What Caused the American Civil War?
One hundred and fifty years ago Americans were fighting a most bloody civil war. There were serious persons then and now that blamed the war on Eli Whitney for his invention of the cotton gin in 1794.
While Whitney’s gin directly reduced the demand for slaves to separate cotton fibre from the seeds, it broke a bottleneck in the production process. It significantly reduced the cost of production of cotton and hence its price. The increase in the demand for cotton led to a dramatic increase in production. This in turn greatly increased the quantity demanded of slaves, particularly at the picking stage, and the geographic spread of slavery, and set the stage for the Civil War.
It is possible then to take this “technologically determinist” argument one step further. The gin resolved one problem but created another. It put pressure on the need to mechanize the picking of cotton. But whereas grain harvesting was beginning to be mechanized by the middle of the nineteenth century, it was almost another century before the same was true of harvesting cotton.
It was not for want of trying. The problem, as one writer put it, was that to pick cotton by machine was a hard as mechanically picking strawberries. As the American institutional economist Clarence Ayres put it, in efect, years ago, what was at issue for slavery and the Civil War was not just the gin, it was also the technical difficulty of mechanizing cotton picking.
It’s all too easy for both orthodox and Marxist economists to label such reasoning as deterministic and thereby dismiss it. For we do seem to have here a clear enough case of how an inherent imbalance in the timing of invention had the most dire social and political consequences.