King Cotton and the
Road to Ruin
IF a young Yale graduate had not gone to Georgia in the autumn of 1792 with the family of General Nathanael Greene, the social history of the South might have been different. The young man was Eli Whitney, who had been offered a job instructing the children of a South Carolinian. When the tutorship turned out to pay only half the amount promised, Whitney remained in the Greene household on the general's plantation a few miles from Savannah. There he heard much talk about cotton. Planters were interested in new crops to supplement rice production, and cotton was a possibility—if a way could be found to separate the lint from the seed. Picking it off by hand—the only way then known—was slow and prohibitively expensive. Someone suggested to Whitney, who had demonstrated his skill with tools, that he turn his hand to the invention of a device to clean cotton seed. He accepted the challenge.
Two varieties of cotton had been tried in the South: the so‐ called sea-island cotton, grown principally, as the name indicates, on the coastal islands off Carolina and Georgia. This was a long-staple, silky cotton with smooth black seeds. The lint came away from the seeds of this variety with relative ease. In India, where it had been grown for many centuries, a primitive ginning device had been long in use.