In the British colonies now composing this country the experiment of cotton-planting was tried so early as 1621; and in 1666 the growth of the cotton-plant is on record. The cultivation slowly and fitfully expanded throughout the following century, extending northward to the eastern shore of Maryland and the southernmost point of New Jersey where, however, the plant was grown more for ornament than use. It is stated that "seven bags of cotton-wool" were among the exports of Charleston, S. C., in 1748, and that trifling shipments from that port were likewise made in 1754 and 1757. In 1784, it is recorded that eight bags, shipped to England, were seized at the custom-house as fraudulently entered; "cotton not being a production of the United States." The export of 1790, as returned, was eighty-one bags; and the entire cotton crop of the United States at that time was probably less than the product of some single plantation in our day.
For, tho the plant grew luxuriantly and produced abundantly throughout tidewater Virginia and all that portion of our country lying southward and southwestward of Richmond, yet the enormous labor required to separate the seed from the tiny handful of fibers wherein it was imbedded, precluded its extensive and profitable cultivation. It was calculated that the perfect separation of one pound of fiber from the seed was an average day's work; and this fact presented a formidable barrier to the production of the staple in any but a region like India, where labor can be hired for a price below the cost of subsisting slaves, however wretchedly, in this country. It seemed that the limit of American cotton cultivation had been fully reached, when an event occurred which speedily revolutionized the industry of our slave-holding States and the commerce and manufactures of the world.
Eli Whitney, a native of Westborough, Worcester County, Massachusetts, born December 8, 1765, was descended on both sides from ancestors of English stock, who dated their migration from the old country nearly back to the memorable voyage of the Mayflower. They were generally farmers, and, like most farmers of those days, in very moderate circumstances. Eli's father, poor, industrious, and ingenious, had a workshop wherein he devoted the inclement season to the making of wheels and of chairs. Here the son early developed a remarkable ingenuity and mechanical skill; establishing, when only fifteen years of age, the manufacture by hand of wrought nails, for which there, in those later years of our Revolutionary struggle, a demand at high prices. Tho he had had no instruction in nail-making, and his few implements were of the rudest description, he pursued the business through two winters with profit to his father, devoting the summers to the farm.
After the close of the war, his nails being no longer in demand, he engaged in the manufacture of the pins then in fashion for fastening ladies' bonnets, and nearly monopolized the market through the excellence of his product. Walking canes also were among his winter manufactures, and were esteemed peculiarly well made and handsome. Meantime, he continued the devotion of his summers to the labors of the farm, attending the common school of his district through its winter session, and being therein noted for devotion to, and eminent skill in, arithmetic. At fourteen, he was looked upon by his neighbors as a very remarkable, energetic, and intelligent youth. At nineteen, he resolved to obtain a liberal education; but it was not until he had reached the mature age of twenty-three that he was enabled to enter college. By turns laboring with his hands and teaching school, he obtained the means of prosecuting his studies in Yale, which he entered in May, 1789. He borrowed some money to aid him in his progress, giving his note therefor, and paying it so soon as he could. On the decease of his father, some years afterward, he took an active part in settling the estate, but relinquished his portion to his coheirs.
It is scarcely probable that the amount he thus sacrificed was large, but the generous spirit he evinced is not thereby obscured.
While in college, his natural superiority in mechanism and proclivity to invention were frequently manifested. On one occasion a tutor regretted to his pupils that he could not exhibit a desired philosophical experiment, because the apparatus was out of order, and could only be repaired in Europe. Young Whitney thereupon proposed to undertake the repair, and made it to perfect satisfaction. At another time, be asked permission to use at intervals the tools of a carpenter who worked near his boarding-place; but the careful mechanic declined to trust them in the hands of a student, unless the gentleman with whom Mr. Whitney boarded would become responsible for their safe return. The guarantee was given, and Mr. Whitney took the tools in hand; when the carpenter, surprized at his dexterity, exclaimed: "There was one good mechanic spoiled when you went to college."
Mr. Whitney graduated in the fall of 1792, and directly engaged with a Mr. B., from Georgia, to proceed to that State and reside in his employer's family as a private teacher. On his way thither, he had as a traveling companion, Mrs. Greene, widow of the eminent Revolutionary general,2 Nathaniel Greene, who was returning with her children to Savannah, after spending the summer at the North. His health being infirm on his arrival at Savannah, Mrs. Greene kindly invited him to the hospitalities of her residence until he should become fully restored. Short of money and in a land of strangers, he was now coolly informed by his employer that his services were not required, he (B.) having employed another teacher in his stead! Mrs. Greene hereupon urged him to make her house his home so long as that should be desirable, and pursue under her roof the study of the law, which he then contemplated. He gratefully accepted the offer, and commenced the study accordingly.
Mrs. Greene happened to be engaged in embroidering on a peculiar frame known as a tambour. It was badly constructed, so that it injured the fabric while it impeded its production. Mr. Whitney eagerly volunteered to make her a better, and did so on a plan wholly new, to her great delight and that of her children.
A large party of Georgians, from Augusta and the plantations above, soon after paid Mrs. Greene a visit, several of them being officers who had served under her husband in the Revolutionary war. Among the topics discust by them around her fireside was the deprest state of agriculture, and the impossibility of profitably extending the culture of the green-seed cotton, because of the trouble and expense incurred in separating the seed from the fiber. These representations impelled Mrs. Greene to say: "Gentlemen, apply to my young friend, Mr. Whitney-he can make anything." She thereupon took them into an adjacent room, where she showed them her tambour-frame and several ingenious toys which Mr. Whitney had made for the gratification of her children. She then introduced them to Whitney himself, extolling his genius and commending him to their confidence and friendship. In the conversation which ensued, he observed that he had never seen cotton nor cotton-seed in his life.
Mr. Whitney promised nothing and gave little encouragement, but went to work. No cotton in the seed being at hand, he went to Savannah and searched there among warehouses and boats until he found a small parcel. This he carried home and secluded with himself in a basement room, where he set himself at work to devise and construct the implement required. Tools being few and rude, he was constrained to make betterdrawing his own wire, because none could, at that time, be bought in the city of Savannah. Mrs. Greene and her next friend, Mr. Miller, whom she soon after married, were the only persons beside himself who were allowed the entrée of his workshopin fact, the only ones who clearly knew what he was about. His mysterious hammering and tinkering in that solitary cell were subjects of infinite curiosity, marvel, and ridicule among the younger members of the family. But he did not interfere with their merriment, nor allow them to interfere with his enterprise; and, before the close of the winter, his machine was so nearly perfected that its success was no longer doubtful.
Mrs. Greene, too eager to realize and enjoy her friend's triumph, in view of the existing stagnation of Georgian industry, invited an assemblage at her house of leading gentlemen from various parts of the State, and, on the first day after their meeting conducted them to a temporary building erected for the machine, in which they saw, with astonishment and delight, that one man with Whitney's invention, could separate more cotton from the seed in a single day than he could without it by the labor of months.
Mr. Phineas Miller, a native of Connecticut, and a graduate of Yale, who had come to Georgia as the teacher of General Greene's children, and who, about this time, became the husband of his widow, now proposed a partnership with Mr. Whitney, by which he engaged to furnish funds to perfect the invention, secure the requisite patents, and manufacture the needed machines; the partners to share equally all profits and emoluments thence resulting. Their contract bears date May 27, 1793; and the firm of Miller & Whitney immediately commenced what they had good reason to expect would prove a most extensive and highly lucrative business. Mr. Whitney thereupon repaired to Connecticut, there to perfect his invention, secure his patent, and manufacture machines for the Southern market.
But his just and sanguine hopes were destined to signal and bitter disappointment. His invention was too valuable to be peacefully enjoyed; or, rather, it was the seeming and urgent interest of too many to rob him of the just reward of his achievement. . . . Reports of the nature and value of his invention were widely and rapidly circulated, creating intense excitement. Multitudes hastened from all quarters to see his original machine; but, no patent having yet been secured, it was deemed unsafe to gratify their curiosity; so they broke open the building by night, and carried off the wonderful prize. Before he could complete his model and secure his patent, a number of imitations had been made and set to work, deviating in some respects from the original, in the hope of thus evading all penalty. . . .
Messrs. Miller and Whitney's plan of operations was essentially vicious.3 They proposed to construct and retain the ownership of all the machines that might be needed, setting one up in each cotton-growing neighborhood, and ginning all the staple for every third pound of the product. Even at this rate the invention would have been one of enormous benefit to the planterscotton being then worth from twenty-five to thirty-three cents per pound. But no single manufactory could turn out the gins so fast as wanted, and planters who might readily have consented to the terms of the patentees, had the machines been furnished so fast as required, could hardly be expected to acquiesce so readily in the necessity of doing without machines altogether because the patentees could not, tho others could, supply them. And then the manufacture of machines, to be constructed and worked by the patentees alone, involved a very large outlay of money, which must mainly be obtained by borrowing. Miller's means being soon exhausted, their first loan of two thousand dollars was made on the comparatively favorable condition of five per cent. premium, in addition to lawful interest.
But they were soon borrowing at twenty per cent. per month. Then there was sickness; Mr. Whitney having a severe and tedious attack in 1794; after which the scarlet fever raged in New Haven, disabling many of his workmen; and soon the lawsuits, into which they were driven in defense of their patent, began to devour all the money they could make or borrow. In 1795 Whitney had another attack of sickness; and, on his return to New Haven, from three weeks of suffering in New York, learned that his manufactory, with all his machines and papers, had just been consumed by fire, whereby he found himself suddenly reduced to utter bankruptcy. Next came a report from England that the British manufacturers condemned and rejected the cotton cleaned by his machines, on the ground that the staple was greatly injured by the ginning process! And now no one would touch the ginned cotton; and blockheads were found to insist that the roller-gina preposterous rival to Whitney's whereby the seed was crusht in the fiber, instead of being separated from itwas actually a better machine than Whitney's In the depths of their distress and insolvency, Miller wrote (April 7, 1796) from Georgia to Whitney, urging him to hasten to London, there to counteract the prejudice against ginned cotton.
Miller & Whitney's first suit against infringers now came to trial, before a Georgia jury; and, in spite of the judge's charge directly in the plaintiff's favor, a verdict was given for the defendanta verdict from which there was no appeal. When the second suit was ready for trial at Savannah, no judge appeared, and, of course, no court was held. Meantime, the South fairly swarmed with pirates on the invention, of all kinds and degrees. . . .
Finally, in 1801, an agent wrote to his principals that, tho the planters of South Carolina would not pay their notes, many of them suggested a purchase of the right of the patentees for that State by its Legislature; and he urged Mr. Whitney to come to Columbia, and try to make an arrangement on this basis. Whitney did so, taking some letters and testimonials from the new President, Jefferson, and his Secretary of State, Madison, which were doubtless of service to him in his negotiations. His memorial having been duly submitted to the Legislature, proposing to sell the patent right for South Carolina for one hundred thousand dollars, the Legislature debated it, and finally offered for it fifty thousandtwenty thousand down, and ten thousand per anuum for three years. . . .
The next Legislature of South Carolina nullified the contract, suspended payment on the thirty thousand still due, and instituted a suit for the recovery of the twenty thousand that had been already paid!
North Carolina, to her honor be it recorded, in December, 1803, negotiated an arrangement with Mr. Whitney, whereby the Legislature laid a tax of two shillings and sixpence upon every saw employed in ginning cotton, to be continued for five years, which sum was to be collected by the sheriffs in the same manner as the public taxes; and, after deducting the expenses of collection, the avails were faithfully paid over to the patentee. The old North State was not extensively engaged in cotton-growing, and the pecuniary avails of this action were probably not large; but the arrangement seems to have been a fair one, and it was never repudiated. South Carolina, it should in justice be said, through her Legislature of 1804, receded from her repudiation, and fulfilled her original contract.
Mr. Miller, the partner of Whitney, died, poor and embarrassed, on the 7th of December, 1803. At the term of the United States District Court for Georgia, held at Savannah in December, 1807, Mr. Whitney obtained a verdict against the pirates on his invention; his patent being now in the last year of its existence. . . .
Mr. Whitney's patent expired in 1808, leaving him a poorer man, doubtless, than tho he had never listened to the suggestions of his friend Mrs. Greene, and undertaken the invention of a Machine, by means of which the annual production of cotton in the Southern States has been augmented by from some five or ten thousand bales in 1793 to over five millions of bales, or one million tons, in 1859;4 this amount being at least three-fourths in weight, and seven-eighths in value, of all the cotton produced on the globe. To say that this invention was worth one thousand millions of dollars to the Slave States of this country is to place a very moderate estimate on its value. Mr. Whitney petitioned Congress, in 1812, for a renewal of his patent, setting forth the costly and embarrassing struggles he had been forced to make in defense of his right, and observing that he had been unable to obtain any decision on the merits of his claim until he had been eleven years in the law, and until thirteen of the fourteen years' life time of his patent had expired. But the immense value of his invention stood directly in the way of any such acknowledgment of its merits and his righteous claims as the renewal he sought would have involved. Some liberal members from the cotton-growing region favored his petition, but a majority of the Southrons fiercely opposed it, and it was lost. . . .
In 1798, Mr. Whitney, despairing of ever achieving a competence from the proceeds of his cotton-gin, engaged in the manufacture of arms, near New Haven; and his rare capacity for this or any similar undertaking, joined with his invincible perseverance and energy, was finally rewarded with success. He was a most indefatigable worker; one of the first in his manufactory in the morning, and the last to leave it at night; able to make any implement or machine he required, or to invent a new one when that might be needed; and he ultimately achieved a competency. He made great improvements in the manufacture of firearmsimprovements that have since been continued and perfected, until the American rifled musket of our day, made at the National Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts, is doubtless the most effective and perfect weapon known to mankind.5 In 1817, Mr Whitney, now fifty-two years old, found himself fully relieved from pecuniary embarrassments and the harassing anxieties resulting therefrom. He was now married to Miss Henrietta F. Edwards, daughter of the Hon. Pierpont Edwards, United States District Judge for Connecticut; and four children, a son and three daughters, were born to him in the next five years. In September, 1822, he was attacked by a dangerous and painful disease, which, with alternations of terrible suffering and comparative ease, preyed upon him until January 8, 1826, when he died, not quite sixty years of age.
1 From Greeleys "American Conflict." Eli Whitney, the inventor of this famous device by which it became possible for the Southern States to substitute machinery for hand labor and thus to increase their output of cotton tremendously, was born in Westboro, Mass., in 1765, and died in 1825. Historians and economists have agreed as to the great importance of his invention. It affected not only the local cotton industry itself, but the commercial relations of the United States with Great Britain and the world at large, and had a very distinct, if not controlling, influence on the extension of slavery, and hence in bringing on the Civil War. Macaulay has remarked that what Peter the Great did to make Russia dominant in Europe Eli Whitney's invention more than equaled in the United States. Except for this invention cotton could scarcely ever have become "king."
2 General Greene's services in this war were surpassed by those of no other general except Washington, and perhaps ArnoldArnold except for his treason. Greene was born in Rhode Island, and distinguished himself at Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, Germantown, and Monmouth. In 1780 he succeeded Gates in command of the army in the South, where he fought several battles. He died near Savannah in 1786.
3 So argued those who would use the gin in spite of Whitney's rights.
4 The cotton crop in recent years has been: 1899, 11,235,383 bales; in 1909, 13,828,846 bales; in 1910, 10,650,961 bales; in 1911 about 15,000,000 bales.
5Springfield rifles came into general use during the Civil War.