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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 45

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This is the grave of Eli Whitney.

2016-05-07 11.40.35

Born in 1765 in Westborough, Massachusetts, Eli Whitney became one of the most important inventors in American history. He graduated from Yale in 1792, going late because his stepmother opposed it and he had to earn the money first, working as a teacher. He hoped to study law but continued to lack money so he went to Georgia to work as a private tutor. On the ship down to Georgia, he met the wife of the recently deceased Rhode Island Revolutionary War hero turned slaver Nathanael Greene. They became friends and invited him to her plantation. While there, Whitney invented the cotton gin, solving the long-term problem of cotton production, which was getting the seeds detached from the fibers, a labor-intensive operation making large-scale production unfeasible. He received the patent for his cotton gin in 1794. This led to an almost immediate rapid intensification of American slavery as cotton fever spread over the South and gave the slaveholding class a new profitable crop to crop after years of low-profit tobacco grown on depleted soils. Emancipation rhetoric ceased in places like Virginia and Americans rapidly sought to exterminate the Indians of the American South to clear their land for cotton, something nearly completed within 50 years.

The cotton gin did not make Whitney rich, which was often the case with successful inventions in early America because patent infringement was so common. But it did make Whitney famous. He received federal contracts to create arms with interchangeable parts as early as 1798. He did not invent this idea, but he significantly advanced it. The contract was not for the arms to be used in the United States, but rather to push the Americans’ rather obstinate definition of neutral rights, which in their minds meant selling whatever they wanted to whoever would buy it, including guns to both nations at war with each other. As he became rich on these contracts, he became ever more tightly connected with the Connecticut elite around Yale. He died of prostate cancer in New Haven in 1825.

Eli Whitney is buried in Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

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  • Joe_JP

    Nathaniel Greene’s wife had a role in his story and is an interesting character in her own right.

    • Joe_JP

      I see this is covered.

  • Judas Peckerwood

    Can’t make a proper cottontini without cotton gin.

  • Bootsie

    I heard once that Whitney thought that the cotton gin would reduce the demand for slavery, because hey now you can do ten slaves work with only like one of them and in fraction of the time.

    And then slaveowners actually started using it, and whoops, cotton slavery is now more profitable than ever.

    • Murc

      I heard once that Whitney thought that the cotton gin would reduce the demand for slavery, because hey now you can do ten slaves work with only like one of them and in fraction of the time.

      Yeah, and people thought efficiency gains would result in us all working ten-hour weeks and making the same amount of money, and we all saw how that worked out.

      • Brett

        It did make better living standards possible on the 40 hour work-week.

        • Ahuitzotl

          It did make better living standards profit levels possible on the 40 hour work-week

  • FridayNext

    I thought recent scholarship cast some shade on the claim that he actually invented the cotton gin, but merely filed the paperwork for a patent copying techniques already in use in the South.

    Not my field, so I’m asking.

  • Bruce Vail

    Your mini-campaign to besmirch the memory of Nathaniel Greene in unjust.

    Finally in the latter part of 1785 he settled on his plantation with his wife and children. He looked forward to a future of much happiness and contentment. He entered into the development of his plantation with much vigor and interest. In April, 1786, he wrote a letter to a friend in which he stated in part:

    “The garden is delightful. The fruit trees and flowering shrubs form a pleasant variety. We have green peas almost fit to eat and as fine lettuce as you ever saw. The mocking birds surround us evening and morning. The weather is mild and the vegetable world progressing to perfection. We have in the same orchard apples, pears, peaches, apricots, nectarines, plums of various kinds, figs, pomegranate and oranges. And we have strawberries which measure three inches around.”

    Greene went to Savannah on a business trip, June 12, 1786, and on his journey home he stopped at the plantation of a friend to see his rice fields, as he had become interested in producing rice. During his visit at his friend’s plantation he was exposed to the hot rays of the sun, and when he returned home he became very ill and on June 19, he died. When the news of his untimely death spread throughout the countryside and Savannah, shock and sorrow caused the suspension of all business.

    As you can see, he was a plantation owner for about one year. Perhaps it is true that he felt there was nothing wrong with owning slaves, and that doesn’t speak well for him. But he died when he was only 43 years old and was a plantation overlord for just one of those years. You seem take a perverse delight in slandering one of the true heroes of the American Revolution.

    • postmodulator

      Unlike a lot of the LGM commentariat, I am not a lawyer. However, my understanding is that “slander” has a very specific meaning which is not “noticing and repeating a true but unpleasant fact.”

      • Bruce Vail

        Yes, I’ll withdraw the charge of slander.

        The intent to defame seems pretty clear, though. I guess my my complaint is that its a cheap shot, sort of the Erik equivalent of Trump repeatedly referring to Mrs. Clinton as Crooked Hillary.

        • Hob

          To anyone who’s not already determined to find fault with Loomis, I think the phrasing of the very brief mention of Greene here makes perfect sense. The sentence is about Whitney meeting Greene’s widow. At that point, Greene was in fact a “recently deceased Rhode Island Revolutionary War hero turned slaver.” If it had been a couple years earlier, he would’ve just been a “Rhode Island Revolutionary War hero.” And as Joe_JP pointed out, Loomis linked that very sentence to a post that explains exactly what he’s talking about— a post which you yourself found no reason to complain about at the time, at least not for anything it said about Greene.

          • Bruce Vail

            Well, the earlier post did not sum up the man’s life with “War hero turned slaver.” I’m disputing the facts as reported. I’m disputing the fairness and justice of the snarky characterization.

          • Scott P.

            At that point, Greene was in fact a “recently deceased Rhode Island Revolutionary War hero turned slaver.”

            Nathaniel Greene: Zombie Slaver

    • Joe_JP

      Not seeing the “slander.”

      He also provides a link to his entry on Greene himself:

      http://www.lawyersgunsmoneyblog.com/2016/05/erik-visits-an-american-grave-part-30

      It provides an evenhanded account from what I can tell.

      • Joe_JP

        I also see you felt his usage of “retreat” problematic as if just using it in the bland way he did implies something critical. “Besmirching” is helped by such unnecessary inferences.

    • Did Greene move to Georgia to own slaves or didn’t he?

      • wjts

        It never occurred to you that he might have been trying to bring down slavery from the inside, like James Bond in Diamonds Are Forever?

      • Juicy_Joel

        His tragic premature death deprived him the opportunity to really enjoy the fruits of his slaves’ labor so…

    • delazeur

      Loomis accurately pointed out that Greene was a slave owner. If you want to make a moral distinction between owning slaves for the last year of your life and being an enthusiastic lifelong advocate of slave ownership, be my guest. Either way, Loomis did not actually accuse Greene of the latter.

    • MacK

      He had proposed freeing slaves who joined the Continental Army, but that was blocked by the South Carolina and Georgia legislature. The estates he he held were awarded by South Carolina and Geogia – one he sold to provide pensions for his troops. The second he’d barely lived on before he died. The one he died on was thecresultbif an award by Georgia of 5000 Guineas to buy a plantation in Georgia,/em> I.e., tied funds, and he was apparently broke.

      Given that he was the son of a New England Quaker, it’s plausible that he was unenthusiastic about slavery, and ended up a slave owner largely by default as a result of being awarded the plantations. We don’t really know whether he’d have remained one long term.

      • Lurker

        It is really a difficult situation. If you had no savings and were given a pension in form of slaves, would you emancipate them, thus stripping yourself of livelihood while others still keep slaves?

        I am happy alI don’t need to answer but I doubt I would be a saint. Most likely, I would keep the slaves I had and try to content my conscience by their “humane” treatment and efforts to get slavery abolished generally. I am really happy I am not likely to get into that sort of temptation.

        • MacK

          More complex – he sold one plantation to provide pensions for his troops – but did he sell the slaves which came with it? As slaves?

          • Lurker

            You might make a very convincing argument that selling slaves, even in conjunction with plantation, is much more immoral than owning slaves.

            In selling, you treat human beings as property in its purest form. In owning, you “merely” rob them of their freedom and force them to work for you. Both are immoral, but the former more immoral than the latter: for the latter, you should go to a deeper circle of hell.

            Secondly, as a practical matter, after selli g a slave, you give up the possibility of ever emancipating them, and allow the possibility that a future owner would treat them even worse than you.

  • Lurker

    BTW, the US idea of “neutral rights” is, technically, the state of international law today. A neutral country can supply both sides of the conflict with arms without losing neutrality, unless there is a UN embargo.

    A neutral-flagged ship cannot, by the law of sea, be stopped and searched for contraband unless there is a declared blockade, and the ship is in the territorial sea of the blockaded country. It cannot be stopped on high seas. However, this rule is mostly honoured in breach. No country with a major blue water navy has every abided by it.

  • John F

    I saw a program about Whitney’s efforts as a gun maker a while back, he did not succeed in manufacturing guns with interchangeable parts, his guns (the examples that survive) show the signs typical of the era of individual shaping/filing etc, so that you could not expect to take a part from one gun and have it fit and work in another (without further reshaping/filing etc).

    His idea was good, but:
    1: Others had the same idea at around the same time;
    2: He wasn’t the one who got it to work.

    He also played around with some rather dubious accounting ideas/practices

  • daves09

    Equally important for the development of the socio-economics of the pre-war south was the equipment to bail the cotton. Originally hand screws they rapidly adopted steam, making it necessary for everyone to come to the a central ginning operation. Ginning cotton was a highly profitable industrial activity, one of the very few, in the pre-war south.
    As for Greene and slavery. There was slavery in every state-New York had the most slaves above the Mason-Dixon line. Abolition was not complete until the 1820’s It’s an uncomfortable fact that when the civil war began the great majority of Americans had no opposition to slavery as long as it remained in the south.

    • advocatethis

      It’s an uncomfortable fact that when the civil war began the great majority of Americans had no opposition to slavery as long as it remained in the south.

      Included in that great majority was Lincoln. Though not happy with the status quo, he was willing to tolerate it. That wasn’t enough for the slaveholders, though. Not having an enthusiastic supporter of slavery in the White House was an affront to them, one that in their eyes justified secession and ultimately Civil War.

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