How Inventions Change History: Cotton Gin Expanded Slavery

Founding Fathers George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, pricked by conscience as they did not advocate the abolition of slavery in a country founded on the concept of individual freedom, engaged in wishful thinking when they predicted that slavery would end naturally in the early 1800s and save the union. They did not anticipate Eli Whitney‘s invention of the cotton gin (short for engine) in the 1790s — a fast and efficient way to clean and produce cotton for sale. It made cotton king, exceeding the value of every other American exports combined. After the invention, the demand for slaves grew exponentially: many more were needed to plant and harvest King Cotton. In 1790, the US census counted nearly 700,000 slaves. By 1810, two years after the slave trade was banned in the US, the number had shot up to more than a million. And by the beginning of the civil war in 1860, there were nearly four million slaves in the US.

“Invented in 1793, the cotton gin changed history for good and bad. By allowing one field hand to do the work of 10, it powered a new industry that brought wealth and power to the American South — but, tragically, it also multiplied and prolonged the use of slave labor. Kenneth C. Davis lauds innovation, while warning us of unintended consequences.”

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