Eli Whitney

How many of you are southerners? How many have ever lived on a farm? Did any of you ever pick cotton? I suppose you realize by now that this lesson has something to do with the cotton business. One more question: Do you know who invented the cotton gin, the machine that separates the cotton fiber from the cotton seed? It was Eli Whitney.

Whitney was born in Westborough, Massachusetts, in 1765. His father had a metalworking shop, and young Eli became familiar with mechanical crafts in the shop. He decided, however, to study law and, in preparation, he entered Yale University and graduated four years later. The president of Yale recommended Eli for a position as a tutor in the family of a southern planter in the state of Georgia. Whitney made the long sea voyage to Savannah, Georgia, only to find that the terms of his employment had been misrepresented.

Uncertain whether to return to the North to begin his study of the law or find another teaching position, he remained for a time on the plantation of a friend. During his stay he learned some facts about southern agriculture. He found that the production of rice and tobacco were not very profitable, and the difficult problem of separating the cotton fiber from the seed made this crop unprofitable as well. The fiber had to be pulled from the seed by hand, and a worker could only pull a few pounds per day. Whitney also learned that the British textile industry had become mechanized, and there was a heavy demand for raw cotton. His friend, the plantation owner, told him that if a machine could be invented to clean the cotton from the seed, it would be a great thing for the country and the inventor.

Whitney turned his mechanical talents to the task and soon came up with a small model of a hand-operated machine that would do the work of 30 or 40 men. This small machine was immediately followed by a large-scale, more efficient machine, and soon Whitney forgot all about the study of law and began to manufacture cotton gins. He had a lot of trouble with illegal gins turning up all over the South, and the next several years he spent most of his time in court trying to collect his royalties from the illegal machines. Finally, he gave up and sold his patents and rights to the states of South Carolina, North Carolina, and Tennessee.

The effect of Whitney’s invention brought an economic revival to the South and started the great plantation system. The South thus began its march toward its greatest prosperity for the next fifty years. Whitney patented his gin in 1794, and that year the cotton crop totaled one million pounds. Ten years later, it had reached a total of eighty million pounds and continued to rise.

The production of cotton on such a large scale made the South more dependent on the use of slaves and made the southern plantation owners unwilling to grant freedom to the slaves and outlaw slavery as the northern states had done. This division between the North and the South festered like a boil, and it was just a matter of time before the eruption occurred. The agricultural aristocracy of the South was tied to King Cotton and slaves were necessary to keep the production high and the money rolling in. My native State of South Carolina was the leader in demanding states rights and the first to secede from the Federal Union. The first shot of the War Between the States was fired at Fort Sumter at Charleston, South Carolina.

So my State must accept much of the responsibility for beginning the terrible civil war that caused the deaths and disablement of thousands of our citizens and destroyed the economy of the South so completely that it took over sixty years to recover. I know something about the times and the results. My grandfather owned five plantations and a thousand slaves. But when the war was over, he had lost everything he had.

But, let’s get back to Eli Whitney. Here is an interesting sidelight. I mentioned that Whitney stayed on a Georgia plantation owned by a friend. Do you know who that friend was? It was Mrs. Catherine Greene, the widow of General Nathanael Greene, the subject of last week’s history lesson. If you remember, I told you that General Greene of Rhode Island was given command of the southern army by General George Washington. By aggressive action, Greene was able to drive the British army commanded by Cornwallis out of the South. The State of Georgia presented General Greene a plantation near Savannah in grateful recognition of his service to the South. This is the same plantation where Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and Mrs. Nathanael Greene is the one who suggested the invention of the cotton gin to Whitney in the first place.

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