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King Cotton

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King Cotton was a slogan used by southerners in 1860-61 to support secession from the United States by arguing cotton exports would make an independent Confederacy economically prosperous, and--more important--would force Britain and France to support the Confederacy because their industrial economy depended on textiles, which depended on cotton. It proved a failure.

Cotton supply and demand

Southern slave-based plantations generated three-fourths of the world's cotton supply. In particular, after the invention of the cotton gin the production of cotton soared throughout the deep South, especially South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas. North of these states little cotton was grown, because it needs a long growing season.

The rapid growth of cotton production was a response to international demand. The industrial revolution created thousands of textile factories in Britain, northwest Europe and New England. These factories produced textiles, turning cotton (and to a lesser extent wool and linen) into thread and cloth. Textiles were by far the largest industry, as the demand for clothing was insatiable. Cotton production in the South soared from 720,000 bales in 1830, to 2.85 million bales in 1850, to nearly 5 million in 1860. By the time of the American Civil War, cotton accounted for almost 60% of American exports, representing a total value of nearly $200 million a year. Cotton’s central place in the national economy and its international importance led Senator James Henry Hammond of South Carolina to make a famous boast in 1858:

Without firing a gun, without drawing a sword, should they make war on us, we could bring the whole world to our feet... What would happen if no cotton was furnished for three years?... England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her save the South. No, you dare not to make war on cotton. No power on the earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is King.}}

Southerners knew their survival depended on the sympathy of Europe to offset the Union's vastly greater industrial power. They believed that cotton was so essential to the European powers that they would intervene in any civil war. In fact food from the Union was more essential, especially after a poor harvest in 1861.

British position

When war broke out the Confederate people, acting spontaneously without government direction, decided to hold their cotton at home, watching prices soar and economic crisis hit Britain and New England. Britain did not intervene because it meant war with the U.S. as well as loss of the American market, loss of American grain supplies, loss of Canada, and loss of much of the British merchant marine, all in the slim promise of getting more cotton. In spring 1861 warehouses in Europe were bulging with surplus cotton--which soared in price. So the cotton interests made their profits without a war.

The Union imposed a blockade, closing all Confederate ports to normal traffic, so the South was unable to move 95% of its cotton. (Some was slipped out by blockade runner, or through Mexico.) Cotton diplomacy, advocated by the Confederate diplomats James M. Mason and John Slidell, completely failed because the Confederacy could not deliver its cotton, and the British economy was robust enough to absorb a depression in textiles in 1862-64.

As the Union armies moved into cotton regions in 1862, the U.S. purchased all the cotton available, and sent it to the mills. Production of cotton increased in India by a factor of 700% and also in Egypt.


Surdam (1998) asks, "Did the world demand for American-grown raw cotton fall during the 1860s, even though total demand for cotton increased?" Previous researchers have asserted that the South faced stagnating or falling demand for its cotton. Surdam's more complete model of the world market for cotton, combined with additional data, shows that the reduction in the supply of American-grown cotton induced by the Civil War distorts previous estimates of the state of demand for cotton. In the absence of the drastic disruption in the supply of American-grown cotton, the world demand for such cotton would have remained strong.

Lebergott (1983) shows the South blundered during the war because it clung too long to faith in King Cotton. Because the South's long-range goal was a world monopoly of cotton, it devoted valuable land and slave labor to growing cotton instead of urgently needed foodstuffs.

The result was King Cotton was a delusion that misled the South into a hopeless war.

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