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Cotton and Race in the Making of America: The Human Costs of Economic Power

Amazon.com Price: $17.38 (as of 22/01/2021 07:52 PST- Details)

Since the earliest days of colonial America, the relationship between cotton and the African-American experience has been central to the history of the republic. America’s most serious social tragedy, slavery and its legacy, spread only where cotton could be grown. Both before and after the Civil War, blacks were assigned to the cotton fields while a pervasive racial animosity and fear of a black migratory invasion caused white Northerners to contain blacks in the South. Gene Dattel’s pioneering study explores the historical roots of these most central social issues. In telling detail Mr. Dattel shows why the vastly underappreciated story of cotton is a key to understanding America’s rise to economic power. When cotton production exploded to satiate the nineteenth-century textile industry’s enormous appetite, it became the first truly complex global business and thereby a major driving force in U.S. territorial expansion and sectional economic integration. It propelled New York City to commercial preeminence and fostered independent trade between Europe and the United States, providing export capital for the new nation to gain its financial “sea legs” in the world economy. Without slave-produced cotton, the South could never have initiated the Civil War, America’s bloodiest conflict at home. Mr. Dattel’s skillful historical analysis identifies the commercial forces that cotton unleashed and the pervasive nature of racial antipathy it produced. This is a story that has never been told in quite the same way before, related here with the authority of a historian with a profound knowledge of the history of international finance. With 23 black-and-white illustrations.

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Review

Gene Dattel turns economic history into a gripping narrative in this sweeping synthesis of an important but underappreciated chapter in the American past. From Whitney’s gin to the mechanical picker, Dattel shows just how close the links have been between King Cotton and the race issue. This book is highly recommended. (Gavin Wright, Stanford University)

This is a book not just for those who grew up in the cotton fields of Mississippi as I did, but far more than that it is a challenging and compelling account of the complex role which cotton has played in the economic, racial, and political history of our nation. No one is better equipped to present that story than Gene Dattel, a superbly gifted writer, who also happens to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of this fascinating subject. This volume elevates to an important new level our comprehension and appreciation of a largely neglected chapter in our conflicted past. (William F. Winter, former governor of Mississippi)

Gene Dattel grew up in the Mississippi Delta, historically the center of cotton production in the United States, and a major target of voter registration workers in the 1960s. Thereafter he spent twenty years on Wall Street. These experiences superbly position him to remind us, in overwhelmingly persuasive detail, that for almost a century and a half cotton was America’s leading export; and that before, during, and after the Civil War, white America, North as well as South, endeavored to keep an African American labor force ‘contained’ in the cotton fields. Thus cotton was the foundation of both the growth of the national economy and of racism in the United States. (Staughton Lynd, author of “Stepping Stones: Memoir of a Life Together”)

This is an engrossing and revealing study. It should be read not just by history buffs but by all Americans who want to understand the events and forces that shaped and left their imprint on our country. The book captures with great style and intensity the overwhelming influence of cotton and slavery on our economy, finances, social behavior, and political life. Cotton and slavery prevented the formation of a more perfect union in 1776 and as the author concludes America no longer needs cotton, but still bears cotton’s human legacy. (Henry Kaufman, economist; author of On Money and Markets)

A very powerful and informative book. . . . Once I started to read it I was hooked. . . . A landmark, combining a firm grasp of finance and its controlling impact on the pattern of rural life in cotton growing regions with human sympathy for both field hands and planters. (William H. McNeill, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago, and author of The Rise of the West.)

A fascinating account of an essential aspect of American history. Gene Dattel brings clarity and insight to a subject we’ve long known about but not known well. A model for integrating economic, social, and political history—and a terrific read too. (H. W. Brands, professor of history at the University of Texas and author of The Money Men)

I am very impressed by the extensiveness of the research, the quality of the writing, and the vigor of the narrative. Gene Dattel has produced an important book that shows how ‘King Cotton’ could, all too often, be a cruel tyrant. The book will be welcomed by both specialists and the general reader. (John McCardell, professor emeritus of history at Middlebury College)

Gene Dattel has produced a superb study of King Cotton’s reign over the United States of America. Though exceptionally well versed in the economic history of cotton production, he never loses sight of the human suffering caused by slavery and its consequences. He also gives a first-class account of the politics of cotton. From the Constitution to the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement, each of the key events in the history of the United States looks quite different when you understand the (usually malign) role King Cotton played. (Niall Ferguson, Laurence A. Tisch Professor of History and William Ziegler Professor of Business Administration, Harvard)

Books about American history tend to be either triumphal or highly critical. Gene Dattel’s study of the racial legacy of cotton, America’s leading export up to World War II, is neither. Above all, it is informed, honest, and balanced. Dattel explains insightfully just how slavery and racial discrimination came to plague our nation’s ideals and the promise of American life. Mostly it was a by-product—north and south, east and west—of trying to earn a buck, of pursuing the Almighty Dollar. His book is a gem—one of the finest works on the American national experience to appear in many years. (Richard Sylla, New York University)

Eugene Dattel’s command of the details of American economic and social life is impressive in this sweeping study of the relationship between cotton and its human legacy in the treatment of African Americans. The book is full of sage judgments and fresh insights, eminently fair and unflinching in its critical assessments. He shows the power of finance and the search for profit in shaping American attitudes from the Constitutional Convention to contemporary issues of cotton’s decline and the search for social justice for the people who worked the fields of this global crop. Dattel skillfully portrays the spaces of cotton’s kingdom, from the Mississippi Delta fields to the board rooms of New York City’s financial companies, and offers compelling evidence of the materialism that drove American life around cotton, often compromising the better angels of our nature. (Charles Reagan Wilson, Chair of History and Professor of Southern Studies, University of Mississippi)

About the Author

Gene Dattel grew up in the cotton country of the Mississippi Delta and studied history at Yale and law at Vanderbilt. He then embarked on a twenty-year career in financial capital markets as a managing director at Salomon Brothers and at Morgan Stanley. A consultant to major financial institutions and to the Pentagon, he established a reputation as a foremost authority on Asian economies. His The Sun That Never Rose remains the definitive work on Japanese financial institutions in the 1980s. Mr. Dattel is now an independent scholar who lectures widely and has served as an adviser to the New York Historical Society and the B. B. King Museum. He lives in New York City. For more information, see www.genedattel.com.

Since the earliest days of colonial America, the relationship between cotton and the African-American experience has been central to the history of the republic. America’s most serious social tragedy, slavery and its legacy, spread only where cotton could be grown. Both before and after the Civil War, blacks were assigned to the cotton fields while a pervasive racial animosity and fear of a black migratory invasion caused white Northerners to contain blacks in the South. Gene Dattel’s pioneering study explores the historical roots of these most central social issues. In telling detail Mr. Dattel shows why the vastly underappreciated story of cotton is a key to understanding America’s rise to economic power. When cotton production exploded to satiate the nineteenth-century textile industry’s enormous appetite, it became the first truly complex global business and thereby a major driving force in U.S. territorial expansion and sectional economic integration. It propelled New York City to commercial preeminence and fostered independent trade between Europe and the United States, providing export capital for the new nation to gain its financial “sea legs” in the world economy. Without slave-produced cotton, the South could never have initiated the Civil War, America’s bloodiest conflict at home. Mr. Dattel’s skillful historical analysis identifies the commercial forces that cotton unleashed and the pervasive nature of racial antipathy it produced. This is a story that has never been told in quite the same way before, related here with the authority of a historian with a profound knowledge of the history of international finance. With 23 black-and-white illustrations.

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