A Slice Of American History: Antebellum Louisiana And Yellow Fever
American history is fascinating, especially in cases like this
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I’m currently reading a fascinating interview about the economy of Louisiana prior to the civil war, which squares with a lot of my current interests.
The center of cotton production and innovation during America’s early years was Mississippi, but the conduit between Mississippi cotton and the rest of the world was New Orleans, which became America’s primary cotton export point and Europe’s biggest supplier of cotton before the mid-19th century. By the time of Louisiana’s sale to the US by Napoleon in 1803, the country was on the brink of an economic revolution driven by cotton, the scale of which reminds me of the internet during the dot-com era, with its ability to attract and build wealth at dizzying speeds.
Between 1800 and mid-19th century, because of the invention of a means to rapidly separate cotton fibers from their seeds (tenth grade history is ringing), cotton production ballooned from less than 200,000 bales per year to more than 4 million. Less than 20 years after the American Revolutionary War, the United States found itself as a nascent economic powerhouse, supplying nearly 80% of the cotton used to fuel Great Britain’s textile manufacturing industry.
To illustrate what the United States had found itself at the center of, here’s an excerpt from a piece on the early cotton industry in the Atlantic:
One author boldly estimated that in 1862, fully 20 million people worldwide—one out of every 65 people alive—were involved in the cultivation of cotton or the production of cotton cloth. In England alone, which still counted two-thirds of the world’s mechanical spindles in its factories, the livelihood of between one-fifth and one-fourth of the population was based on the industry; one-tenth of all British capital was invested in it, and close to one-half of all exports consisted of cotton yarn and cloth. Whole regions of Europe and the United States had come to depend on a predictable supply of cheap cotton. Except for wheat, no “raw product,” so the Journal of the Statistical Society of London declared, had “so complete a hold upon the wants of the race.”
The industry that brought great wealth to European manufacturers and merchants, and bleak employment to hundreds of thousands of mill workers, had also catapulted the United States onto center stage of the world economy, building “the most successful agricultural industry in the States of America which has been ever contemplated or realized.” Cotton exports alone put the United States on the world economic map. On the eve of the Civil War, raw cotton constituted 61 percent of the value of all U.S. products shipped abroad. Before the beginnings of the cotton boom in the 1780s, North America had been a promising but marginal player in the global economy.
It just seems as if the United States is a kind of accidental promised land, a doppelgänger Yisroel. The nation keeps finding itself at the forefront of economic revolutions which produce obscene and unprecedented wealth. I’d like to read more about the causes of this outlier-quality in American economic history some time later. For now I’ll just say that It’s probably a safe bet to assume that things will just somehow continue to be this way for the foreseeable future. I’ll bet against China, Russia, India, whoever, any day, any time. Opportunity lives here in the US even though I sometimes wish it lived elsewhere.
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