Cotton?s Impact on the United States Before the Civil War

With the end of the War of 1812, few people in the United States envisioned a civil war in the future. With a developing Western section of the country, the future looked bright for a stable growing economy based on extraction of resources (agriculture, timber, and various resources in the ground). With the shipping resources of New England and financial centers in the North, agriculture and extraction of resources seemed to be the foundation to base the country's economy on. Within a short period of time, however, the North was beginning to industrialize while the Southern states stayed agrarian. A reason why the South did not industrialize was that cotton provided an economic system for the whole country that was as rewarding to the Southern farmers as to the Northern industrialists. An example of the Southern attitude toward the Northern way of life is illustrative.

A white Alabaman during this period exclaimed, "We have no cities. We don't want them. We want no manufactures; we desire no trading, no mechanical or manufacturing classes. As long as we have our rice, our sugar, our tobacco, and our cotton, we can command wealth to purchase all we want." Factors that contributed to the economic system that this attitude was part of were: the sale of government land in the South, foreign and domestic demand for cotton, and the contrast between free and slave labor.

Early Years of Cotton After the War of 1812, the U.S. government sold large amounts of land in what was the Southern territories of Alabama and Mississippi. Sales of government land in the two territories went from 27,000 acres in 1815 to almost 3 million acres in 1819. Many of the purchasers of the land were farmers from South Carolina and Georgia. These farmers looked forward to planting on previously uncultivated land. The land could take heavy cultivation before the output suffered. As an example, three acres of land could be bought for the same cost of the lime used to restore productivity on one acre of land in South Carolina. The crop the farmers planted on this land was cotton. The reason they planted cotton was that the price of cotton per pound surged from 14 cents before the War of 1812 to 21 cents in 1815 and to 29.5 cents in 1816. The high price was due to a heavy demand for raw cotton in Great Britain. In the 1830's and 1840's, over 80 percent of all cotton produced was e!xported. Of this, around 85 percent of all exported cotton went to Great Britain. Once the new lands had been prepared for and planted with cotton, the supply of raw cotton increased to help bring the price of cotton down to 12 cents a pound by 1824. An increase in domestic and foreign demand helped increase the price of cotton to 18 cents a pound by 1836. This caused another round of high levels of Western land sales. After 1836, the increased supply of cotton caused the price of cotton to go down to 6 cents a pound in 1844. By 1849 834 million pounds of cotton was being produced a year compared to 154 million pounds in 1816. The amount of cotton produced in 1849 would have been much less if the steamboat had not been in the West to transport the cotton. Even though the price of cotton was high in the early years, the cotton grower had challenges to making money. Between goods bought from the outside for the farmer's family and slave labor, the farmer managed a subsistence living. The steamboat provided a way for the farmer to make a living. Prior to the steamboat, goods purchased had to come over the Appalachians at a large premium. As an example, army garrisons in Illinois used flour costing $100 a barrel and pork $127 a barrel. This compares to $10 and $20 on the East Coast. The steamboat helped solve this problem by reducing the freight rates going to and from New Orleans. By the Civil War, freight rates upriver had dropped to 5 to 10 percent of what they were in 1815. The money saved on goods provided a margin that could be used for investment. The investment made by the farmers was in more land and slaves. By 1840, two-thirds of the cotton produced in the U.S. came from