America in the 1850s

The Supreme Court Decides

Was there any truth to the idea that “Cotton is king”?

At the time, quite a few people concurred that there was something to it. Cotton was so important to the economy of the United States, indeed of the transatlantic world, that it seemed possible foreign powers—the British and French, especially—would intervene to prevent any subjection of the Southern American states by the Northern ones. In retrospect, however, Hammond’s claim runs up against the same troubles as the claims by today’s Arab nations that the world could never live without Middle Eastern oil.

In both cases—the cotton of the Confederacy and the petroleum of the Arab nations—the initial claim looks impressive, but it overlooks the dynamic creativity of Western capitalism. If cotton could not be obtained from the Southern states, it would be obtained from somewhere else; if the Arab nations attempted to blackmail the Western powers, oil, or some other form of energy, would be found. Then, too, Hammond’s bold claim overlooked the incredible prosperity that already existed in the Northern states.


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