Cotton Gin and the Expansion of Slavery

In 1792, recent college graduate Eli Whitney moved to Georgia to work as a tutor on a plantation. There, Whitney learned that southern planters were eager to make cotton a profitable crop. Once cotton was picked from the field, seeds had to be removed from the cotton fiber by hand before cotton could be sold. This process was labor-intensive and time-consuming, and it limited the amount of cotton that planters, relying on the work of enslaved people, could produce.

In 1793, Whitney invented and submitted a patent for the cotton gin—a machine that used rotating brushes and teeth to remove seeds from cotton fiber. His invention revolutionized cotton production, although Whitney faced challenges enforcing his patent and saw little profit from it. While an enslaved person needed about ten hours to separate the seeds from one pound of cotton fiber by hand, two people using the cotton gin could produce about fifty pounds of cotton in the same timeframe.

The invention of the cotton gin forever altered the economy, geography, and politics of the United States. The cotton gin made cotton tremendously profitable, which encouraged westward migration to new areas of the US South to grow more cotton. The number of enslaved people rose with the increase in cotton production, from 700,000 in 1790 to over three million by 1850. By mid-century, the southern states were responsible for seventy-five percent of the world's cotton, most of which was shipped to New England or England, where it was made into cloth. Whitney’s cotton gin and its descendants helped the southern states become a major agricultural force in the world economy on the backs of a growing enslaved population.

After the Civil War, cotton production boomed, as many newly emancipated African Americans continued to work in cotton fields as sharecroppers—tenants who rented land from farmers in return for a share of the crops harvested from that land. In the sharecropping system, landowners often cheated tenants using financial deception reinforced by racial violence to keep sharecroppers working to pay off endless debt. By the 1950s, mechanized cotton pickers had largely replaced manual cotton picking, but modern versions of the cotton gin are still in use today.