America in the 1850s

The Supreme Court Decides

Who was James Henry Hammond?

Born in South Carolina, James Henry Hammond (1807–1864) was an unrepentant defender of the institution of slavery; indeed, on several occasions he declared that slavery was not merely acceptable, but that it represented a positive good. Hammond had an unsavory personal history; in his diary he admitted both to a homosexual relationship and to his “familiarities and dalliances” with his four nieces, all in their teens.

On March 4, 1858, a year to the date since the inauguration of James C. Buchanan, Hammond rose in the U.S. Senate to deliver a speech subsequently known as “King Cotton.” Hammond extolled the material and commercial success of the Southern states and ridiculed the holier-than-thou critics in the North. Northern men should be glad slavery existed, Hammond asserted, because the wealth produced by cotton fed their industries. He was, to be sure, not completely wrong. Rather, it was the emphasis of the speech that made some people—then and now—cringe. The most famous, or infamous, words were as follows: “No, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares to make war upon it. Cotton is king.”


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