It happened today - October 28, 2015

Cotton ginSpeaking of unintended consequences, October 28 of 1793 is the day Eli Whitney applied for a patent on the cotton gin. Thanks for the slavery, buddy.

Again, an unfair indictment. The gin was a simple yet ingenious hand-cranked doodad that separated the seeds from short-staple cotton easily and effectively, a crucial boon to U.S. agriculture. It’s easy to get the seeds out of long-staple cotton but it only grows near the coast but short staple cotton was a huge hassle to do by hand.

The cotton gin was also a great boon to the industrial revolution, which really began with coal-powered machines in Britain weaving American cotton into cloth. And the industrial revolution was a material boon to human beings, giving them warm clothing in hitherto unknown quantities.

Unfortunately U.S. agriculture, especially in the South, was heavily dependent on slavery. And so Whitney’s clever device spun enormous evil misery. If I say “slavery” you’re liable to think of cotton fields. But prior to 1793 in North America it was primarily about tobacco, rice, indigo and, in Louisiana, sugar. And without cotton it might have been easier to abolish.

Easier, I say. Not easy. There were powerful “forces” pushing for its preservation and expansion, and powerful “forces” pushing for its abolition. In Britain and the British empire the latter prevailed; in America it took the Civil War. But “forces” are just the sum of individual human actions. And what mattered to slavery is that too many people failed to see its rottenness or, worse, saw but failed to act.

Eli Whitney isn’t guilty of any of that. He didn’t even make money off the cotton gin; he did later do very well making weapons for the U.S. government. Which is another issue for another day. But if you like cotton clothing, thank Whitney for the cotton gin, and blame the people who wouldn’t listen to abolitionists for its negative consequences.