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Reading 3: Good Intentions Don't Always Last

Without Oglethorpe's strong leadership, the Trustees' original restrictions began to erode as Georgians sought more personal freedom to engage in commerce. A number of individuals had invested in larger plats of land where they hoped to increase their production of high-demand crops such as cotton, rice, and indigo. Because of the greater quantity of land to be farmed and the labor-intensive character of these lucrative products, owners and their families could not do the work themselves, and there were not enough free laborers to fill the need. Thus, the large landholders wanted to use slaves in their fields and clamored for slavery to be permitted in the colony. The Trustees resisted lifting the ban but finally gave in to the colonists' demands in 1750. Eventually all the limitations imposed upon the first colonists were lifted by the Georgia government and, by the 1790s, slavery had become an integral, if abhorrent, element in the colonial economy.

The 1793 invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney at Mulberry Grove Plantation, about 10 miles north of Savannah, cemented Georgia's dependence on slave labor. Upland cotton, which could grow in mainland Georgia, was full of sticky seeds. Because it took a person a full day to pick a pound of cotton clean, the crop was not profitable. Whitney's gin (engine) combed through the cotton, removing the seeds. Fifty pounds of cotton could be cleaned by a hand-cranked gin by a single person in a day. With the sudden profitability of upland cotton, planters sought more land, displacing the Indian tribes with whom Oglethorpe had established such good relations, and planted more cotton, fueling demands for more and more slaves. Cotton was "King."

Eli Whitney's cotton gin also turned Savannah into one of the world's largest exporters of cotton, especially to Great Britain's recently industrialized textile manufacturers. Steam-powered spinning jennys and mechanical looms transformed Georgia's raw cotton into cloth sold around the world. Plantation owners, merchants, and cotton brokers dominated Savannah's economic, social, and cultural life. They exhibited their wealth by constructing homes in the latest styles. Although the plain, egalitarian wooden homes constructed during Oglethorpe's tenure were gradually replaced by brick and stucco mansions and the population expanded, the original city plan was never altered. As the city grew, new ward modules were laid out, replicating the first four in size and shape, and people built new homes within the same house lot sizes as the original settlers, as this 1833 observer recorded:

What constitutes its beauty is the manner in which the city is laid out. There is one immensely broad avenue, about half way across the city, called South Broad Street, and extending the full length of it from east to west. This is magnificently shaded by rows of China trees...full of small odorous blossoms in the spring of the year. Then in laying out the city every other square has been left as an open one, enclosed with a railing, laid out with walks and planted with shade trees and rustic seats arranged in them all about. These manifold grassy parks, or lungs of the city as I heard them called, are very picturesque and inviting, and highly suggestive of health and comfort.

At this time in the year Savannah is swarming with wagons. As they come into the city with their heavy loads, sometimes as many as eight bales of cotton on a wagon, each driver appears to be trying to see who can make the most noise with his long whip. It is these whips, they say, which have given to the country people the sobriquet of 'cracker.' These cracker women wear long bonnets, projecting far over the face, made of coarse homespun.

The market here is managed mostly by Negroes--at least they do all the selling. Negro women preside over the stalls of vegetables, chickens and eggs. The tiers of carts around the market are unique in their appearance. Most of them are of domestic manufacture, all but the wheels. The bodies of them are made of boards rived out by hand from forest trees and, in the absence of nails, fastened together by pegs. Long withes of hickory or some other pliant wood forms an arch over the top.

Should one of these queerly dressed and bonneted women appear on Broadway I think there would be a mob around her in less than two minutes. But these fruit and vegetable venders are such a familiar sight here that they attract no attention.²

Ironically, Savannah had clung to the egalitarian framework of its city plan even as it had embraced the institution of slavery and fragmented into economic classes.

Questions for Reading 3

1. Why did the colonists want to introduce slavery into Georgia?

2. How did Eli Whitney's cotton gin change Georgia's economy? How did the cotton gin contribute to the growth of slavery in Georgia?

3. Why did the English buy cotton from their former colonies in America?

4. Who grew rich from the thriving cotton economy? Who suffered from the thriving cotton economy?

5. In what ways did the city of Savannah change because of the profits made from cotton? In what ways did it remain the same as Oglethorpe originally envisioned?

Reading 3 was compiled from Mills Lane, Savannah Revisited: A Pictorial History, 1st ed. (Savannah: University of Georgia Press, 1969) and Preston Russell and Barbara Hines, Savannah: A History of Her People Since 1733 (Savannah: Frederic C. Beil, 1993).

¹Sara Hathaway, Old Homestead, April, 1891; quoted in Mills Lane, Savannah Revisited: History and Architecture, 4th ed. (Savannah: Beehive Press, 1994), 46-47.
²Mills Lane,
Savannah Revisited: A Pictorial History, 1st ed. (University of Georgia Press: Athens, 1969), 88.

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