The Cotton Kingdom

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The Cotton Kingdom
Edward Atkinson
42 x 37 cm
H 42 .052
Newberry Library

Some people think maps are boring. Not this one! It is a passionate and well-reasoned argument. Prior to the Civil War, the economy of the southern states was based on working large areas of land with slave labor to harvest cotton and other staple crops. Most cotton planters believed that if they had to pay wages to their workers, they would make less money growing cotton. Many also doubted it was possible to make workers pick cotton without the threat of violence, or whipping that was central to the slave system.

Edward Atkinson, the creator of this remarkable broadside map, thought differently. He made his money from the cotton industry, but he also strongly opposed slavery. He supported abolition for economic reasons, arguing that freed workers would actually improve business and bring in more money than slave labor.

Atkinson used this map of the cotton growing regions in the South to show that freeing the slaves would actually improve the cotton economy in the South. Notice all the text at the top explaining the cotton industry, as well as the figures and statistics along the sides.

Southern cotton planters didn’t see things his way, however, and the war raged on for another two years. 

1. Look at the map. What geographic region of the country is highlighted? Can you read any of the statistics? 

2. Can you think of some arguments that would support Atkinson's belief that freed/paid workers would be better for business than enslaved workers?

3. We usually think of maps as just “true” or unbiased [neutral].  But how could you use a map to make a point or support your ideas about a topic?

Further reading:
Atkinson, Edward. Cheap Cotton by Free Labor. Boston: A. Williams, 1861.

Beckert, Sven. “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War.” The American Historical Review 109, no. 5 (December 2004).

Newberry Library. "The Cotton Kingdom." Home Front: Daily Life in the Civil War North.

Courtesy of the Newberry Library, Chicago