First American edition of Frederick Law Olmsted’s critical account of the Southern slave economy, published early in the Civil War and illustrated by a remarkable persuasive map of the Cotton Kingdom and Its Dependencies.
Olmsted (1822-1903) was a man of extraordinary energy and intellectual scope, though illness had prevented him from ever gaining a college education. He is justly famed as a landscape architect, whose very first[!] commission was the design with Calvert Vaux of New York’s Central Park, which was followed by ambitious projects that still shape the urban landscapes of many major American cities. What is less known is that Olmsted was a leading figure in the U.S. Sanitary Commission during the Civil War, a gold miner—albeit briefly and unsuccessfully, a pioneering conservationist, and in the 1850s a prolific journalist.
In this latter capacity he was commissioned in 1852 by the New York Daily Times (now the New York Times) to travel through the American South and report on conditions there. Five years of travel and research yielded three publications: A Journey in the Seaboard Slave States (1856), A Journey through Texas (1857), and A Journey in the Back Country (1860). Early in the secession crisis he began consolidating these into the work offered here, Journeys and Explorations in the Cotton Kingdom, published in London in October 1861 and in New York a month later under the variant title The Cotton Kingdom.
The language and argument of the work make it clear that Olmsted was targeting a British audience (Indeed, an advertisement in the second American edition (1862) states that “This work was, by request, prepared by its author with special reference to English readers, and is simultaneously published in England and in this country.”) At the time, though slavery was largely abhorred and had long since been abolished in Great Britain and its possessions, that nation’s economy was massively dependent on cotton manufacturing; indeed, I have seen one estimate that a sixth of the population derived its living directly or indirectly dependent from the industry. There was consequently, if not actual sympathy, certainly strong support in that country for the Confederacy, if only from a cynical view that its defeat would mean the end of slavery and a massive disruption in the supply of raw cotton.
The core argument of The Cotton Kingdom, based on Olmsted’s own observations and summarized in the Preface, boils down to this: The Southern system of slave labor was inefficient and unproductive, enriching an entitled few but leaving the vast majority of its people economically and culturally impoverished relative to the citizens of the North, while imposing untold and unnecessary suffering on the enslaved. On this analysis, cotton production was not inherently dependent on slavery, and thus putting an end to slavery would cause neither a crash in cotton output nor rampant inflation in its price. In short, Union victory was no threat to British interests.
Map of the Cotton Kingdom and Its Dependencies in America
The frontis of Volume I is a remarkable map, A Map of the Cotton Kingdom and Its Dependencies in America. In essence, the map attempts to distill the work’s nearly 800 pages of sustained argument into a single image. It is ably described by Susan Schulten in Mapping the Nation (2012):
“They [i.e., Olmsted and his collaborator Daniel Goodhue] first classified areas of high, medium, and low cotton output [as measured by bales per slave, represented respectively by shading in blue, yellow and red], then identified the density of slave population…. Olmsted’s map clearly and immediately conveys the absence of slavery through large swathes of the South. Solid lines indicated the heaviest concentrations of slavery, while broken lines marked more dispersed populations. Areas without lines represented those where the free population was at least twice the slave population. The authors used these two separate measures—density of slavery and productivity of cotton—and shrewdly left readers to assess the productivity of the system as a whole. Those areas shaded as highly productive but without corresponding slave population were, in their view, clear economic evidence against forced labor.” (p. 147)
PJ Mode admires the map’s ambition and scope, but considers it something of a failure as a persuasive map:
“… Olmsted’s concept did not account for a number of potentially significant factors, including differences in soil and rainfall; the use of slaves to produce tobacco, sugar cane, rice and other crops; and assumptions implicit in the ratio of slaves per free man. Apart from conceptual problems, the finished map is so complex that viewers of the map would be hard pressed to find the supposed correlations. Finally, Olmsted may have set himself an impossible objective: a century and a half later, with the benefit of better data and far superior analytic tools, the overwhelming consensus of modern economic historians is that slavery was in fact a more cost-effective means of producing cotton than free labor.”
I concur with PJ’s assessment of the map’s accuracy, but must disagree with his view of its efficacy: Once one grasps the two measures—“density of slavery and productivity of cotton”—and how they are represented on the map, the image becomes an effective prop for Olmsted’s argument. Taking the map at face value, there really does appear to be little correlation between slavery and cotton output, in turn suggesting that the British public should have little to fear from a Union victory.
Wherever one comes down on the questions of the clarity, accuracy and rhetorical efficacy of Olmsted’s map, it was “a landmark in American statistical cartography and one of the first attempts to measure agricultural productivity with a map” (Schulten).
Howes, U.S.-Iana, #O-76. OCLC 13897809 et al. Sabin #572401. For the map, see Persuasive Maps: PJ Mode Collection, #1064 (illustrating an example printed in Paris by Lemercier); Rumsey #10507 (the U.S. ed.); and Schulten, Mapping the Nation, pp. 145-149.