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.
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.
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.