Monday, March 14, 2011

Eli Whitney's Revenge

On the thirteenth anniversary of the issuing of a patent (numbered X72) for his cotton gin that would prove fraudulent, Eli Whitney sought revenge on the Southern planters that had "robbed" him.

The idea for the invention had come to him while he was traveling to South Carolina as a private tutor and then persuaded to visit Georgia by Catherine Littlefield Greene, widow of Revolutionary hero Nathaniel Greene, whose plantation was headed by Phineas Miller, a fellow graduate to Whitney's Yale. While there had been cotton gins before, Whitney's design proved to revolutionize the agriculture of the South. He hoped to keep the device to himself, sending agents to run the machines themselves rather than manufacturing cotton gins for sale. Demand outpaced him, and many people developed their own cotton gins with patents in 1796 going to men such as Hodgen Holmes, Robert Watkins, William Longstreet, and John Murray. Whitney devastated his fortune attempting to defend his patent and hold a monopoly. When his factory burned down and he lost a government contract to produce weapons, Whitney suffered a mental breakdown, never fully regaining his senses.

He worked as a manager in a trade firm for several years, eventually coming across the "boll weevil", an insect pest from Mexico that endangered cotton crops there. Seeing his opportunity, Whitney traveled to Mexico, cultivated the weevil, and smuggled it back to Georgia, where cotton had become the king of cash crops, having increased in production more than ten-fold. The weevil, seeded by Whitney on a march westward, became an infestation that all but wiped out plantations. The resulting economic devastation went unaided by the presidency of Andrew Jackson, who saw it as God's Wrath against the wealthy who caused the small farmer to struggle. Slavery quickly went out of style as the farmers could not afford to keep more than a few hands.

Gradually, the South would recover and develop along with the West as frontiers of the Union. Eli Whitney would die of prostate cancer in 1825.


In reality, the boll weevil blight came to America in the 1910s. It contributed to the economic devastation of Southern farmers in the 1920s and '30s. One town, Enterprise, AL, welcomed the chance for change and erected the Boll Weevil Monument while diversifying its economy, primarily to peanuts.

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