- Cotton?s Impact On The United States Before The Civil War
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 Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi up!
from one-sixteenth in 1811. The productivity of the land in pounds per acre in 1850 follows: Tennessee,
300; South Carolina, 320; Georgia, 500; Alabama, 525; Mississippi, 650; Texas, 750. The income
received by the Cotton South residents reached levels greater than the average person in the North.
Southern Income based on Slave Labor
Table 1 shows per-capita income prior to the Civil War.
Per Capita Income Before the Civil War in 1860 Prices
Total Population Free Population
1840 1860 1840 1860
National Average $96 $128 $109 $144
North 109 141 110 142
Northeast 129 181 130 183
North Central 65 89 66 90
South 74 103 105 150
South Atlantic 66 84 96 124
East South Central 69 89 92 124
West South Central 151 184 238 274