Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Cost of Economic Power (review)
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Reviewed by
Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Cost of Economic Power. By Gene Dattel. (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2009. Pp. xiv, 416. $28.95 cloth)

As a managing director at Morgan Stanley and a former Yale history student, Gene Dattel combines his areas of expertise in this economic history from the early republic to the early twentieth century. He argues that international demand for southern cotton dictated attitudes toward slavery and later race relations in America, even in the North.

A premise of Dattel's analysis is that profits from cotton trumped any idealism concerning slavery or post-Civil War race relations. He states that past "romanticized" views of the Founding Fathers are unwarranted, for although many of them saw slavery as an evil and the international slave trade as morally repugnant, delegates from the Carolinas insisted on protecting slavery for potential profits even before the invention of the cotton gin (p. 5). Moreover, New England slave traders reaped great profits. Great Britain supported the Confederacy in 1861-62 despite widespread antislavery public opinion, for British mills needed southern cotton. Even after emancipation became a war aim in 1863, a widespread northern sentiment (shared by Abraham Lincoln) that favored colonization of freedmen shifted to a "containment policy" designed to keep freedmen on southern cotton plantations (pp. 211-13). The Freedmen's Bureau maintained this containment policy during Reconstruction, as northern and western congressmen did not want blacks in their midst. This racism persisted into the twentieth century, manifesting itself with institutionalized segregation.

A problem with Dattel's analysis is that he asserts several conclusions that are not new. The work appears to be a throwback to Charles Beard's much-challenged Economic Interpretation of the Constitution (1913), as it suggests a single economic factor behind the Constitution. The change of southern defenses of slavery from acknowledgments of a "necessary evil" to assertions of a "positive [End Page 135] good" for whites and blacks was chronicled in William Freehling's Prelude to Civil War (1965) among other works. Through slave narratives, such as Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861), the reputation of Northerners as racists and demanding carpetbagger masters is well established. Dattel describes limited postwar black property-holding in communities such as Mound Bayou, Mississippi, just like C. Vann Woodward in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) described how some progress in race relations occurred through the 1870s.

Nevertheless, Dattel provides interesting data and facts to augment his analysis. Although he relies on past studies from the late 1800s to the present and primary sources are sparse, he shows in detail how changing cotton prices influenced production and how data on British reliance on southern cotton explains their Civil War policies, for example. Confederate miscalculations about using cotton supply as a bargaining chip with Britain become clear when Dattel states that British mills had a two-year stockpile when the Confederacy desperately needed gold from sales. The alleged "containment policy" is well documented (although Dattel does not discuss black military service or work as cattlemen out west), and its pervasiveness lends credibility to Dattel's conclusion that southern blacks could only accept Booker T. Washington's strategy of economic uplift through industrial and agricultural education. While most historians point to the world wars and New Deal policies as causes of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South, Dattel reminds us in his final chapter that mechanization of cotton cultivation was a key factor.

The work concludes that the institutionalization of racism accompanying the growth of the cotton economy left the legacy of many modern problems among African Americans. While this assertion is a giant leap, Dattel's study is interesting and well written. It would be ideal for anyone unfamiliar with the history of American race relations, as it synthesizes information from many studies. [End Page 136]

Wes Borucki

Wes Borucki is an associate professor of history at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Florida. He is the author of George H. W. Bush: In Defense of Principle, forthcoming from Nova Science Publishers.

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