Cotton is King

Over at blog of The Historical Society, Heather Cox Richardson has a great post about her research into the life of James Henry Hammond, the South Carolina Senator who coined the phrase “Cotton is king.”

I don’t know much about Hammond, but Richardson’s post has me curious. She writes:

On March 4, 1858, Hammond stood up in the Senate and delivered a speech that most people know for its famous line: “Cotton is king.”

Historians tend to point to this speech for its misguided conviction that, if the tensions between the sections came to war, the South would win handily. In his speech, Hammond pointed out that the South encompassed 850,000 square miles—more territory than Great Britain, France, Austria, Prussia, and Spain—with a population more than four times what the colonies had had when they successfully revolted against England. The South had fine soil and good harbors, and it grew the crop on which industrial societies depended: cotton. If the South withheld its cotton from market for a year, entire countries would fall to their knees, Hammond declared. Cotton was king, indeed, according to Hammond.

As notable as this speech was for its assertion of Southern power, it was even more astonishing for its view of human society. It was here that Senator Hammond outlined what Abraham Lincoln later called the “mudsill” version of life. According to Hammond, all societies were made up of two classes. On the bottom were the “mudsills”: drudges who were lazy, stupid, loyal, and happy with their lot. On this class rested civilization: the wealthy, educated, cultured men who advanced society—men like Hammond. This class should always lead society, for only its members knew what was best for a nation. If the mudsills ever got power, they would demand wealth redistribution, and human progress would halt.

Pretty unpalatable stuff.  Yet the historian sometimes must pursue truth in all its ugliness.

2 thoughts on “Cotton is King

  1. Rusty:

    Yes, there does seem to be many similarities here between Federalists and Hammond. The only difference would be their views on slavery. Federalists generally opposed it, but this, of course, did not stop them from sacrificing whatever anti-slavery sentiments they held in order to get the Constitution hammered out.


  2. Hi John,
    Question for you as this is well outside my area of expertise: is Hammond's mudsill view of society significantly different from the Federalists' notion of the many and the few? Sounds pretty similar to me. Just curious. Thanks!



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