- Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power
Laura Edwards recently commented that U.S. historians' focus on "the exceptional South" has provided "an easy way out of difficult problems."1 Gene Dattel agrees, and his Cotton and Race in the Making of America is a powerful examination of how diverse groups' aggressive pursuit of wealth in cotton contributed to and worked with virulent racism to shape U.S. history from 1790 through the 1930s. As a former managing director of Salomon Brothers and Morgan Stanley, Dattel offers a unique perspective that helps make this an interesting and important account told "from a [End Page 92] racially tinted economic and financial perspective, rather than through a moral lens" (xi).
Several central themes emerge. First, cotton was a unique commodity, the production and market orientation of which provided unprecedented opportunities and considerable uncertainty. According to Dattel, the decentralized nature of its cultivation and the investment in labor and land made "cotton farming unsuitable for normal corporate capital structures" and dependent on exploitative labor arrangements, first slavery and then sharecropping (58). Furthermore, because profits came only once a year, growers had to borrow on cotton futures and were vulnerable to natural forces that could make or ruin a particular year's crop. Global demand and prices remained high enough to make cotton production attractive to southern agrarians, but they and their coerced labor "were all in their own way—pawns in the hands of finance" (xi).
A second major theme of this book is northern culpability in cotton's ills and especially in the exploitation of African Americans. This comes through most directly in Dattel's description of northerners' dependence on southern cotton and especially New York's central role in the financing and sale of cotton. But Dattel also dedicates four chapters to highlighting northern whites' racism, which, until the labor shortage during World War I, led to a policy of "containment" that greatly restricted African Americans' options. According to Dattel, such racism dictated the free-soil platform and, along with northerners' desire to continue to profit from southern cotton production, explains why northerners supported some rights for African Americans in the aftermath of the Civil War. Yet "by denying blacks mobility," he argues, "white Northern racial antipathy became largely responsible for the destiny of former slaves and their return to the cotton fields" (160).
Dattel's account challenges the dominant interpretations of Eric Foner, James McPherson, and David Blight, each of whom sees Reconstruction as a hopeful—and at least partly ideologically driven—moment for transformative change. Dattel views such approaches as "wistfully" ignoring "America's twinned realities: the prevalence of racial antipathy—a strain of hatred, disgust, and condescension that spread from the deepest Southern plantations to the most 'enlightened' of Northern politicians, philanthropists, and intellectuals—and the country's overwhelming commercial priorities" (289). In an argument sure to generate controversy, his heavily critical view resonates with recent approaches that highlight racism and greed as defining features of the nineteenth century, while also harkening back to older scholarly traditions questioning northern whites' motives, portraying Reconstruction as misguided, and defining the Civil War era as [End Page 93] a period of continuity rather than change. Only the technological breakthrough of a mechanical picker in the 1930s freed African Americans from cotton, but not the racial legacy it had created.
In addition to these arguments, readers of this journal may be interested to know how Dattel explains cotton's role in shaping the war itself. While believing that confidence in cotton was a precondition for secession, Dattel wisely agrees with the dominant view that slavery was the primary reason for the war. Six chapters dealing with the war demonstrate how much faith Confederates placed in King Cotton, while also showing "how the South's need for cotton exports to finance the war flew in the face of the stated policy of preventing their shipment" in hopes of forcing European recognition (176). Other chapters...