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Carroll County Times

The Civil War: Did Eli Whitney cause the Civil War?

I was teaching a Civil War class recently and a student asked a simple question: "Did Eli Whitney cause the Civil War?" Simple question. The answer is not only most complex, it can only be answered by understanding the trends and listing the multiple events that came to a head in about 1860. These resulted in a situation whereby the South saw only economic disaster staring it in the face. At issue was slavery.

First, who was Eli Whitney? Eli Whitney was a northerner, born in 1765. A graduate of Yale University, his most important contribution to the industrial revolution may have been the concept of inter-changeable parts and mass production. It transformed the production of muskets during our Revolutionary War, and allowed our early factories to make 10,000 muskets when they were needed most.

During a 1793 visit south as a private tutor on a plantation, he overheard talk about how cotton was their crop of choice but how difficult it was to extract the seeds from the cotton bolls. It had to be done by hand, and in a plantation economy, that meant slave labor. However, it took almost a whole day for one worker to produce a single pound of seed-free cotton which could be shipped to a mill which manufactured cloth. The process was thus expensive and the cost of feeding and clothing and housing slaves was becoming prohibitive. The plantation owners asked Whitney if he could develop a simple method of taking the seeds from the boll.

It took about ten days but Whitney came up with a mechanical method of producing seed-free cotton. His invention, called a "cotton gin" ("gin" for "engine") made slaves even more valuable. They were critical for the planting and picking the cotton and then running the mills which produced seed-free cotton for transport to the factories which made the fabric. Thus, the larger the plantation, the more slaves were a cost-effective and integral part of every step in the process.

However, during the early to mid-19th century, a movement arose to abolish slavery in the United States. This was based in the North and was aided in large measure by the feeling that slavery was in and of itself wrong. Europe had prohibited slavery and the American Constitution even proscribed the import of slaves after 1808.

The nation was divided in its thinking. Here are the events, as the South saw them:

There was a huge economic disparity in the two sections of the country. The North had adopted a vigorous industrial factory economy on which it based its future.

The South had become almost totally agricultural, depending mainly on one product, cotton, for its future.

Cotton was a labor-intensive crop; slave labor became the engine of its success.

The movement to end slavery, adopted by "abolitionists", developed into a major factor in Northern politics. The movement was a natural extension of the abolition of slavery in Europe.

The struggle to settle the rights of individual states in relation to the rights and powers of a central government was on-going. Further, it was nowhere near being settled.

There was a rising enmity between those states that wanted a slave economy and those states which demanded that slavery in the United States be ended.

Abraham Lincoln had been nominated and elected as President of the United States.

The new president had sworn to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States."

Further, and most ominously, he had said that there would be no expansion of states which allowed slavery.

A key observation - most of theses events would, in the long run, have solved themselves through the normal course of discussion in the Congress. The economic disparity in which the North adopted the industrial revolution and the South stayed with a labor-intensive agricultural economy was not against the law.

Cotton was a legitimate crop, necessary for the well-being of both the South - as a product for which there were buyers to contribute to its economy - and the North, as a product which could be transformed into a fabric which made a better life for those who used it.

The South felt it could weather the storm of Northern invective against both the region and those who lived in it.

The rights of the individual in relation to the Federal Government is on-going, and probably will never be settled to everybody's satisfaction. The "abolition movement" was just that: A "movement" which was noisy and a nuisance, but so far was still only a threat.

The one concept that the South decided it could not accept had several facets: it decided that for economic and way-of-life issues, it was going to maintain a slave social system; but there were a few issues which were clear and present dangers. These were: the election of Abraham Lincoln as President of the United States; his vow to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States: and his directive that no new state requesting admission to the United States, wold be admitted if it allowed slavery in its state Constitution. Lincoln's Rule: Thus far and no further.

The South saw in this its eventual demise, both socially and economically. The result was our Civil War.

In my next column, the answer to the question "Did Eli Whitney cause the Civil War?"


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