Review of Gene Dattel’s Cotton and Race in the Making of America

Gene Dattel’s Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power (Ivan R. Dee, 2009) is a book for which I had been looking. While one can find plenty of studies of slavery and the Old South, book-length works focused on cotton’s role, specifically its economic influence, in shaping the antebellum United States are scarce. Dattel’s attempt to address that shortcoming reaches beyond the antebellum period; for the purposes of this review, however, only the first ten chapters will be addressed.

Dattel begins his book with the argument that it “is about money and the uses and abuses of power” (ix). Cotton and race, in his estimation, were inextricably united in the antebellum United States: “Cotton offered potential wealth; black slavery solved the labor problem” (xi).

Given Dattel’s background in economics and finance, it is not surprising that the strongest parts of Cotton and Race are the sections that deal with the economics of cotton and slavery. Throughout, he offers quantitative evidence that indicates the importance of both cotton and slavery to the United States’ economic growth and the South’s continued employment of human bondage. For example, he outlines Great Britain’s growing dependence on southern cotton. In 1787, “Britain imported no cotton from the United States.” Twenty years later, the United States was providing Britain with a majority of its cotton imports, by 1840, the United States’ contribution to the British market was 81% (29-30, 37).

Cotton also affected other parts of the American economy. It drove land speculation, particularly in the 1830s, when, on the eve of the Panic of 1837, 20,074,871 acres of land were sold for $25,167,833 (43). These land acquisitions transformed the interior South in many ways. For example, Memphis, which only saw 300 bales of cotton enter its port in 1826, became “the largest inland cotton port” by 1860, with 400,000 bales passing through the city.

Chapters seven through ten (grouped together under the title, “The North, For Whites Only, 1800-1865”) do not hold together as well as the first six chapters. The chronology is jumbled, the geographic coverage is limited, and, at times, the analysis is superficial. For example, Chapter 8, titled “The Colonial North,” addresses only New York and Connecticut. The section on New York spends more time on the Civil War than on any other period. The second part of the chapter, on Connecticut, is better organized but still needed a clearer narrative. Chapter 9, in contrast, attempts to cover every western state but does so unevenly. Illinois and Ohio, for example, receive extensive treatment, but Oregon and California merit only a couple of paragraphs and Iowa only one. Perhaps I am being a nit-picky reviewer, but for these two chapters, I think a better strategy would have been either to try to cover all of the states adequately or to choose a couple of examples and do a comprehensive analysis of how they reflected broader geographic attitudes toward African Americans. Finally, Chapter 10 (“Tocqueville on Slavery, Race, and Money in America”) is a fine chapter on its own, but it does not fit with the organizational flow of the book.

These criticisms do not mean that I did not find the book interesting or useful. It gave me quantitative data that I can use in my classes or even my research, and it provoked thought about the economic relationship between cotton and race. Whatever its limitations (and every book has them), Cotton and Race is worth a read.

For more on the book, see Dattel’s presentation on C-Span’s BookTV, as well as reviews of the book on the Huffington Post and H-Environment websites.

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