Thursday, December 20, 2012

December 20, 1862: Alexander Stephens on "The cotton-growing question"


In the winter of 1862-1863, the South faced a critical question of great strategic import: should Southern farmers and planters grow more cotton to smuggle through the blockade to earn foreign exchange that could be used to buy weapons and other supplies from Europe, or should the growers of the South focus on greater food production so the South could feed itself through the winter of 1863-1864? This question in turn begged the question of whether that decision should be made by the individual growers, or should the Confederate government have a role in planning how much cotton and/or food should be grown?

On December 20, 1862, Richmond's Daily Dispatch published an excerpt from a speech given by Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens in which Stephens attempted to address these questions.
The cotton-growing question.

The following is an extract from a speech of Hon. A. H. Stephens, at Crawfordville, Ga., on the inst. It will set right the misunderstanding of the public of Mr. Stephens's former remarks on the object of planting cotton:
But, besides the products necessary to sustain ourselves to support our armies, and carry on war, we have another element of tremendous power, if properly used and applied — a recourse and power known in European wars, and unknown to our ancestors in the war of their revolution. Mr. S. here said he alluded to our great staple, cotton; and he should not have said more upon it at this than barely to ask those present to call to their minds what he had said to most of them last year upon that subject, when he addressed them upon the Cotton Loan, but for some misconceptions that have got in the public mind from a para report of some remarks he made at a meeting lately in Sparta. Some, from that report, said Mr. S., have taken the Idea that I urged upon the printers there to plant largely of cotton next year. Allow me, in this connection, to say that nothing should be further from the fact. I urged upon the planters there, first and above all, to grow grain and stock for home consumption and to supply the army. What I said at Sparta upon the subject of cotton, many of you have often heard me say in private conversation, and most of you in the public speech last year, to which I alluded. Cotton, I have maintained, and do maintain, is one of the greatest elements of power, if not the greatest, at our command, if it were but properly and effectually used, as it might be.

Jameson's strength was in his locks. Our strength is in our locks — not of hair or wool, but in our looks of cotton. I believed from the beginning that the enemy would inflict upon us more serious injury by the blockade than by all other means combined — It was, in the judgment of all, a matter of the utmost, if not vital importance to have it raised, removed, or broken up. How was it to be done?--That was, and is the question. It was thought by many that such was the demand for cotton in England that she would disregard the blockade, as it was and has been all along, not within the terms of the Paris agreement — that is, has not been, at any time, entirely effectual, though close enough to do us great injury. I did not concur in this opinion, as most of you well know. I thought it would have to be done by ourselves, and could be done through the agency of cotton not as a political, but as a commercial and financial power.--I was in favor, as you know, of the Government's taking all the cotton that would be subscribed for eight per cent bonds at a rate or price as high as ten cents per pound. Two millions of bales of the last year's crop might have been counted upon as certain on this plan. This at ten cents, with bags of the average commercial weight, would have cost the Government one hundred millions of bonds. With this amount of cotton in hand as pledged any number, short of fifty, of the best iron clad steamers could have been contracted for and built in Europe. Steamers at the cost of two millions each could be procured every way equal to the Monitor. Thirty millions would have got fifteen of these which might have been enough for our purpose. Five might have been ready by the first of January last to open some one of our ports blockaded on our coast. Three of these could have been left to keep the port open, and two could have conveyed the cotton across the water, if necessary. Thus, the debt could have been promptly paid with cotton at a much higher price than it cost and a channel of trade kept open till others and as many more as necessary might have been built and paid for in the same way. At a cost of less than one month's present expenditure on our army our coast might have been cleared.

In this way cotton, as a great element of power at our command — such an element as no other people ever had — might have been used not only in breaking up the blockade by our own means, without the aid of foreign intervention, but in supplying the Treasury with specie to pay interest on their bonds, and thus keep up the credit of the Government. The public credit is as essential as subsistence in war. Such at least was, and is my opinion. The Government, however, took a different view of the subject. Many thought it unconstitutional. Some looked upon it as a project to relieve the planters. Others thought it nothing short of a South Sea speculation. I considered it then and now just as constitutional as to give bonds for gunpowder, or to buy other munitions of war. It is not with a view to relieve the planters, though its incidental accommodation to them would not have been objectionable; but with the view of wielding effectually the element of the greatest power we could command, that I wished this course adopted. This resource, then; this element of power, we still have, though not to the same extent. There is enough, however, to effect wonderful results, if properly used, as it can be. We may have lost a year or two, but we are far short of seven years war yet. With our ports open many of the present evils and hardships of the war would be relieved. We would no longer have to give $50 for a bushel of Liverpool salt, or ten dollars for the roughest sort of shoes. With ports open, and this staple in hand, we should be much better able to make it a Peloponnesian struggle, if our enemy choose so to make it. This view, and one other idea, I presented to the people at Sparta, upon the subject of cotton, which I will repeat here.

Many to be met with suppose that by abandoning the growth of cotton, and burning what we have, we can force our recognition abroad. This I told the people there, and I tell you, is, in my judgment, a radical and fundamental error. England will never be controlled by such a policy. Our cotton should be treasured up as gold — more than gold — for it is more powerful as a sinew of war than gold is. Like gold and everything else of value, it should be destroyed, if need be, to prevent its falling into the hands of the enemy; but with no view to a foreign policy, nor should the production of cotton be abandoned with such a view.--You could not please Lord Palmerston better than to let him know that there would not be grown a pound of cotton in the Southern Confederacy for twenty years. The power of cotton is well known to, and felt by, the British statesmen. They know it is king in its proper here and hence they want the sceptre of this king for their own use. The great error of those who suppose that King Cotton would compel the English Ministry to recognize our Government and raise the blockade, and who still look for the same result from the total abandonment of its culture consists in mistaking the nature of the king dom of this potentate. His power is commercial, not financial. It has been one of the leading objects of Lord Palmerston ever since he has been in office to stimulate the production of cotton in his own dominions — or those of his sovereign — to as not to be dependent upon us for a supply. This he cannot do to any extent while his inexperienced producers have to competes with us. Cotton can be raised in their East India possessions and those on the Western coast of Africa at 18 or 20 cents a pound, but it cannot be raised there profitably to any extent in competition with us at 8 or 10 cents. If assured, however, of no composition from this quarter they could, or it is believed would, after a while, get to producing it as cheaply as we can.

Improvements in agriculture are slower in their progress than in any other department of life. No one can safely or wisely say how cheaply cotton may or may not be grown in those countries, with a few years' absolute control of the market, nor than the quality of the article may not be as good. No one can tell what may be effected by improvements in agriculture and the introduction of now varieties suitable to climate and soil. More money can be made here by growing cotton now at 8 cts. a pound, than could be made at 18 cts. forty years ago. The quality is also greatly superior to the old black seed. More persons can now pick 300 pounds a day than could pick 100 when I can first recollect, and one hand and horse or can cultivate twice as much land. It is a mistake, I think, to suppose cotton cannot be grown as cheaply, and with as good a staple — fine a flore — in other countries, as it can in this — not in all places where it is now grown, but in some. There is nothing within the bounds of human knowledge on which reliance can be placed with such certainty as to results, as upon the laws of nature.--It is on these laws governing the race of men that our constitutions are based. Hence, we felt so sure of our mate success. And there is nothing better ascertained in the Floral Kingdom than, that on the same geological formation, within the same lines of temperature, and climatic conditions (either from or latitude) the same species and varieties of plants will grow, each producing its like under culture to as great perfection in one hemisphere as the other, and upon one continent as another. We have one advantage in the production of cotton which they have not in the British Provinces. This has no reference to climate, soil or It is our system of labor. On our advantage in this particular, and to this extent, (which is no inconsiderable item.) we may rely in looking at the prospect of competition in the future, with these countries, should they by a continuation of our blockade, or our necessary abandonment of the for a time, have the market of the world to themselves.

We should not, therefore, think of abandoning the production of cotton, with any idea of thereby advancing our interests — politically — abroad. This would be but playing into the hands of those powers who are trying to break it down. We have had to curtail it, and shall have to outfall it while the war lasts — especially while the blockade continues. Duty and patriotism, as well as necessity, require this. The first great object of all now should be to sustain our cause — to feed as well as clothe the men in the field. To do this, besides raising sufficient provisions for home consumption, will necessarily require larger grain crops. To have an abundance for home consumption and for the army be the object of every one. This is dictated by the highest considerations of home policy, and from any view of advancing our interests abroad. On the contrary, after sufficient provisions are made for home consumption, and to supply the army, the more cotton that can be grown the better, How to regulate this, I know, is a difficult matter. When the duty rests upon all silks to grow again and raise stock for food, some may be dispect to neglect it. How to most this difficulty is a difficult question. It might, perhaps, be done by each State's passing a similar law upon the subject limiting the production of each hand engaged in its culture. This would require concert of cotton. What the limitation should be, I am not prepared to say. I have not the necessary estimates and statistics.
Stephens spends much of his speech talking about the importance of growing and selling cotton to England, but switches back to putting food production first. Stephens does not suggest any really concrete way of getting growers to balance their planting so as to ensure there will be enough food produced--he preferred to leave this up to the individual states to decide on their own.

The production and distribution of food would become a critical issue in the South in the second half of the Civil War. Union forces had badly disrupted the Southern transportation system. It wasn't just the blockade's effect on foreign trade: the Union was dismantling the South's entire internal transportation network. The Union had shattered the Southern transportation network on the western rivers. The Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers had been cleared of Southern steamboats. Most of the Mississippi River was controlled by the Union, including the critical river ports of St. Louis, Missouri, Memphis, Tennessee, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Union armies had marched over Southern territory, tearing up railroad tracks and burning bridges as they went. As the war went on, the South would find it more and more difficult to transport the food it produced to where it was needed.

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