The Rise of King Cotton
A. G. Gaston’s maternal grandparents, Joe and Idella Gaston, had both been slaves in Marengo County. Art, as he was called as a boy, grew up under their watchful eyes. While he had missed being born into legal enslavement by about thirty years, the effects of slavery were still palpable throughout his childhood. In his autobiography, Gaston would intimate that the significance of this past loomed large, shaping his daily life both practically and psychologically. In fact, it was likely as a direct result of slavery-as it was connected to the cotton trade-that Arthur Gaston came to be born in Demopolis at all.
Cotton first began to spread its dominating hand across the southern regions of the United States in and around the decade of the 1790s. Prior to this, throughout the seventeenth and most of the eighteenth centuries, tobacco and rice formed the backbone of commercial agriculture in the U.S., with the production of indigo also playing a small role. But the increasing demand for and profitability of cotton spurred landowners to attempt to push production farther inland and southward, where “the particular combination of soils, temperature patterns, rainfall and growing season . . . [were] uniquely suited for production of the varieties of cotton most in demand.”
The development of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin in 1793, which revolutionized the cleaning and shucking of the cotton boll, played a pivotal role in the swell of cotton production throughout the South. By mechanically separating the cottonseed from its fiber, the gin was able to increase productivity up to fiftyfold. Whereas before the gin a slave might be expected to clean about a pound of cotton a day, after its invention that figure rose to fifty pounds a day. This increase in salable product in turn amplified the demand for a workforce capable of transferring the raw product out of the field and into the warehouse. In time, this backbreaking work too would come to be carried out by machines. But in the late eighteenth century, it was a job that remained in the hands of black workers ensnared in the system of slavery.
Of course, slavery in America had far preceded the shift of cotton to the role of principal regional resource; nevertheless, the rise of cotton growing farms toward the end of the eighteenth century did spur a similar rise in the economic viability of maintaining a slave population. By the 1820s America had become the world’s leading cotton producer, and in this ripe economic environment, slaves became wealth in and of themselves. Historian Gavin Wright suggests that by 1850, “The average slave-owner was more than five times as wealthy as the average Northerner, more than ten times as wealthy as the average non-slaveholding Southern farmer. A man who owned two slaves and nothing else was as rich as the average man in the North.” Slavery had turned black labor, according to W. E. B. DuBois, into “the foundation stone not only of the southern social structure, but of northern manufacture and commerce, of the English factory system, of European commerce, of buying and selling on a worldwide scale.” For all its moral, political, cultural, and racial repercussions, slavery was essentially an economic instrument; more often than not it “followed the market,” digging its heels in most firmly where the profit-to-loss ratio was at its highest.
Influenced by the shift in production values in the 1790s, cotton cultivation commenced its creep across the southern states. From Maryland, to Virginia, on down to Georgia and beyond (and aided by their slaves), planters began to take advantage of the ideal growing environment offered by territories south of thirty-seven degrees on the latitudinal axis. Smaller farmers, driven out of developed areas by larger landowners and their economic power, continued to move westward across the South in search of ever more fertile land for cultivation. As they moved, some brought their human chattel along with them. Others would acquire slaves once their new farms had been established.
In the state of Alabama, as much if not more than in its neighboring states, cotton was what determined a life-so much so that the state, originally nicknamed the Heart of Dixie, soon enough came to be known more often as the Cotton State. Cotton cultivation became the heart and soul of this former Indian territory, its growth dictating the lives of well near every person-white or black-who happened to find him- or herself living in Alabama from the time of the discovery of the Black Belt Prairie until the boll weevil infestation of 1915.
For more than forty years the Alabama canebrake would fill the pockets of the white ruling class with gold while soaking up the sweat of the black labor force that made it prosper. It was only the advent of the War Between the States (as many southerners still prefer to call it) that forced this ruling class to make concessions regarding its unmediated economic dominance of the region. Even then, however, those concessions would be modest, at best.