“King Cotton” was a slogan referring to the political economy of the antebellum Southern states and became the cornerstone of Confederate diplomatic strategy. In the years preceding the Civil War, at least two-thirds of the world's cotton supply was cultivated by enslaved African Americans working the fields of the United States’ cotton belt—a fact that cheered Southern planters, politicians, and apologists. Slavery threatened the very prosperity it had produced, however, as the political economy of the South collided with that of free labor and domestic industrialization favored by increasing numbers of Northerners. With the outbreak of the Civil War, Confederate strategists hoped to leverage cotton in return for European recognition and assistance.
King Cotton combined economic realities with a strident cotton-conscious nationalism. “White gold” was the catalyst of an economic and territorial boom in the South. The profitability of cotton, planters argued, insulated Southern society from domestic and foreign threats because it was so essential to the global economy. Cotton, it was claimed, was the guarantor of Southern security and key to national independence. With the Kansas-Nebraska struggle raging in the background, Senator James H. Hammond's King Cotton speech of March 1858 championed the South's claim to economic independence. “Who can doubt, that has looked at recent events, that cotton is supreme?” Hammond asked his fellow senators. If the South withheld cotton, he insisted, “England would topple headlong and carry the whole civilized world with her, save the South; no, you dare not make war on cotton. No power on earth dares make war upon it. Cotton is King!” (Jones, 11–12).
British dependence on Southern cotton became an article of faith below the Potomac. From the outbreak of the Civil War, the Confederate States’ chief diplomatic objective was to secure recognition of its independence from the European powers, particularly Great Britain. Confederate leaders hoped to appeal to British self-interest by reminding them of their economic dependence on the Southern staple. Jefferson Davis dispatched a three-man commission of William Lowndes Yancey, Pierre Rost, and Ambrose Dudley Mann to London as apostles of King Cotton. In exchange for diplomatic recognition or even intervention, the Confederacy offered an uninterrupted source of raw cotton, free trade with the Confederate States, and the expansion of European power in the Western Hemisphere.
Convinced of the infallibility of the power of cotton, Confederate commentators predicted British recognition was inevitable if it were to stave off the collapse of its textile industry and protect its exports from the draconian Morrill Tariff passed by the Union in March 1861. Cotton sustained the British textile industry. By 1860, up to 80 percent of British cotton imports came from the South, and between 4 and 5 million of a population of 21 million owed their livelihood to the cotton mills. Britain looked elsewhere for sources of the raw fiber to free itself from this dependence. Nonetheless, secession's supporters observed with glee as the British struggled to increase cotton imports from India and remained dependent on Southern crops—dependence it was hoped would offset any lingering antislavery sentiment. Prime Minister Henry Palmerstone succinctly surmised Britain's dilemma when he observed that “we do not like slavery, but we want cotton” (Jones, 62).
To apply pressure to the lever of dependence, Southern planters embargoed cotton exports. While never the official policy of the Confederate government, so powerful was the confidence in King Cotton that it enforced itself. British imports of cotton from the South in 1862 were just 3 percent of the 1860 level. Ironically, the South's own economic success blocked this avenue to recognition. Southern farmers produced bumper crops in the two seasons preceding the secession winter of 1861, saddling the British textile industry with an enormous surplus. Viewing Britain through the lens of their own single-staple economy, Southerners overlooked the diversity of British economic connections around the globe. Principally, by the outbreak of the Civil War, British reliance on “King Corn” from the Northern states trumped its dependence on Southern cotton.
Such assessments were as misjudged as King Cotton diplomacy was mismanaged. The heavy-handed threat of economic extortion by slaveholders alienated the British, especially when delivered by the inexperienced Confederate commissioners who overplayed their hand. Politicians and commentators dismissed Confederate assumptions that they were the economic satellite of the cotton South. Although Confederate commissioners tried to deemphasize the importance of slavery, the majority of the British press considered the peculiar institution the root of America's troubles and sneered at the Confederacy as “Slaveownia.” In the end, such perceptions fatally weakened Confederate foreign relations.
Historians have pointed to this combination of Southern overestimation and misconceptions as undermining the dogma of King Cotton. Southerners certainly misplaced their faith. Nevertheless, King Cotton was an attempt to shape geopolitical and economic realities into both a claim to independence and a strategy of foreign intervention. Ultimately, the Confederacy's failure to prove its independence decisively on the battlefield, and the actions of thousands of slaves who seized their own freedom in the midst of that battle, were terminal for the Confederacy. The failure of King Cotton, then, served to hasten the demise of the slave system to which the cotton South had been bound for more than half a century.
See also Blockade of Confederate Ports; Filibusterers; Missouri Compromise; Ostend Manifesto; Trent Affair Walker, Robert J.
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