“The Hashish of the West”
John Bull (center) goes shopping for cotton in an 1861 cartoon from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The proprietor of “Davis & Co.” urges Bull to “break the door open” (i.e., lift the blockade). John Bull declines, saying, “I’ll wait till yer open the door yourself, or that man with the club [the U.S. Navy] opens it for you.” Meanwhile, India (right) is eager to make the sale.
Over at The Atlantic, Sven Beckert has an essay up, based on his book, Empire of Cotton: A Global History. It’s a good read, and well worth your time. Coming as it does on the heels of Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism and Jürgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, 2014 seems to be the year when broader studies of cotton, slavery, and their role in the new global economy rose to the forefront.
Southern planters understood that their cotton kingdom rested not only on plentiful land and labor, but also upon their political ability to preserve the institution of slavery and to project it into the new cotton lands of the American West. Continued territorial expansion of slavery was vital to secure both its economic, and even more so its political viability, threatened as never before by an alarmingly sectional Republican Party. Slave owners understood the challenge to their power over human chattel represented by the new party’s project of strengthening the claims of power between the national state and its citizens—an equally necessary condition for its free labor and free soil ideology.
Yet from a global perspective, the outbreak of war between the Confederacy and the Union in April 1861 was a struggle not only over American territorial integrity and the future of its “peculiar institution,” but also over global capitalism’s dependence on slave labor across the world. The Civil War in the United States was an acid test for the entire industrial order: Could it adapt to the even temporary loss of its providential partner—the expansive, slave-powered antebellum United States—before social chaos and economic collapse brought their empire to ruins?
The day of reckoning arrived on April 12, 1861. On that spring day, Confederate troops fired on the federal garrison at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. It was a quintessentially local event, a small crack in the world’s core production and trade system, but the resulting crisis illuminated brilliantly the underlying foundations of the global cotton industry and with it of capitalism.
The outbreak of the Civil War severed in one stroke the global relationships that had underpinned the worldwide web of cotton production and global capitalism since the 1780s. In an effort to force British diplomatic recognition, the Confederate government banned all cotton exports. By the time the Confederacy realized this policy was doomed, a northern blockade effectively kept most cotton from leaving the South. Though smuggling persisted, and most smugglers’ runs succeeded, the blockade’s deterrent effects removed most cotton-carrying ships from the southern trade. Consequently, exports to Europe fell from 3.8 million bales in 1860 to virtually nothing in 1862. The effects of the resulting “cotton famine,” as it came to be known, quickly rippled outward, reshaping industry—and the larger society—in places ranging from Manchester to Alexandria. With only slight hyperbole, the Chamber of Commerce in the Saxon cotton manufacturing city of Chemnitz reported in 1865 that “never in the history of trade have there been such grand and consequential movements as in the past four years.”
A mad scramble to secure cotton for European industry ensued. The effort was all the more desperate as no one could predict when the war would end and when, if ever, cotton production would revive in the American South. “What are we to do,” asked the editors of the Liverpool Mercury in January 1861, if “this most precarious source of supply should suddenly fail us?” Once it did fail, this question was foremost on the minds of policy makers, merchants, manufacturers, workers, and peasants around the globe.
In the end, secession not only didn’t result in the coronation of King Cotton, but in fact spurred Europe to look to other sources of the staple. Go read Beckert’s whole piece.