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The Cotton Gin of the Midwest

Many are familiar with the legacy of the cotton gin, the first machine to separate cotton seeds from cotton fiber, patented by Ely Whitney in 1794. The cotton gin made the widespread cultivation of short-staple cotton profitable just as the removal of Indians from vast swaths of the southeast opened up new farming territory for white settlers and the establishment of textile factories in New England created an insatiable demand for cotton. This, in turn, created a booming new market for enslaved labor, dashing the always-quixotic hope of some Virginia enslavers that slavery would simply fade away with the withering of the tobacco market.

But a very different story played out with another agricultural invention, as detailed in EV’s new entry on Leander McCormick. McCormick’s father Robert McCormick invented the first widely produced mechanical reaper (although his brother Robert claimed credit for perfecting the machine, resulting in a bitter battle over the machine’s history between the brothers.) Just like the cotton gin, the mechanical reaper revolutionized agriculture. It could do the work of a half-dozen farmhands, first with two men—one to guide the horses and one to empty the grain platform—and later, with the invention of a self-raking reaper, with just one. Historian and Cyrus McCormick biographer William Hutchinson called the McCormick reaper the most important of “all the inventions during the first half of the nineteenth century which revolutionized agriculture” because it allowed a farmer “to reap as much as he could sow.”

But it wasn’t in the McCormick’s native Virginia that the reaper would be the most revolutionary. In 1848, the McCormick brothers established a factory in Chicago to serve the farmers of the Midwest. It was here, on the vast, grain-friendly plains of the free states outside of slavery’s grasp that the reaper proved its worth, allowing farmers to develop profitable farms without having to rely on slave labor. Customers could purchase the reaper for a small downpayment and pay it off over two years, which made it affordable to many farmers. Arguing for a patent to be extended on the McCormick reaper in 1861, future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton called the reaper “as important to the North as slavery is to the South.” And the McCormick reaper would help maintain northern gain production during the Civil War, helping to buffer the loss of many laboring men to military service.

The outcomes of the two inventions couldn’t be more different. One doomed African Americans to another seventy years of slavery and fueled the interstate slave trade that would tear thousands upon thousands of enslaved families apart. The other allowed the family farms that would be a staple of the nineteenth-century American dream to flourish. And by freeing many laborers from farm work, it helped foment another revolution that would shape the country in the second half of the nineteenth century—the Industrial Revolution.

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