By DIANE XAVIER
The Dallas Examiner
The United States – rich with its natural resources – has been considered the land of opportunity.
One resource that drove the U.S. economy was cotton, along with the slavery of millions of Africans, which helped drive profits up for European countries in the 19th century.
To explain the complex history of slavery in Texas, the Friends of the Texas Historical Commission hosted The Problem of Slavery in Mexican Texas on March 9. The guest speaker during the webinar was Andrew J. Torget, author of Seeds of Empire: Cotton, Slavery, and the Transformation of the Texas Borderlands, 1800-1850.
Torget is a historian of 19th century North America and is a professor at the University of North Texas in Denton. His fascination with the history of Texas began when he was in middle school. However, over the years he felt something was missing in his studies.
“The reason I ended up writing this book is because I grew up here in Texas, I grew up in Houston and that meant I took fourth and seventh grade Texas history of course,” he said. “I thought Texas history was fascinating. And the part I was most interested in was like the Texas Revolution and the Republic and all that kind of stuff. But I was really confused about how all of that happened in what seemed to me like a really short span of time. Like if you think about it, Texas has transformed dramatically in the first half of the 19th century. So on your screen right now you’ll see this is a map of New Spain. You can see Texas up in the upper corner on the right over here as a sort of small province in Spain. And what’s amazing to me is that this changes so fast that the Spanish really never controlled Texas. They just kind of claimed it and it was really controlled by the Comanches.”
He then showed in a presentation on how Texas transitioned quickly into being a thriving Anglo Mexican province for 15 years, from 1821 to 1836.
“Then, Texas becomes independent for nine whole years as an independent Republican nation, as we like to remind the rest of the country on a regular basis all about, and then in 1845 it joins the United States, which starts a war between United States and Mexico that will bring in all the land not just in Texas, but all the land from Texas all the way to California out of the Pacific coast. This massive amount of land in Texas all the way up to California comes in. Most of that happens between 1820 and 1850. That’s 30 years, which for all of us who are past high school recognize 30 years is a really short amount of time. And I wanted to understand how it happens – what is happening that makes that massive shift because it has enormous consequences, not just for Texas. But for all of North America, the modern shape of the United States and Mexico come back to this.”
As a college student, Torget had trouble finding information for that time period and had to do further research on his own. He then wrote a book to help him understand the transfer permission. For the next 10 years he traveled across the southern states and Mexico.
“What I found is that there’s a million different factors that have an influence at different times in Texas, these transitions,” he explained. “But everything kept coming back to two basic things that people were fighting.
“The first thing was cotton, and cotton I want to emphasize in the 19th century was everything that oil has been since the 20th and 21st century. Just to say the most valuable and powerful economic commodity that there was in the world. We haven’t talked about this period since the cotton revolution and cotton is transforming the southern United States, basically Mississippi, Alabama, but as it turns out, it will also be transforming Texas during this period in ways that are powerful.”
He said, the second factor that people were fighting for during that time period was the labor system that was making cotton profitable: slavery.
“In the 19th century, slavery was used to make cotton profitable,” Torget said. “For most of human history, most humans have thought of slavery as a natural piece of the human order. It’s really only in the 19th century that that changed. And so it’s during this time when cotton emerges globally, it makes slavery more profitable than it has ever been before. It also happens to be the same time that slavery comes under moral and political condemnation in the world. And those two forces start slapping each other in the Atlantic world in the United States. And it’ll turn out in Texas, in ways that are going to shape the region and reshape the region time and time again.”
Torget said how cotton became the go to resource in North America has its roots in London, England.
“If you live in the 19th century, you live in a British world,” he said. “Everything with the United States has been since World War II, which is to say the most powerful economic, political and military force in the world. The British were all of those things in the 19th century. How are they that powerful? They have a massive economic influence on the world, much like the United States since World War II, which translates into economic and political power. And the reason the British had all of that is because they invented the Industrial Revolution.”
The Industrial Revolution allowed countries like Britain to create items out of raw materials like wool by using machines to make large quantities of well-crafted cloth very quick and inexpensively. The products could then be sold all over the world, according to Torget.
“This was a revolution because before this, you had to do it all by hand. And it was very expensive. But when the British start doing it and these massive machines, the price for cloth goes down and demand goes up and the British are able to sell cloth all over the world at very high prices. This brings an enormous amount of money to the British Empire.”
Torget said due to a lack of supplies such as sheep being used to make products, the British tried to find other ways to make textiles. And they discovered cotton.
“This pesky guy named Napoleon comes rolling across the continent over there, so the British get involved in dealing with him,” Torget said. “Then they have a war with the United States called The War of 1812.”
After Napoleon was defeated, the U.S. and Britain called a truce, and the British are able to return to their textile industry and continue production. At the same time, they decide to use cotton instead of wool. And so they put out a call worldwide for cotton, paying top dollar per pound.
As a result, the price of cotton doubled overnight from 15 cents a pound to 30 cents a pound. Also, it prompted a massive migration towards the Mississippi River Valley. People began pouring into Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. The Mississippi heat – which means mostly frost-free days – along with its rich soils, a river systems for irrigation and massive highway to bring cotton bales down and goods up, made it the idea location to produce cotton and cotton materials.
The U.S. was suddenly in the cotton business.
“In a massive way we surpassed India, in 1820, as the leading producer of cotton in the entire world and we’re producing 85% of all the cotton that the British Empire needed,” Torget emphasized. “It’s a massive shift. This has enormous consequences. One of which is that not everybody who’s coming down to Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana is coming voluntarily. What do you think of when you think of Mississippi cotton plantations? We usually think of slavery. Forty percent of everybody who’s being brought down to this territory are enslaved men, women and children who were being owned by someone else and it being brought as the labor system. It’s making these plantations really profitable. That doesn’t make it right. It’s morally very wrong, obviously. But it was very profitable.”