Image from: https://constitutingamerica.org/march-14-1794-eli-whitney-receives-a-patent-for-his-invention-of-the-cotton-gin-guest-essayist-joshua-schmid/
I posted this originally in April 2018 and under a different title, but it bears reprinting with changes (because I can’t let things just sit). So here we go.
First of all, let me start with my characters. Emily and Nate Johnson, who are part of the Saint Maggie series, are Black. Nate is a freeman, born and raised in New Jersey. Emily was born enslaved in Maryland but brought to New Jersey by her mother. The other characters are a mix of self-emancipators and freeborn: Matilda Strong and her daughter Chloe (Saint Maggie through A Time To Heal), Anna and Pete Wilson and Moses Galloway (Walk by Faith); Edward Caldwell (Seeing the Elephant and The Good Community); Joe (Seeing the Elephant), Rosa Hamilton (The Enlistment and The Good Community); and Mary and Addie Brooks (The Good Community).
However, the shadow of slavery is not far from any of them, even those who are freeborn. Up until war broke out between the United States of America and the Confederate States of America, people of color would be wary of men traveling north in search of self-emancipators. These “slave catchers” were empowered to go into northern states to seek out self-emancipators, kidnap them, and return them to slavery because it was permitted by the Fugitive Slave Acts.
The Fugitive Slave Acts were a pair of federal laws that allowed for the capture and return of runaway enslaved people within the territory of the United States. Enacted by Congress in 1793, the first Fugitive Slave Act authorized local governments to seize and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight. Widespread resistance to the 1793 law led to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which added more provisions regarding runaways and levied even harsher punishments for interfering in their capture. The Fugitive Slave Acts were among the most controversial laws of the early 19th century. (from History.com, https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/fugitive-slave-acts#section_1)
But this isn’t just a southern thing. Institutionalized racism was alive and well in the northern states. Lack of educational and career opportunities for Black people and segregation in living accommodations, work, and just about everything else were the norm. Black people were enslaved in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in northern states. And in the case of New Jersey, slavery was not abolished until 1804. It also was a gradual emancipation, to the point that some people were still enslaved by 1860. This form of “emancipation” was accompanied by harsh laws that restricted the opportunities and movement of people of color.
I try to make sure that real history lies behind my stories and characters and that plots and subplots are plausible. I’m also curious. So, I began to wonder why slavery was so entrenched, considered to be “essential” in pre-Civil War United States, and why the South was willing secede and go to war in order to maintain it. My answer is that part of all that may be due to one particular invention.
In the late 1700s, England was in the throes of the Industrial Revolution and had become capable of producing cheap cotton textiles. This capability created an enormous market for cotton.
American cotton producers would have been delighted to fill the British demand, but one thing stood in their way: upland or short-staple cotton, the cotton that provided the greatest yield per acre, was seedy. Those seeds clung so stubbornly to its fiber that pulling them out by hand was a time-consuming activity. One worker could remove only about one pound of seeds per day. That meant if cotton producers wanted to take advantage of British demand for their crop then something needed to change.
That change arrived in 1792 in the form of Eli Whitney’s cotton gin. The genius of the cotton “gin,” or cotton engine, was that it had a roller studded with metal teeth. The teeth picked the cotton up and carried it to a metal grill. And the grill scraped the cotton off the teeth, simultaneously loosening the seeds and causing them to drop away.
Amazingly efficient, one cotton gin cranked by one slave could do the work of twelve slaves. When a water wheel powered the cotton gin, it could do the work of hundreds of slaves.
The invention caused American cotton exports to explode. The amount of cotton shipped to England jumped from almost nothing in the early 1790s to twenty million pounds by 1801.
Now, one might be tempted to think that this invention would reduce the need for slave labor. That was not the case. The need for enslaved peoples’ labor increased as the cotton economy spread from the coastal states to the Mississippi Territory and all the way to Texas. Many workers were needed to plant, tend, harvest all that cotton in order to meet British demand. This fully entrenched slavery within the Southern economy, as the total number of slaves nearly quadrupled from 1800 to 1860. By 1860, thirteen percent of the population of the United States (or 395,538 human beings total) was enslaved and owned by eight percent of the families.
I believe that the cotton gin was the mechanism by which slavery became a “necessary evil” for southern planters. While I agree that the Civil War was indeed over states’ rights, I will argue that the right most important to southern planters was the ability to spread the institution of slavery outside of the states. They wanted the “right” to bring their enslaved workers with them and to buy more human beings to work fields in new (to them) territories.
So it should be no surprise then that the original sin of slavery and its sibling racism is very much present in the Saint Maggie series and that the Underground Railroad, abolition, and issues like education, employment, and housing are a part of my characters’ lives. And that the Black characters are the ones who speak most clearly for justice, abolition, and equal rights.
Janet Stafford, Squeaking Pips Founder