lodging, and encouragement while he developed his gin. When Whitney had reached an impasse, Catherine perceived a solution. She seized a hearth brush standing at the nearby fireplace and applied it to the cylinder. Whitney was impressed. He said, “Thank you for the hint. I have it now.”

Because cotton was an agricultural product rather than an industrial product, the work involved in its production changed with the seasons: from plowing and planting in the spring to harvesting in the fall. Thus technology did not alter the seasonal nature of slave work rhythms. On the other hand, cotton was not an agricultural product that required skilled labor for its production. Slaves did not work on their own, completing specialized, skilled tasks (as they did with the production of rice, for example). Cotton could be – and often was – cultivated by gangs of slaves working side by side. They were supervised by an overseer and subject to strict rules of discipline. In this respect, the growing of cotton on plantations in the South resembled the spinning and weaving of cotton in factories of the North.

However, what distinguished southern plantations from northern factories more than anything else was the use of slave labor. Slaves had been used to garner huge profits for tobacco planters since the 17th century and were critical to the rice cultivation which developed in the 18th century. The growth of cotton as a cash crop in the 19th century meant the growth of slavery throughout the South.  

Planters defended their labor system by claiming that African Americans were an inferior race incapable of working independently or of taking care of themselves.

Many Europeans had come to the New World with racist ideas about Africans – stereotyping them as sexually promiscuous and savage. These attitudes expanded and flourished with the growth of slavery in the South. Whites commonly described African Americans as naturally docile and lazy, deceitful and foolish, childlike and incompetent. This view of African Americans as inferior – more like apes than humans – was reinforced by the legal definition of slaves which made them property. 

Here is a video that neatly summarizes the Cotton Gin and its effects.

Answer the following in complete sentences. 

  1. Who invented the cotton gin? Who do you think deserves the credit?
  2. What benefits did the cotton gin provide for the country?
  3. What new inventions would make life better today? 
  4. How did chattel slavery change with the invention of the cotton gin? 
  5. How were the individual lives for slaves in America in the 1800s? 
  6. How did slave planters defend using slave labor?
  7. A patent is a way for the maker to keep all the profits and limit knock-offs of a new invention. Do you think that patents are necessary in our society? Why or why not. 
  8. What happened to Eli Whitney in the last years of his life?
  9. What plants/crops were grown before and after the invention of the cotton gin? 

Part II Slavery Primary Sources. Slave Suicide and Death

After reading Slavery by George Horton and the collection of first-hand accounts, answer the following questions. 

  1. In Horton’s poem “Slavery,” what is the “tantalizing blaze”? How is it that the “friend became a foe”?
  2. Who or what is the “thou” in the poem? A master? God? Fate? Pity? The reader? Why is its identity left ambiguous?
  3. Why did slaves attempt or commit suicide, as recorded in the narrative accounts? From what you can infer, did the enslaved view death as a liberator? momentary escape? reward? passage home?
  4. What different attitudes toward slave suicide appear in these readings? How do you account for the differences?
  5. To what extent are the suicides or attempted suicides a form of resistance? To what extent “a very last resort”?

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