Gene Dattel, a financial historian, captivated a group of students and professors with his own version of modern America’s disquieting foundations Monday afternoon. He argued that it was in fact the cotton trade that perpetuated slavery and racism in a nineteenth-century America fraught with greed and bigotry.
Prof. Mike Fontaine, classics, introduced Dattel as “somebody who lives the life of the mind outside of the university.” Dattel professed to have an “obsession with cotton,” and proceeded to link such seemingly unrelated people as Harriet Beecher Stowe, Andrew Carnegie and even Cornell’s own Andrew Dickson White around the central themes of race and cotton.
Dattel described cotton as “the single-most important determinant of American history” during the nineteenth century, a commodity which dominated American exports during the antebellum period. Dattel added that the world’s increasingly “insatiable appetite for cotton” following the industrial revolution kept slaves in huge demand to work in the fields.
“Slavery only spread to the areas where cotton could be grown,” he said.
Though cotton was being grown and produced in the American south, Dattel emphasized that the cotton industry was in fact controlled by complex economic forces beyond that region. The largest international slave trade in the antebellum period was based in New York City –– an economic hub at the time. Great Britain was also deeply dependent on the industry, bartering arms with the Confederate army for cotton during the Civil War.
“How many of you knew that [the anti-slavery activist and author] Harriet Beecher Stowe was a cotton farmer?” Dattel asked the audience, further attacking illusions about the supposedly free and progressive American north.
He described how Stowe, who wrote the famed abolitionist novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, at one point owned a cotton plantation and refused a request from Frederick Douglass to support an industrial school for blacks. He added that even millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who helped sponsor the all-black Tuskegee Institute to educate newly-freed slaves, saw the institution as a “training ground for cotton growers.”
Once slavery was abolished, Dattel described a policy of black “containment” that emerged in the post-war North. Dattel said that white racists worked to keep the black population concentrated in the cotton fields of the South or send them out of the country. President Ulysses S. Grant even sent a delegation, which included Cornell’s A.D. White, to explore the possibility of annexing Santo Domingo as a new home for free blacks.
After the lecture, Dattel engaged in a question-and-answer session with audience members, who appeared quite knowledgeable on the topic.
Prof. Barton Myers, history, noted the importance of studying how specific commodities shape history.
“Focus on commodities is a growth field, and this is just another example,” he stated.
Ted Esposito ’11, who was already knowledgeable about the general history, said that Dattel provided new insight into the more shameful details of the period.
[The larger history] wasn’t a big surprise, the details were very surprising,” he noted.
Dattel emphasized the need to directly confront the most distasteful aspects of American history.
“We really want to sanitize our history,” he said, “[but] it can’t be.”