June 29, 1862: Where will the cotton come from?

The New York Times editorial ponders the question: slavery is ending, but England’s factories still need cotton. Where will it be produced and how?


4:49 PM

No Solution of the Cotton Question.

The present war has settled many questions that were considered very doubtful at the time of its breaking out. It has settled that there shall be no extension of Slavery in the territory of the United States. It has settled that gradual emancipation is an accepted policy of the National Government in its dealings with Slaveholding States. It has settled that the Union is stronger than any property-interest, however gigantic, that is protected under it. And it has settled that the American Government is a self-existing, self-protecting power among the nations, that can hold its own against millions of traitors, and defy a world in arms.

But there is one thing that the war has not yet settled, and that is the Cotton question, We have established firmly enough the fact that Cotton is not King; and in so doing we have annihilated the commercial no less than the political faith of the Cotton States, and reduced them to inconceivable confusion and dismay. But when we have silenced the political jargon of planters and demagogues in the South on this subject, we still have a profoundly important problem that all civilized nations are interested in solving. Where shall Cotton be had, abundantly and cheaply enough to meet the demand formerly, but no longer, supplied by the rebel crop?

England is more interested in the answer to this question than the United States — far more. England depends to a vastly greater extent on the prosperity of cotton manufactories, for the preservation and welfare of her population, than do the people of the United States. Hence it is that the prospect of the reduction of the rebellion by our Government gives no joy and no peace of mind in England — for it conveys no assurance of a resumption of the enormous production of cotton in the States that once supplied the English mills to repletion. On the contrary, England recognizes the blow that Slavery has received, and having adopted the Southern and secession theory of “no Slavery, no cotton,” her statesmen feel that the triumph of the Union will be a crushing blow to England’s prosperity — plunging her manufacturers into bankruptcy, and reducing millions to the verge of starvation. The present distressful condition of affairs in Great Britain, and the ominous mutterings arising in that quarter, are little calculated to compose the English mind to a patient contemplation of a superadded cotton famine.

France is not so seriously involved in the fate of cotton as England, but yet is enough so to regard with alarm the future. There is a storm brewing in the Emperor’s dominions, and he is wisely in search of some new excitement to absorb the national energies and lead the lightning, that must strike something, away from the vicinity of his throne. The Emperor may not find cotton in Mexico, but he may find silver and gold, and fertile fields that will subsist millions of his subjects. At all events, he may, in comparative safety, indulge the national propensity of the French for war and “glory,” and thus by a species of counter-irritation, curb or quell all tumults at home.

Thus it appears the cotton question is not settled. It agitates England to the inmost recesses of her sordid heart. It overturns her affected negro philanthropy, and makes her write, talk, intrigue and pray for the success of a Pro-Slavery Confederacy. It plunges the cautious French Emperor into schemes of national excitement, if not territorial aggrandizement, of too hazardous a nature to be cheerfully undertaken. It stimulates the thoughtful and the enterprising to search the world over for a new source of cotton supply, or for a substitute. So far, in vain. In the meantime, the “stock on hand ” everywhere is running short, and at the former average rate of consumption of raw cotton by the British mills, there will not be, at the end of six months from date, one thousand bales of cotton to divide between all the mills of Christendom. And in six months more (without a change) one-half of the shirt-wearing population of the world will be without that indispensible garment, and England and France will have millions of pauper cotton-spinners to feed.

Our distinguished Secretary CHASE, after having put in operation a satisfactory financial system for the war, has devoted some of his surplus time and activity to the cotton question, and has ventured to embark the Government to a moderate extent in the cotton-growing business. He has appropriated certain islands of South Carolina to this purpose — has sent “agents” to allot the plantations among the “loyal blacks,” (whilom “negroes,”) and these agents furnish plows, hoes, rakes, horses, mules, food and clothes at the Government expense, and superintend the labors of the “loyal blacks” at fixed, no doubt very reasonable, salaries. “Cotton-picking” time has not yet arrived, and Mr. CHASE is not able to report the profit and loss page of his ledger. But Governments are proverbially unlucky in carrying on public works, or dealing at all in business operations, whether of agriculture or commerce. We are prepared, therefore, to credit the prediction of a soldier at Port Royal, that all of the cotton grown by the Secretary of the Treasury in South Carolina will cost the Government of the United States the full sum of two dollars per pound! Mr. CHASE’s fame as a financier is too well established for the country to have any doubts as to his raising the means necessary to keep up his Southern plantations oven at this ruinous rate We only express the hope that he will do it without resorting to the expedient that the former owners of those plantations employed so long — pledging next year’s crop, and getting New-York bankers to cash the drafts drawn against it!

But in case of Mr. CHASE’s failure — and such a thing is possible — who is next prepared to solve the almighty problem? — whence is the world to get its cotton?

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