Why Was Cotton Important to the South?

Cotton was important to the South because cotton production was integral not only to the Southern economy, but also to overall U.S. economic prosperity in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The cotton economy of the South prolonged slavery as an institution and as a result helped give rise to the American Civil War.

When the cotton gin was invented in 1793, the cultivation of cotton rapidly grew from limited production in Georgia and South Carolina to the foundation of the Southern economy, with plantations extending from Texas to Maryland. This gave the Southern states enormous political and economic influence, because other parts of the world depended upon the cotton, which was first shipped to New York and from there to markets in the United States and Europe. Up to 80 percent of raw cotton used in British mills was from the American South. In New England, Southern cotton fueled the textile mills of the burgeoning industrial revolution.

The cultivation of cotton was also largely responsible for the expansion of slavery in the South. Of the 2.5 million African slaves working in agriculture in the United States in 1850, more than two-thirds worked on cotton plantations. The value of slaves rose along with rising cotton productivity, and slaves were used as collateral to secure loans and as commodities to pay off debt and trade for other goods. Slaves even became political capital when the U.S. Constitution accorded slaves the status of three-fifths of a person for tax purposes and representation in Congress.