Morris: Eli Whitney and the Statue Police
by Leo Morris
Eli Whitney is one of my favorite forgotten giants of American history. Not completely forgotten. He invented the cotton gin. Many Americans know that about him.
But that is the sum total of their knowledge. And his life was so much more consequential than that. Most people can only dream of having an enduring impact on the human condition. He did it twice.
Without even trying.
Yale-educated and from one of the best New England families, Whitney nonetheless found himself penniless in Georgia in 1792. All he wanted to do with his “cotton engine” was make a buck. And he should have. Using Whitney’s machine, a laborer could clean the seeds out of the same amount of cotton it had taken 10 days to process by hand.
But the cotton gin, it turned out, was so simple anyone could make it. And cotton farmers did, despite Whitney’s futile efforts to wage a patent fight. Cotton, which had been so unprofitable that slavery was about to collapse as unsustainable, suddenly was a healthy cash crop that made the South an economic powerhouse and slavery the foundation that sustained it. The Civil War thus became all but inevitable.
And cotton flooded the world markets, coming down in price so much that millions of people had something never before seen in world history: cheap, comfortable and easily cleanable clothing.
Realizing not a penny from such a monumental contribution, Whitney turned his back on the South and his inventive talents to solving a military problem for the federal government.
Fearing a war with France (which never came), Congress in 1798 estimated 50,000 muskets would be needed. But firearms at the time were individually crafted by artisans, and only 3,000 had been made in the previous four years. Whitney envisioned assembling the weapons with interchangeable parts turned out by machines, a method of mass production that had been experimented with but had never caught on.
He signed a government contract to deliver 10,000 muskets in two years. He missed his deadline by eight years, but in the meantime it became obvious that what would work for muskets would work for anything else that needed to be manufactured in large numbers, and the industrial might of the North was born. That might kept the Union forces in the Civil War going after the still-agrarian South had all but exhausted its resources.
And Whitney’s “American system” of mass production changed living conditions in countless ways, and variations of it have propelled world economies ever since.
The actions of this one man, it could be argued, helped perpetuate the evil of slavery and led to a Civil War that cost hundreds of thousands of lives but also ensured that the right side won that war. Coincidentally he helped clothe millions of people and helped create an industrial system that lifted millions more out of poverty.
How can we possibly weigh the pluses and minuses of the consequences of such a person’s contributions and calculate their worth to history’s balance sheet?
If I were in the statue commissioning business, Whitney is exactly the kind of person whose marble likeness I would ensconce on the Washington Mall along with the political figures we revere so much. There is so much to learn from his life, about individual initiative and enterprise, about unintended consequences, about the fulcrums of history.
Alas, he would not pass muster with the moralistic preening of the devotees of presentism who insist on judging history by today’s standards instead of trying to understand how overcoming our past mistakes led to today’s standards.
The Indianapolis Star recently informed us of six “offensive” statues likely to stir controversy in Indiana, including ones of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson because they owned slaves. If the Father of our Country, considered by a majority of presidential historians our second-best chief executive (I would say best, but why quibble?), can’t make the cut, what hope is there for someone like Whitney? “Propped up slavery” is all the statue sheriffs need to know.
I have to say here that I’m coming to hate these stupid statue controversies, in large part because they force me to defend a position I’m uncomfortable with. The statue supporters at times seem as insistent on exaggerating the goodness of their philosophical antecedents as the topplers are on excising all traces of sensibilities that do not conform to modern standards. It can get very close to idolatry.
I much prefer the art of sculpture that addresses the human condition. Trying to see the young woman inside the old woman in Rodin’s “She Who Was the Helmet-Maker’s Beautiful Wife” – that’s how we should be spending our time, not debating which graven images we should choose as the pigeons’ targets.
But the great effigy engagement is a proxy war between two competing views of history, and I don’t think we can afford to let the scrubbers win. Ignoring the sins of the past helps us pretend there are no sins in the present that the future might learn from.
I shudder sometimes at all the idiotic things I did in my youth. I have grown since then – not to wisdom but to a wiser self – by trying to learn from those mistakes. I don’t dwell on them, but neither do I ignore them.
So it is with the human race. We have stumbled for all of history from darkness to greater light, from barbarism to greater civilization, with many false steps and detours along the way. Heaven help us if we listen to those who think we can get to a wiser world by denying the lesser worlds we have created along the way.
I happen to think Eli Whitney’s positive contributions to the human race outweigh the negative ones. Others might disagree. That is a debate worth having. Removing Whitney from the debate would be the ultimate foolishness.
Leo Morris, columnist for The Indiana Policy Review, is this year’s winner of the Hoosier Press Association’s award for Best Editorial Writer. Morris, as opinion editor of the Fort Wayne News-Sentinel, was named a finalist in editorial writing by the Pulitzer Prize committee. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.