The invention that finally freed the slaves

From The Last Compromise by Walter Russell Mead:

Many hoped that the election of the first African-American President of the United States meant a decisive turn in the long and troubled history of race relations in the United States. And indeed President Obama’s election was a signal success for the American racial settlement of the 1970s. But at the moment of its greatest success, that settlement—call it the Compromise of 1977—was beginning to unravel, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama’s nearly four years in office to date have witnessed decades of economic progress and rising political power in black America shifting into reverse.

The race question is like no other in American life. From the beginning of the colonial era through the Civil War and up until today, American efforts to grapple with (or to avoid grappling with) the practical, moral, political and institutional consequences of race have shaped our political and institutional life. The Virginia House of Burgesses, the first elected assembly in the American colonies, assembled on July 30, 1619. In that same year the White Lion and the Treasurer docked in Virginia and unloaded the first African slaves to reach the present-day United States. Since that time, the stories of American representative government and race have been entangled in American history. The very structure of the Federal government and the nature of the party system were shaped by the slavery issue. The slavery question also shaped and ultimately limited national expansion. It affected the practical meaning of Federalism itself and the meaning of the rule of law. Nor is that entanglement yet over.

At every stage of American history, complicated political and economic compromises surrounded the question of race, each one managing it for a time but, despite the hopes of many, never settling it once and for all—not even by dint of a horrendously destructive civil war. The first of these was Compromise of 1787. The U.S. Constitution was written in a way that effectively banned Congress from interfering with slavery in the states, and the political interests of the slave states were protected further by the three-fifths clause as well as by weighted representation in the Senate and the Electoral College. On the other hand, that first compromise was shaped by the belief of many of the Founders, including enlightened slave owners like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, that economic progress would before very long make slavery unprofitable and that gradual emancipation on a state-by-state basis would bring an end to this evil. Thus when Congress gained the power to ban the importation of new slaves after 1807, it exercised that power at the first opportunity with the enthusiastic consent of Jefferson and many other slaveholders.

Alas, Eli Whitney’s cotton gin and the Industrial Revolution upset the constitutional settlement. Slavery transformed almost overnight from a dying and backward agricultural system into a vital link in the most dynamic industry of its time. The cotton looms of the industrializing world depended on slave-grown cotton from the American South. The huge returns on cotton spawned an enormous and complex web of interests. Great swathes of the shipping, insurance and banking industries of the North depended on slave-based commodity production in the South. As a result, the Compromise of 1787 no longer satisfied either pro- or anti-slavery forces. The slave system needed to expand; demand for cotton was growing exponentially but yields on cotton plantations fell as the demanding crop exhausted the soil. Anti-slavery forces, including the growing presence of educated free blacks in Northern states, no longer believed that slavery was on the road to extinction and began to worry that, instead of dying out, the economic power of the “slave interest” would increasingly dominate national politics.

That was just the first few paragraphs of an excellent full-length article. Most discussions of race in America do not examine the social, political and financial basis of slavery and Jim Crow segregation.

Most people learn about the invention of the cotton gin in grade school history classes. Relatively few people understand the economic impact of Eli Whitney’s machine. But almost no one is aware of the machine that finally freed the slaves.

The Civil War and the Thirteen Amendment officially ended slavery in the United States. But from a practical standpoint African Americans in the South were left in the same condition of involuntary servitude as before the war. Instead of being chattle slaves they were now “sharecroppers.”

Up until about World War II cotton farming was labor intensive. It was also very unpleasant work. Harvest takes place in the hot summer and cotton fields provide no shade. Then some engineers at International Harvester changed everything:

The M12H International Harvester cotton picker was produced in the late 1940s and was among the second generation of commercially successful cotton pickers to hit the market. It is located on the Hopson Plantation, the site of field tests for mechanical pickers from the 1920s through the 1940s.

Picking cotton by hand was a sunup to sundown job, and a good picker could harvest about 250 to 275 pounds of cotton a day. About 1,200 pounds of hand-picked cotton is needed to produce a 500-pound bale of cleaned, dried lint ready for market.


In 1942, IH produced 12 mechanical pickers on Model H Farmall tractors, and in 1943, 13 more were mounted on the Model H tractors and one on a larger Model M. Production increased to 40 of the machines for use on Model M tractors for the 1944 crop. Also in 1944, the Hopson Plantation produced the first cotton crop using just mechanical cultivation and harvesting, a feat that made the farm a tourist attraction.

“They’ve come from all over the Cotton Belt,” said Dick Hopson, one of the two brothers operating the plantation at the time, in a 1944 interview for ACCO Press, a cotton magazine. “Men from the eastern mills, bankers, in fact, just about every phase of the cotton business has been represented in those who have come to observe the picking operation this year.”

Also in 1944, the Delta Branch used an IH mechanical picker to harvest its cotton crop, marking the first time the experiment station successfully produced a cotton crop without a single hour of hand labor.


Mechanized production of cotton and other crops increased after World War II. A significant step forward was John Deere’s 1951 volume manufacturing of two-row cotton pickers. Today, six-row machines are the standard, but they still operate on the engineering principles developed more than 60 years ago.

“Current cotton pickers still use most of the concepts introduced in the 1943 IH production pickers,” Willcutt said. “However, one six-row harvester operating at 4.2 miles an hour in two-plus-bales-per-acre cotton can harvest 150 to 200 bales of high-quality fiber a day with a crew of three or four people. It would take 750 to 1,000 people to harvest the same amount by hand.”

Racism was not the reason for slavery and segregation, it was merely the justification. The reason was economic. When the economics of cotton farming changed the whole social system changed. But those changes took place mainly in the South.

Things have changed in the urban/industrial North as well, but mostly not for the good. Between “white flight” and the loss of our manufacturing base, urban areas have become concentrations of poverty. Racism didn’t move north, it just seems that way. That’s because the economic basis for racism in the North remains unchanged.

The M12H International Harvester cotton picker

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17 Responses to The invention that finally freed the slaves

  1. myiq2xu says:

    It can’t be a good sign when I start blogging in my dreams. Do you think it might be God, telling me it’s time to find a new hobby?

  2. myiq2xu says:

  3. carol haka says:

    My lillie white Father, all of his friends and family picked cotton in Texas.


    • Lulu says:

      Mine wished he could have. The dirt was too sorry to even grow cotton. They logged. Logging is worse than cotton farming. Two men whip saws, mules dragging trees out of sloughs, knock down saw mills that would cut off or jerk off your arm were the only way to earn any cash and they had to keep moving on to where someone wanted trees cut. Cotton farming was for good land that is expensive.

      • carol haka says:

        They were dirt poor. My dad was the youngest of 12 children. He has nieces and nephews older than him. I wonder what happened to the land and house when my Grandpa died? My dad was 21 when his dad died at 72. Hmmm…

    • myiq2xu says:

      If you were poor and in the South, chances are you picked cotton at harvest time. Blacks, poor whites, Mexican immigrants, Okies – anybody and everybody.

  4. DeniseVB says:

    Good response from Team R on stupid Akin remark … will probably get them in trouble with the wing-dings on the far right, but the far leftnuts are already portraying the GOP as the party for legalizing rape. Sigh.

  5. A good project to support if you’ve got the money.

    Let’s Build a Goddamn Tesla Museum

    Nikola Tesla was the father of the electric age. Despite having drop-kicked humanity into a second industrial revolution, up until recently he’s been an unsung hero in history books. […]Tesla’s final laboratory is located in the sleepy town of Shoreham, New York.


    However, the land, laboratory, and foundation beneath the tower are still there and very recently went up for sale. And right now a non-profit is trying to buy the property and turn it into a Nikola Tesla Museum. The property is listed at $1.6 million, and this non-profit has received a matching grant from New York State of up to $850k. This means that if we can raise $850k, New York State will match us for that same amount — putting the total raised at $1.7 million.

  6. Carolyn says:

    Just a note on the work thang…both of my parents grew up in Fla and their school schedules were arranged around strawberry harvest when all hands, all little tiny ones, were needed to bring in the harvest. They were lucky to be bright and were advanced grades, but they still had breaks at unusual times by our standards today…and all my folks were dirt farmers, on both sides, so I am totally turned off but stories of deprivation…My family worked for everything we have, which ain’t much, and if I EVER finish my degree, at 60 years of age, I will be the first college grad in my family….I am totally over white guilt.

    Second thought…we FINALLY had labor saving devices that freed the slaves in the early fifties, and best I can tell, the unions have been complaining about that ever since…they would rather have everyone working slow and hard rather than fast and efficient…so who is really promoting slavery here? Interesting that both groups are constituents of the democrat party.

    The economist who said something to the effect of “why don’t you give them spoons?” had the correct interpretation of socialism and it’s so called protection of the laborer…

  7. DandyTiger says:

    Great post. Like many things, follow the money.

  8. DailyPUMA says:

    Your article quote “Racism was not the reason for slavery and segregation, it was merely the justification”. I don’t understand what that means.

    The U.S. embraced slaves from Africa and indentured servants from Europe.

    The difference was that indentured servants could work off their debt, African Slaves could not. There should have been an expiration clause on slavery, not an alleged assumption that simply assumed industries would grow tired of slavery.

    I think its somewhat outrageous to proffer the concept that Slavery will eventually end because eventually a slave will no longer be profitable to someone else.

    “Eventually, you won’t even be good enough to be a profitable slave, and when that happens, you will be set free”?

    Dang, that just leaves me speechless.

    I would suggest that our forefathers did not know how to set a slave free, but instead of admitting that, kicked the problem down the road, as do ALL politicians with almost all problems.

    One solution would have been that after serving as a slave for 10 years, the slave would get a significant payment and a ticket to a state designated as a non slave state, or back to Africa, their choice.

    But even that might not have worked because slaves had families.

    One thing that maybe everybody could agree on is this, none of us born today would exist if the events that happened before we were born had been altered.

    So rather than justify the past and explain why it happened, it might be more healing to condemn the past but acknowledge that none of us born today would exist if the past had been different.

    People would probably still exist, just different people, not you or me.

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