Yankee Tinkerer Perpetuates Slavery

Eli Whitney of Massachusetts invented his new labor-saving device at a time when the liberating effects of the new republic were emancipating those who had been enslaved by African tribes, sold to British slave-traders, and shipped to North America on New England slavers.  With cotton cultivation made profitable, slavery would expand. 

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com


Yankee Tinkerer Perpetuates Slavery 

“The handiwork of a Yankee tinkerer in the summer of 1792 changed everything. Eli Whitney was a genius of a type who would become familiar in the course of the next century, like Robert Fulton, John Deere, Cyrus McCormick, Samuel F. B. Morse, and Thomas Edison, who fused native mechanical aptitude with the entrepreneurial instincts of the dawning industrial age. It was said that as a boy in Massachusetts during the Revolution, Whitney had set up his own small forge and made nails to sell to his neighbors, and then converted them to hairpins after the war.

After graduating from Yale, he went South to take a position as a tutor. As a guest in the home of the widow of General Nathaniel Greene, in Georgia, Whitney overheard several of her neighbors discussing the problems of cotton cultivation. Planters were well aware that a potentially vast market for American cotton was developing in England, where textile manufacture had been revolutionized by the factory system . . .  

Whitney later wrote, “There were a number of very respectable gentlemen at Mrs. Greene’s who all agreed that if a machine could be invented which would clean cotton with expedition, it would be a great thing both to the inventor and to the country. I involuntarily happened to be thinking on the subject and struck out a plan of a machine in my mind.” It was the cotton gin, which would ultimately transform American slavery, project it into its boom time, and transform it into a pillar of the nineteenth-century American economy.

[Whitney] Established a factory at New Haven, and was soon shipping gins Southward, where they would lead to a spectacular burgeoning of cotton cultivation, which would soon be matched by an exploding demand for slaves. [New England] Slave traders made fortunes buying up “surplus” slaves, and long, grim lines of them chained together in awkward lockstep made a familiar sight on the roads leading westward from Maryland, Virginia, and the Carolinas to the slave markets of the frontier Southeast.”

(Bound For Canaan, Fergus Bordewich, Harper Collins, 2005,   pp. 41-42)





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