The Social Fabric

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By Sven Beckert '95GSAS, from his 2014 book Empire of Cotton: A Global History. In March, the book won the Bancroft Prize, which is administered annually by the trustees of Columbia and largely considered the most prestigious award in the field of American history.

The reason for America’s quick ascent to market dominance was simple. The United States more than any other country had elastic supplies of the three crucial ingredients that went into the production of raw cotton: labor, land, and credit. As The Economist put it in 1861, the United States had become so successful in the world’s cotton markets because the planters’ “soil is marvelously fertile and costs him nothing; his labour has hitherto been abundant, unremitting and on the increase; the arrangements and mercantile organizations for cleaning and forwarding the cotton are all there.” By midcentury, cotton had become central to the prosperity of the Atlantic world. Poet John Greenleaf Whittier called it the “Haschish of the West,” a drug that was creating powerful hallucinatory dreams of territorial expansion, of judges who decide that “right is wrong,” of heaven as “a snug plantation” with “angel negro overseers.”

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