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The United States of America: A History
Book 3: Chapter I - King Cotton


When Europeans first visited the southern parts of America, they found in abundant growth there a plant destined to such eminence in the future history of the world as no other member of the vegetable family ever attained. It was an unimportant- looking plant, two or three feet in height, studded with pods somewhat larger than a walnut, in the appropriate season these pods opened, revealing a wealth of soft white fibre, embedded in which lay the seeds of the plant. This was Cotton. It was not unknown to the Old World. The Romans used cotton fabrics before the Christian era. India did so from a still remoter Period. But the extent to which its use had been carried was trivial. Men clothed themselves as they best might in linen or woollen cloth, or simply in the skins of the beasts which they slew. The time was now at hand when an ampler provision for their wants was to be disclosed to them. Socially and politically, cotton has deeply influenced the course of human affairs. The mightiest conquerors sink into insignificance in presence of King Cotton.

The English began to cultivate a little cotton very soon after their settlement in America. But it was a difficult crop for them to handle. The plants grew luxuriantly. When autumn came the opening pods revealed a most satisfying opulence. The quantity of cotton produced excited the wonder of the planters. But the seeds of the plant adhered tenaciously to the fibre. Before the fibre could be used the seeds had to be removed. This was a slow and therefore a costly process. It was as much as a man could do in a day to separate one pound of cotton from the seeds. Cotton could never be abundant or cheap while this was the case.

But in course of time things came to pass in England which made it indispensable that cotton should be both abundant and cheap. In 1768 Richard Ark-,N-right invented a machine for spinning cotton vastly superior to anything hitherto in use. Next year a greater than he—James Watt—announced a greater invention—his Steam Engine. England was ready now to begin her great work of weaving cotton for the world. But where was the cotton to be found!

Three or four years before Watt patented his Engine, and Arkwright his Spinning-frame, there was born in a New England farm-house a boy whose work was needed to complete theirs. His name was Eli Whitney. Eli was a born mechanic. It was a necessity of his nature to invent and construct. As a mere boy he made nails, pins, and walking-canes by novel processes, and thus earned money to support himself at college. In 1792 he went to Georgia to visit Mrs. Greene, the widow of that General Greene who so troubled Lord Cornwallis in the closing years of the war. In that primitive society, where few of the comforts of civilized life were yet enjoyed, no visits were so like those of the angels as the visits of a skilful mechanic. Eli constructed marvellous amusements for Mrs. Greene's children. He overcame all household difficulties by some ingenious contrivance. Mrs. Greene learned to wonder at him, and to believe nothing was impossible for him. One day Mrs. Greene entertained a party of her neighbours. The conversation turned upon the sorrows of the Planter. That unhappy tenacity with which the seeds of cotton adhered to the fibre was elaborately bemoaned. With an urgent demand from England for cotton, with boundless lands which grew nothing so well as cotton, it was hard to be so utterly baffled.
Mrs. Greene had unlimited faith in her friend Eli. She begged him to invent a machine which should separate the seeds of cotton from the fibre. Eli was of Northern upbringing, and had never even seen cotton in seed. He walked in to Savannah, and there, with some trouble, obtained a quantity of uncleaned cotton. He shut himself up in his room and brooded over the difficulty which he had undertaken to conquer.

All that winter Eli laboured—devising, hammering, building up, rejecting, beginning afresh. lie had no help, lie could not even get tools to buy, but had to make them with his own hands. At length his machine was completed, rude-looking, but visibly effective. Mrs. Greene invited the leading men of the State to her house. She conducted them in triumph to the building in which the machine stood. The owners of unprofitable cotton lands looked on with a wild flash of hope lighting up their desponding hearts. Possibilities of untold wealth to each of them lay in that clumsy structure. The machine was put in motion. it was evident to all that it could perform the work of hundreds of men. Eli had gained a great victory for mankind. In that rude log-hut of Georgia, Cotton was crowned King, and a new era opened for America and the world.

Ten years after Whitney's Cotton-gin was invented a huge addition was made to the cotton-growing districts of America. In 1803 Europe enjoyed a short respite from the mad Napoleon wars. France had recently acquired from Spain vast regions bordering on the Gulf of Mexico, and stretching far up the valley of the Mississippi, and westward to the Pacific. It was certain that peace in Europe would not last long. It was equally certain that when war was resumed France could not hold these possessions against the fleets of England. America wished to acquire, and was willing to pay for them. It was better to sell to the Americans, and equip soldiers with the price, than wait till England was ready to conquer. Napoleon sold, and America added Louisiana to her vast possessions.

Mark well these two events—the invention of a machine for cheaply separating the seeds of cotton from the fibre, and the purchase of Louisiana from the French. Out of those events flows the American history of the next half century. Not any other event since the War of Independence—not all other events put together, have done so much to shape and determine the career of the American people.


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