In 1793, Eli Whitney, a recent graduate of Yale, traveled south in search of work. He had accepted a potentially lucrative position as a private tutor in South Carolina, but upon arriving discovered that his promised salary had been cut in half. Disappointed, Whitney chose not to accept the job, but quickly discovered a new opportunity—one quite unrelated to the teaching profession that he had first pursued.
During his journey to the South, Whitney met a woman who presented him with an offer to return with her to Savannah, Georgia to assist her fiancé in the management of her plantation. Whitney, a northerner who in his youth had worked as a blacksmith and as a farmer, graciously accepted the offer. But shortly after arriving, he found that planters throughout the South—including his new employer—suffered dire financial woes. Tobacco, the cash crop that had sustained the southern economy for over a century, had fallen sharply in value. The South's other exports, such as rice, corn, wheat, and indigo, were not profitable enough to cover the steep costs of land, supplies, and slave labor. Some plantations attempted to grow cotton, which was in increasing demand in Europe and the textile mills in the North. But, except in a few isolated regions, only the green seed variety thrived. This crop required a full day of manual labor to separate a handful of the soft lint from several pounds of tiny, coarse seeds. The price of slave labor far exceeded any money that could be made cultivating the troublesome product.
Whitney studied the meticulous work of the few Savannah slaves who cleaned green seed cotton and developed a mechanical device that could replicate the movement of their fingers. His invention, the cotton gin, was a simple contraption featuring a series of rotating cylinders fitted with wires and brushes that rapidly captured the lint and discarded the seeds. In a single hour, Whitney's machine accomplished more than a team of laborers completed in a full day. Within just one decade the new device had revolutionized cotton production throughout the South.
Despite theoretically reducing the need for large numbers of slaves by easing the process of seed removal, Whitney's invention, in fact, dramatically increased the demand for slave labor in the South. The cultivation of cotton had become simpler and, more importantly, faster, so planters utilizing Whitney's invention were better able to meet the growing demand for the crop. As a result, cotton growers enjoyed hefty profits and sought to expand their thriving enterprise by purchasing more land and more slaves. Aided by the opening of the western frontier and by industrial growth in the North, the South became a virtual cotton-growing empire by the early nineteenth century.
And it all depended upon the survival of an institution that had been all but eliminated in the North. By 1804, every state north of Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware had passed some sort of legislation to outlaw slavery within its borders. Southerners were quite aware of the fact that the system upon which they relied had become increasingly "peculiar," and that it would need to be defended against those Americans (and Europeans) who challenged its existence.
Perhaps one of the most persuasive—and effective—arguments advanced by southerners in favor of slavery and its expansion was that slave labor generated nearly all of the raw goods (rice, sugar, wheat, indigo, tobacco, hemp, and, most significantly, cotton) exported by the United States and used in the mills and factories in the industrial North. The wealth and reputation of the nation relied upon the productiveness of the agricultural South, plain and simple.
Furthermore, proslavery advocates asserted that slave labor was far superior to "free" labor for several key reasons. First, slaves could not strike, therefore work stoppages did not hinder production as they too often did in the North. Second, slave labor, being continuous and uninterrupted, was comparatively cheaper and thus more profitable for the employer. Third, according to racial proslavery theorist Edmund Ruffin, free laborers motivated by wages alone would "work no more than compelled by necessity."34 Slaves, on the other hand, were driven by their dependence upon masters for food, clothing, shelter, and medical care (and, as few southerners mentioned to their foes, by the threat of beatings, torture, death, and the separation from beloved family members).
The greatest production of raw goods, the South pronounced, would result in a boom in public wealth. But if Americans chose to make war upon the plantation system, many southern leaders professed, the country's economy would suffer and, ultimately, the future of the United States would be at risk. Thus, the North seemed obligated to support the South and its institutions.
But with each decade, slaveholders witnessed a growth in the nation's antislavery movement and a rise in the number of Americans hostile to the ever-expanding slave society. Though some objected to slavery on moral grounds, most were critical for less humanitarian reasons.
Most northern voters considered a free labor economy superior to the plantation system for what it offered to average white men: the opportunity to rise from the lower ranks of society. This was the "American Dream," the legend of equal opportunity upon which the country had been founded. Free labor meant the right (for white men, at least) to actually achieve financial independence, not simply to aspire for it. With hard work and perseverance, most Americans believed, all those who depended upon wage-earning for their livelihood, such as factory and dock workers, those who toiled in the fields, mechanics, blacksmiths, and craftsmen, could eventually free themselves from the their financial chains and earn a position among the ranks of the self-employed. In a "free" America, one Iowa Republican proclaimed, "the door is thrown open to all, and even the poorest and humblest in the land, may, by industry and application, attain a position which will entitle him to the respect and confidence of his fellow-men."35 Free labor and not slave labor, then, was to thank for the strength of the nation and the growth of a modern, industrialized North.
By the mid-nineteenth century, rising immigration, labor competition, the decline in available land, and the overcrowding of urban centers had contributed to increased unemployment and poverty in the North. More and more, the quest of those who sought fortune and independence rested upon western migration. Northern leaders, particularly members of the new Republican Party, concluded that with government support and the aid of new transportation and communication technologies, working citizens could find land and opportunity in the new territories out West. By reducing labor competition in the Northeast, wages would rise everywhere and the problems of unemployment and poverty would be remedied without new taxes, government charity, or worker uprisings. Western expansion seemed the perfect way to revitalize society.
But the expansion of slavery into the West hindered this plan and, from the perspective of Republicans and other free labor advocates, crippled the country's potential for economic, political, and social advancement. It seemed that the South, by insisting on the survival of its "peculiar" institution, mocked the most fundamental values of the United States of America: equal opportunity and the pursuit of happiness for all (white, male) citizens. Furthermore, if the West were to remain open to slavery, then little would prevent white laboring men from slipping into an impoverished state (a fate, antislavery theorists argued, inevitably suffered by non-slaveholding whites in plantation societies). White men, they cautioned, would someday find themselves in chains alongside blacks.
In the 1850s, such warnings both heightened antislavery sentiments and hardened southerners' resolve in their fight to protect the institution on which their livelihoods hinged. Both the North and the South fought to deliver their respective, incompatible systems into the same territories, and, by the late 1850s, that battle had ripped apart the political landscape, resulted in outright violence between northerners and southerners, and buoyed the political career of Abraham Lincoln, a man whose presidential victory would lead to the secession of twelve southern states and, ultimately, Civil War.