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'King Cotton' was a phrase used in the Southern United States mainly by Southern politicians and authors who wanted to illustrate the importance of the cotton crop to the Confederate economy during the American Civil War.[1][2][3] However, the attempt to use this trade as a diplomatic weapon to force Europe's hand in the American Civil War proved a serious strategic blunder.

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Southern plantations generated three-quarters of the world's cotton supply. The "New South" has long, hot summers, and rich soil of river valley, ideal conditions to grow cotton. The drawback of growing cotton is mainly the time that is spent processing the crop after harvesting. After the invention of the cotton gin the production of cotton surpassed that of tobacco in the South and became the dominant cash crop.

The rapid growth of cotton production was an international phenomenon, prompted by events occurring far from the American South. The insatiable demand for cotton was a result of the technological and social changes that are today known as the Industrial Revolution. Beginning early in the eighteenth century, a series of inventions resulted in the mechanized spinning and weaving of cloth in the world’s first factories in the north of England. The ability of these factories to produce unprecedented amounts of cotton cloth revolutionized the world economy.

The invention of the cotton gin came just at the right time. British textile manufacturers were eager to buy all the cotton that the South could produce. The figures for cotton production support this conclusion: from 720,000 bales in 1830, to 2.85 million bales in 1850, to nearly 5 million in 1860. Cotton production renewed the need for slavery after the tobacco market declined in the late 1700s. The more cotton grew, the more slaves were needed, to keep up with the demand of cotton.[4]

When a new hand, one accustomed to [picking cotton], is sent for the first time into the field, he is whipped up smartly, and made for that day to pick as fast as he can possibly. At night [what he has picked] is weighed, so that his capability in cotton picking is known. He must bring in the same weight each night following... The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of 10 to 15 minutes , which is given then at noon to swallow their allowance... they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see.[5]

By the time of the Civil War, cotton accounted for almost 60% of American exports, representing a total value of nearly $300 million a year. The rise in population from the cotton industry even brought statehood to southern territories. The admission of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida ,and Texas,into the Union brought increase of power to the South in the United States Congress. 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 thought their survival depended on the sympathy of Europe to offset the power of the Union. They believed that cotton was so essential to Europe that they would intervene in any civil war.

When war broke out the Confederate Congress decided to refuse to allow the export of cotton to Europe. The idea was that this cotton diplomacy would force Europe to intervene. European states did not, however, intervene and, following Abraham Lincoln's decision to impose a blockade, the South was unable to move its millions of bales of cotton. The production of cotton increased in other parts of the world, such as India and Egypt, to meet the demand. British-owned newspaper The Standard of Buenos Aires in cooperation with the Manchester Cotton Supply Association succeeded in encouraging Argentinian farmers to drastically increase production of cotton in that country and export it to the United Kingdom.[6]

See also[]

  • Eli Whitney
  • Boll Weevil


  1. Template:Citebook
  2. Frank Lawrence Owsley, King Cotton Diplomacy: Foreign relations of the Confederate States of America (1931)
  3. John Mack Faragher, et al., Out of Many: A History of the American People. Volume 1, Fourth Edition. Upper Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2003
  4. Armento, Beverly J. "Plantation Society." America Will Be. Boston, MA. HoughtonMifflinCompany. 1991.
  5. Northup, Solomon. Twelve Years a Slave:Electronic Edition. Chapel Hill, North Carolina. 1997. <> 5 May 2009.
  6. Argentina Department of Agriculture (1904), Cotton Cultivation, Buenos Aires: Anderson and Company, General Printers, p. 4, OCLC 17644836, 

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