S4 E3: The Cotton Empire

February 5, 2020

In the decades after America’s founding and the establishment of the Constitution, did the nation get better, more just, more democratic? Or did it double down on violent conquest and exploitation?  

Reported, produced, written, and mixed by John Biewen, with series collaborator Chenjerai Kumanyika. The series editor is Loretta Williams. Interviews with Robin Alario, Edward Baptist, Kidada Williams, and Keri Leigh Merritt.

Music by Algiers, John Erik Kaada, Eric Neveux, and Lucas Biewen. Music consulting and production help from Joe Augustine of Narrative Music. 

Photo: Cotton bale, Old Slater Mill Historic Site, Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Photo by John Biewen.

Download a transcript of the episode.

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5 comments on “S4 E3: The Cotton Empire

  1. Simon Sadler Feb 6, 2020

    Scene On Radio is still saving minds and lives from delusion. Thank you for your graceful work.

  2. David Cox Feb 20, 2020

    Heard the Rich Man Revolt on PRX. Great stuff. Needs to be taught in schools. Looking forward to the rest.

  3. Jeremy Meserve Aug 25, 2020

    I feel I must weigh in on this episode. It is a great episode, like every one I’ve listened to so far (all of Season 4). BUT…I believe there is a slight shade of tendentiousness in this one that I’ve seen before, consciously or not. Opening with Slater’s textile mill certainly sets the scene but I think it is misleading to posit that American consumption of Southern cotton was so dramatic. It WASN’T. At least not compared with the demand from the mills in Manchester. Figures vary slightly but at least 70% of ALL Southern cotton went to Liverpool between the years 1808 (when slave importations were ostensibly halted) and 1862 (Union blockade started to actually work). Only a small amount was consumed here and a lot of it was rough clothing produced for slaves (which I don’t think was mentioned in the episode). British domination of the cotton trade was alluded to in the conversation with Baptist but I have encountered more than a few people that mistakenly think American demand for cotton was significant when it wasn’t. Putting the onus on American mills right from the get-go of the episode to me was atmospheric but ultimately a little misleading. The emphasis was that slaves worked all the cotton, I get it; but people should realize that British demand dwarfed that of NE mills (and even a scattered few in the South by 1860). Otherwise I really enjoyed the episode, especially Merritt’s description of poor white Southerners.

    • Sue McGuire Sep 11, 2020

      I am curious about your comment. I am wondering why it is important to you that, as you posit, the market for cotton was stronger in England than in the US. How does that change the point of this episode?

  4. Jody Nishman Sep 20, 2020

    My wife and I have recently been introduced to these podcasts. We started with Season Two, and are now part way through Season Four. The content is compelling, sobering and vitally important.
    I thank you for your great work, and for making it accessible to all. It has given us a lot to ponder about how we can begin to try to work towards a more just society. The first step in solving a problem is identifying the nature of the problem. I hope your podcast series gets seen by many, and stirs at least some of us to act. To that end, I have become almost evangelical in spreading the word about this essential podcast series.