The Genius of Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney was a mechanically-talented Massachusetts farm boy who graduated from Yale and ventured South in 1792 to teach school in South Carolina. As he watched plantation slaves working laboriously to pick “the fuzzy, stubborn seeds from “vegetable wool,” at an average rate of two pounds per day,” he quit his teaching position to concentrate on the invention to speed the chore. Cotton production soared from 10,000 bales in 1793 to double that in 1796, and 180,000 by 1810 – Whitney can be said to have single-handedly perpetuated slavery.

Bernhard Thuersam,


The Genius of Eli Whitney

“The Agricultural Society of South Carolina, second of its kind in the United States, came into being in 1785 “for promoting and improving agriculture and other rural concerns.” Its high-minded purposes were defined by Thomas Heyward, Jr., its first president, who expounded: “After having gloriously succeeded . . . in terminating a war . . . it is incumbent upon us equally to endeavor to promote and enjoy the blessings of peace. Agriculture was one of the first employments of mankind . . . [and] one of the most innocent and at the same time the most pleasing and beneficial of any . . .”

This interest in diversified agriculture was further evidence that the institution of slavery – a national rather than sectional cancer – was well on its way to extinction before the American Revolution. Jefferson was strongly opposed to it; his original draft of the Declaration of Independence contained a denunciation of it. Early attempts along these lines were thwarted by the British crown.

To Virginia goes the honor and distinction of being the first American State to prohibit the importation of slaves, having passed a law to this effect during the very first session of its existence under the republican government (1778). Maryland followed suit in 1783.

The tobacco planters, slavery’s principal eighteenth-century exponents, were learning slavery’s folly and coupling it with old guilts of moral shame.

So firm was the resolve and so positive was the action that there can be no doubt as to the demise of the slave during the early years of the nineteenth century, had it not been for the “sudden apparition of the great cotton crop, conjured by the genius of Eli Whitney” and dwarfing all other Southern resources by the “instant employment of the half-idle slaves, whose presence had begun to be felt as a burden.”

Without an economical means to separate the lint from the seed, cotton could not have become the ruthless king that it was. Without King Cotton, slavery would have withered and died. Without the emotionally packed issue of slavery, the newly-formed States would have arrived at a peaceable solution to their differences, because their quarrels centered around cotton and the tariff.”

(This is the South, Robert West Howard, editor, Rand McNally & Company, 1959, excerpts pp. 136-138)

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