NYT revives the ‘King Cotton’ thesis

Recent “HeadLocke” guest Phillip Magness writes for National Review Online that a new high-profile project from the New York Times revives a discredited historical argument.

“I say that cotton is king, and that he waves his scepter not only over these 33 states, but over the island of Great Britain and over continental Europe!” So thundered Senator Louis T. Wigfall of Texas in December 1860, as an intended warning to those who doubted the economic viability of secessionism. Like many southerners, Wigfall subscribed to the “King Cotton” thesis: the belief that slave-produced cotton commanded a controlling position over the American economy and indeed the world’s commercial engines. Developed in the 1850s by political economist David Christy and championed by the radical pro-slavery politician James Henry Hammond, that argument was to be the nascent Confederacy’s trump card — an engine of global wealth in which all other economic activities were intertwined. …

… Yet despite its historical untenability, the economic reasoning behind King Cotton has undergone a surprising — perhaps unwitting — rehabilitation through a modern genre of scholarly works known as the new history of capitalism (NHC). While NHC historians reject the pro-slavery thrust of Wigfall and Hammond’s bluster, they recast slave-produced cotton as “not just as an integral part of American capitalism, but . . . its very essence,” to quote Harvard’s Sven Beckert. …

… And this same NHC literature provides the scholarly foundation of the ballyhooed New York Times’ 1619 Project — specifically, its foray into the economics of slavery. Guided by this rehabilitated version of King Cotton, Princeton sociologist Matthew Desmond enlists the horrors of the plantation system to launch a blistering attack on modern American capitalism.

Mitch Kokai / Senior Political Analyst

Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation. He joined JLF in December 2005 as director of communications. That followed more than four years as chie...

Reader Comments