Rise of the Cotton Belt: Hitorical Overview


Introduction to Alabama: the First Notch on the Cotton Belt


Five dynamics seem relevant to grounding the reader in early Alabama state-building:

  • (1) settlement occurred in spasms, made steroidal by expansive global markets, federal land sales, rising price of cotton, and hordes of opportunists and entrepreneurs crowding into attractive geographies–creating a series of land booms that lasted as long as cotton prices and the national economy held up. Land booms predated effective government and urbanization but laid the foundations for both as well as cement in place the core economic base;
  • (2) new emigrants came from diverse places, and gravitated disproportionately to certain geographies producing an instantaneous clash of cultures and economics. The uneven time flow of these divergent groupings injected disequilibrium in the policy system and its processes. First come meant first in power which meant later arrivals had to challenge early arrivals. Policy of state governments (and their constitution-making) reflected the youth and  “shallowness” of early government/society. Policy areas such as MED often became infused with larger values and concerns;
  • (3) these were wilderness or frontier geographies which, excepting New Orleans, were unsettled and lacking formal institutions of civilization and government–still contested by Native Americans and directly affected by federal government and its policy, actions and actors. The state policy system was in reality superimposed on top of an autonomous private development of two quite different  agricultural economic bases and its attempts at MED policy often created agricultural EDOs over which they had little effective control;
  • (4)  
  • (5) this turbulence and shallowness permitted cultural/economic values, and opportunistic political groupings to exercise substantial influence on both private and public ED policy-making. Cultures clashed in the making of policy in ways that reflected the balance of power and the political and economic environment at the time.

The aggregation of these dynamics might caution the reader not to expect pure “rational policycentric economic development, nor warmed over South Carolina/Georgia MED rehash. Alabama provides an important reminder that ED is a policy that is made by public and private actors, and is determined by their different perspectives which clash and cooperate as the players and events see fit. Policy-making became saturated with clashing cultural values and different economic needs, each centered on different geographies of

A Brief Insight into Cotton Belt Time Line and Dynamics

Competing Migrations

The Civil War was meant to produce a victory of one over the other. It did–and didn’t. Both economic systems persisted after the War–and the South’s agricultural system lasted until FDR’s Second Reconstruction and War Production changed its course and nature. The First Big Sort produced a fundamental long-lasting national alignment that itself eventually generated several southern mini-Sorts (the Great Migration, Southern Diaspora and Okies). The bifurcated national economic base set a tone to Early Republic and Civil War eras in regards to the role of the federal government in S&L ED. Economic development-related policy-making, reflected the tensions, aspirations, and consequences of these two migrations–the cultural/policy heritages left in their wake–still divide us today. The Rise of the Cotton Belt profoundly shaped by etching its distinctive imprint into the fabric of American ED.

The Yankee Diaspora and Cotton Migration overlapped each other. The former started a generation earlier, but both gathered considerable momentum after 1800;  both were profoundly affected, if subtly, by the Second Great Awakening. Both involved multi-phased Indian-removal; both swept across the Mississippi River by the 1850’s (colliding in Kansas-Nebraska). Both had pretensions of moving to the Pacific, and both took advantage the Mexican War. Both left in their wake a trail of state and local policy systems that extended the tendencies of the original policy systems into new geographies, and when adapted to the new territories (and time periods of settlement) served as a basis for sub-regional distinctions (Pacific Coast and Texas-Southwestern States for example).

Like the Yankee Diaspora, Cotton migration was a tsunami–a people wave that swept all before it, and carried in its wake the rebuilding of an entirely new society, economy, and politics. Both migrations are ED “events”; they were not caused by ED-related policies or strategies, but worked in reverse: each  prompted they own-style of ED, MED and CD. In the antebellum period the spread of cotton, slavery/ deference politics, and plantations across much of the South’s South/Central South contrasted with industrialization, urban class politics, and Big Cities that spread to the northern Pacific.

      States at time of Louisiana Purchase

Sequencing the Rise of the Cotton Belt

Alabama, Panhandle Florida and Mississippi were the first beneficiaries of an ex-Carolinas/Georgia cotton migration. The precondition for their cotton booms was the final resolution of Indian-Removal in the Creek and Seminole wars. In the second/third decades of the 19th Century, Louisiana and Texas, with a more complex statehood path, were next in line for Cotton Belt expansion.

From there it went up the Mississippi (through western Tennessee and Kentucky, as far as Missouri) and across the Mississippi, into Arkansas-Oklahoma (1830-40’s), to Kansas-Nebraska in the early 1850’s. Usually a new spurt in migration was triggered by an increase in cotton prices, and muted by panics. Underlying it all was the soil depletion syndrome and the restless spirit of Scots-Irish.

The timing of all this was set by the forgotten reality that the Rise of the Cotton Belt started, in mid-1790, most of the South was not within U.S boundaries. Washington detailed one the the Pickney brothers to negotiate American right to use the Mississippi River. When Washington was president, Florida, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and Alabama was mostly owned by Spain and later France  They were not acquired until 1803–and that was the formal purchase; integration into the USA was its own dynamic.  The Mexican War in 1848 completed the process. Of course the Yankee Diaspora had equivalent, but somewhat less inhibiting issues (Oregon, Alaska, “54-40 or Fight”, Minnesota and the Canadian border). Both migrations and MED evolution were seriously affected by the little-appreciated War of 1812.

Yazoo-Georgia Land Controversy

Equally troublesome was that states like Georgia claimed lands (as did Connecticut which claimed lands on the the Great Lakes; New York, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Vermont as well). Georgia’s claim, stretching to the Mississippi River (Yazoo lands) was quite disruptive. Yazoo lands were not negotiated into today’s Mississippi and Alabama until 1802.

One is also struck with the substantial, if intermittent, role Andrew Jackson played in the Cotton Bowl migration (think of New Orleans which, save for Andrew Jackson, Yul Brenner, and Johnny Horton, could have been British in 1816–more seriously his impact in Alabama was considerable). You can thank Andrew Jackson, the battle of Horseshoe Bend, and the defeat/imposed treaty of the Creeks in the 1813-1814 Creek War [1] for the opening of Alabama for settlement. His 1819 conduct of the Seminole War also caused significant economic and political repercussions.

With a weak, fractured, and volatile state policy system, the external environment exerted more than customary impact on Alabama’s policy-making decisions. Jackson’s second phase of Indian Removal, launched as President in 1828 with Indian Removal Act passage, triggered yet another round of land booms. Jackson, while he owned Alabama land, would remain a polarizing figure in Alabama politics–and that had serious repercussions on policy-making and MED.


Introduction to the Alabama Case Study: Migration, Policy System, and Scots-Irish Cultural Impact on External MED

Cotton Booms/Belt: Alabama, the First Notch in the Cotton Belt

The principal focus of the remainder of this module concentrates on antebellum Alabama and its pioneering venture in the Rise of the Cotton Belt.  My goal is to integrate the key elements in the cotton boom migration and explain how they impacted the political and economic institutionalization of the State Policy System. Of necessity, the cultural impacts of planters and yeoman Scots-Irish farmers are important element in that description. The end goal, as always, is to lay the foundation for the making of ED-related policy by private and public actors. That end goal is the exclusive subject of the next and last module (Module 4) in the Mini-Series A.

Alabama Cotton Migration Micro Study 

This module does not comprehensively describe antebellum Alabama state history, but instead selects from it those elements and factors that shed character and insight on the antebellum Rise of Cotton Belt-style economic development: the State. The astute reader may recognize that this is also a case study that applies my Chapter One model to the formation of an initial state-level policy system–and then in the next module demonstrates how that Policy System infused its dominant strands of political culture into the State’s implementation of the Early Republic’s principal External MED strategy internal improvements and railroad development.

We necessarily start with migration into what was a non-settled (by Europeans, of course) wilderness region at the turn of the 19th Century.

The numbers by today’s standards are not high, of course, and Alabama Fever era numbers were not shockingly high by Early Republic standards either. The 1848 California gold rush brought in around 300,000 prospectors, but the entire state of Alabama totaled around 1,250 residents in 1800, about 9,000 in 1810–but nearly 128,000 in 1820–a whopping 309,000 by 1830, and 590,800 in 1840. Slaves in 1820 were approximately one-third (40,000) of the state’s population. A population growth of this duration and intensity can be described as a sustained land rush; at the time it was called the “Alabama Fever”, and Alabama Fever spread into Panhandle Florida,  Mississippi, Louisiana and even Spanish Texas.

Alabama Fever Struck Before Alabama was a State

Cotton boom migration predated statehood–and ignored non-existent state boundaries. Louisiana became a state in 1812, Mississippi 1817, Alabama 1819, and Arkansas 1836. Florida was not purchased effectively until 1821 and statehood achieved in 1845, and Texas entered the Union in 1845. Settlement and cotton migration preceded political institutionalization. The Cotton Belt states were settled by an innovative ED strategy called “Alabama Fever”, otherwise known as land rush or my preferred analytical construct: “policy frenzy”. I’ve lived through one, its called the Internet.

In theory, the Federal Government was in charge in these early years. Territorial Governments it set up fascinated historians more than their citizens. Textbooks imply someone was running the territory, but I’m sure that was news to their residents. The real action behind the rapid rise of the Cotton Belt was Indian Removal, and that, by its nature injected the federal government deeply into state affairs. Land taken from Indians was transferred to the federal government, and sold, very cheaply in land auctions to mostly private individuals–auctions that fueled the land rush/cotton boom. To add to that bonfire, in 1814, Jackson, as General, upgraded and added to the federal road system that fed emigration into Alabama. The after effects of his later Seminole War (1819) triggered yet more turbulence, undoing a great deal of his earlier treaties with the Creeks, fueling yet another unconscionable land grab of Alabama Indian lands.

In some cases as we shall see those with capital acquired large plantation sized acreage, yeoman farmers, without or with limited capital–and no state banks in existence–scraped up enough to buy a homestead from the feds, or simply squatted on as prime a land they could find. Squatters” settled on land without purchase, without funds, and without any interference from a government, and hoped for the best–probably the closest thing there was to a Scots-Irish business plan for yeoman farm homesteading. In the future if they were to every hope to keep their land they would need to find capital and go into debt.

While this occurred, settlements formed, along rivers, the Alabama Fall Line, and on key points on the Federal roads that existed. Most of Alabama’s currently largest cities were incorporated in this period: Huntsville, the first 1811, Tuscaloosa and Montgomery 1819, Decatur 1821–with Mobile incorporated by the French in 1702, and home to a whooping 300 in 1813. The late-start of Alabama urbanization encouraged a stronger state government than typically found in the North. Smaller, profoundly isolated municipal/county governments could not compete with the likes of Charleston, Savannah, New Orleans or the Big Cities to the north.

In short, Alabama was not in control of its initial land boom. A second boom commenced after the 1828 federal Indian Removal Act  not only in Alabama but in neighboring Mississippi. In 1834 Rothman described Mississippi as a place “where every man had a scheme for realizing a fast fortune  and a collateral conviction that a person of humble origins might soon be a giant among his fellows” creating a “mania” that would not end “until every acre is purchased and cultivated” and the state became “one vast cotton field[2]. A second land boom frenzy attracted an entirely new wave of migrants that toppled the previous Alabama state policy system, leaving scars and decades of future conflict.

Cotton migration and land booms established cotton economies long before political institutionalization.

Clashing Cultures and Conflicting Economic Bases

Our conceptual model heavily stresses the centrality of population growth/decline as a major driver of ED policy-making. Settling a nearly virgin wilderness is population growth on steroids, but to appreciate its true impact on policy one must put aside simple rates of growth and examine closely the duration, the composition, the geographic distribution of population–and the absolute volume.  Migrants do not diffuse evenly across a state; they concentrate on geographies that work for them.

In the Alabama context there were two population flows, and while both employed slaves (at least potentially), they set up two very different agricultural economic bases: cotton plantation and yeoman farming. Topography predisposed which grouping wanted what land. Cotton plantation owners headed for the area adjacent to Alabama’s Fall Line (as they did in Georgia, North/South Carolina), and yeoman moved into the highlands or Upcountry. The two groups did not arrive at the same time, or come in identical volumes–and there in lies the tale to be told.

On top of geographic unevenness was piled spasmodic shifts in population distribution and the reality that each population grouping held its distinctive values and policy priorities meant cultural clashes enmeshed in economic and political policy-policy. As we shall see below startup political structures possess no magic in their DNA that allows them to overcome their inherent fragility and inexperience to devise solutions for fundamental conflicts. Alabama didn’t, and its antebellum politics (some of which continue to this day), isolated in remote state capitals (and there were several state capitals as that was one thing they fought over), could consume many pages in its description. Suffice it to say, there were at least two, perhaps three, distinct state policy systems previous to Succession (1861). Given that we have tagged state government as the government most pertinent to MED in Alabama, we are in for a treat.

The first policy system was set up by the elements that largely controlled the Territorial Government. That necessarily favored those that arrived and settled the earliest–previous to the 1815 cotton boom. They were transplanted (pun) Tidewater plantation Virginians who had settled around the Broad River in Georgia around 1784. They were quite successful there, politically and economically–electing several of their ilk to Congress and to the Georgia governorship. Outsiders likened the Broad River grouping to an aristocracy, and their Alabama derivatives were informally called “the Royal Party” or the Georgia Faction.

In 1809 three of these fine folk emigrated into the county adjacent to Georgia (Madison), today’s Huntsville and they established a controlling presence over much of the Tennessee River valley areas where plantation economics were suitable. They were affluent, their plantations profitable, had access to capital and experienced in plantation agriculture. They set up a bank, built mansions, imported slaves, and developed a well-deserved reputation for ill-treating the yeoman farmers who followed.

Relying on Broad River Congressional Senators and Congressmen, they had access to Congress, its resources, and  its power to grant statehood. Dominating the Territorial Government that formed in 1817, they pretty much were able to dictate statehood approval in 1819. One of them, William Bibb was governor of both Territory and the new State. He set up the first Alabama policy system which lasted until 1823–sufficient time to set up the key political structures that would govern the state through to Succession.

Having set them up as an aristocracy, I might remind the reader the Broad River Faction came from Washington’s Tidewater wing, and they did not alter their allegiances while in Georgia. They were Federalists determined and willing to live under and lead a democratic republic elected by “the people”. Unlike Deep South plantation owners, they were comfortable with a strong federal government, and disposed to use government to further personal and public ends. They were agricultural capitalists of the first order–not Barbadian manor plantation owners.

Having said this, when forced to choose, they were always planters first and politicians second. Affluent, they respected profit-making and with access to capital, they were risk-takers as well. From them will be drawn many a future Alabama (cotton) Whig. There was a vast ocean that distinguished their political/policy values from those of the yeoman Scots-Irish that were moving in considerable numbers after 1816. That the Georgian Faction brought in considerable numbers of slaves should also be assumed. We should also assume slaves were to be included in population figures that elected future State officials.

In early 1816, Alabama population was estimated about 13,000. By the end of 1816 it was estimated at 25,000. Since the federal surveys were completed during 1817, these folk were squatters by definition. By late spring 1817, 33,000 were bidding for land as the land auctions began. By 1819, population exceeded 70,000–and by 1820 the Census found 127,000. This is the first frenzy, and while it was going on Alabama became a state, elected its first legislature and wrote and approved its first constitution–which was NOT ratified by popular referendum. Guess who dominated that governmental process? We will deal with that in the next section [3].

The original Georgia Faction settled along the Georgia border and south to the Tennessee River, but a second grouping–far more numerous than the first–participated in the first frenzy and established a second plantation stronghold (1818) in the Fall Line central state–around today’s Montgomery. They were joined by the sons of Carolina’s and other Georgia plantation owners, who with access to some capital were able take advantage of land auctions and set up very profitable plantations. In effect, they were able to dominate politically the area that was to be the heartland of Alabama’s Cotton Belt.

This was fortunate for them in that a second wave of Tennessee yeoman farmers were moving in great numbers into the hills and highlands in Alabama’s Upcountry counties. Newly-arrived, not particularly politically active, they squatted in great numbers, and lacking access to capital were able at best to set up subsistence, hardscrabble farms. They were Jeffersonian anti-Federalists, and on their way to becoming states-rights Jacksonian populists (I know Jackson himself was a Unionist). The were advocates for the “common man” and in 1823 they joined with a former North Carolina politician, Israel Pickens (whose Pennsylvania descendants immigrated from Ulster Ireland) and toppled the Georgia Faction in a realignment election that set up a second policy system.

Constructing the Alabama State Policy System

Statehood and the initial state constitutions were remarkably transparent to ethnic cultural and partisan influences/cabals. the state’s first decade wave of Alabama settlement came from established Georgia/Virginia planter class–who overwhelmed the less organized and scattered Scots-Irish yeoman farmers. Alabama being a “rise of the cotton belt” state, indeed the first “new” cotton belt state, also the first carved from the wilderness, was especially sensitive to those elements that were essential to its future economic base–slavery is the most obvious.

So in comparison to northern state constitution-making, often polarized in regards to slavery, Alabama and the Deep South cotton belt states incorporated slavery into state constitutions almost be default. That shouldn’t have been a surprise in that the previous section demonstrates that the Territory’s political elite were dominated by the Georgia Faction, a planter class, who were the drivers behind statehood in the first place. In fact, opponents of the Georgia Faction tried to delay the statehood application that would follow from formulation/approval of a state constitution by refusing to participate in the committee. What emerge–and was later approved without popular referendum–was a product of the Georgia Faction.

That the Georgia Faction was a Tidewater-Virginia refugee, not a South Carolinian Barbadian offshoot produced a constitution that was arguably the most liberal adopted in a southern state (Kentucky could be a close rival). It did not follow the Georgian or South Carolina legislative dominance and its election of a governor. Instead, it created a strong governor with a limited veto–atypical of the Early Republic.

Delegates combined elements of self-interest and republican idealism in measures that included legalizing slavery and designating public lands for educational institutions. The document rejected the restrictive nature of other emerging southern legal systems, such as those of Mississippi and Louisiana, … [which limited] suffrage and imprisonment for debts [and compulsory draft for state militia] [4].

Slaves could be emancipated, importation of slaves from Africa forbidden, must be provided  with “necessary food and clothing“, required owners “to abstain from all injuries … extending to life and limb“, and were guaranteed jury trials were accused of a crime. Suffrage was restricted to whites (and men) without property restrictions/poll tax, but electoral districts were NOT based on population that included slaves. There would be no need for an 1808 South Carolina-style compromise. In local government structure, a long ballot was incorporated, as well as four out five county commissioners being locally elected. Reapportionment was required every six years. Why so liberal a document from planters?

The Broad River group, though it may with a degree of justice be called a branch of the ‘southern aristocracy’ was not at all aristocratic in the political theories it accepted … They had gained position and power in Georgia under a professedly democratic system, and they expected to achieve success in Alabama on the same terms…. [and] if their political dreams failed to materialize they would not be excessively disappointed…. accumulation of wealth was one of the groups primary goals [5]

Accordingly, the constitution was surprisingly liberal and “reflected a frontier confidence in the common man, and an even stronger belief in equality[6]. This liberalism explains much of why the Broad River Georgia Faction was so quickly turned out of office in the 1822 election. Rather than attempting to preserve their near-monopoly of the state’s policy system, the state constitution opened the door for the predominately Scots-Irish horde that was fast descending on the state. To be sure, the constitution permitted considerable local autonomy in local and county government, through which the planter class would be able to assert its dominance in Cotton Belt counties, each subsequent election evidenced stronger participation from non-planters who hugely outnumbered the planter class.

The Scots-Irish only lacked a charismatic leader to draw them to oppose the Georgia Faction. They quickly found one, Israel Pickens, a Scots-Irish former North Carolina Congressman, and a planter and banker by trade. As late as 1820 still allied with the Georgia Faction, Pickens broke from their ranks and ran for Governor, seizing a hold of the unmobilized Scots-Irish settler by opportunistically embracing their desperation arising from the Panic of 1819, and their hopes for the cotton boom American Dream. The coalition Pickens put together, the North Carolina Faction,

Those hopes and dreams had been badly frustrated by the Panic. Many former squatters had assumed considerable debt to purchase their land in auction sales, others were in need of loans to acquire their homestead. The Panic, ill-timed as always, created a crisis for the former as the economy tanked, taking commodity prices with it. With so many swimming in debt, Alabama’s chief bank, the Georgia Faction’s Huntsville-based Planters and Merchants Bank, “suspended specie payments”, i.e. Alabama local currency which debtors used to pay their mortgages, creating an instant crisis. To compound matters, the bank’s management was charged with mixing its own money with bank funds [7].  If that were not sufficient, the state legislature, led by the Georgia Faction, had in 1818 suspended the state’s usury law, was blamed for the rapidly escalating interest rates.

With Governor William Bibbs near death, the Georgia Faction’s nominee for governor, Henry Chambers, a director of the (Huntsville) Planters and Merchants Bank, was “crushed” 9616 to 7129. Pickens had campaigned as a “champion of the people” a common man rhetoric that appealed to north Alabamians. His chief plank in that populist campaign was the creation of a state-run public bank that he asserted would reverse economic decline by taking the state’s economy out of private sector control. Specifically blaming state-chartered corporation that founded Alabama’s banks, he proposed a public or sovereign lending institution as its substitute.

So Alabama’s first policy system collapsed, and the Georgia Faction formally withdrew from politics and pursued their economic agendas. After three tumultuous terms that ended in 1825, Pickens died in Cuba in 1827. In the ensuing one party (Democrat-Republican) “Era of Good Feelings” aftermath, Alabama’s political elites crunched themselves into a morass of wings and factions, including  Jacksonian, Clay-Adams-Whig, and a variety local populist options. Only after the Panic of 1837 did meaningful partisan distinctions develop with the crystallization of a (Cotton} Whig party with a well-defined organization. At that time, a third policy system likely developed.

The next, and last, section dwells on MED policy during the state’s second policy system. The dominant issue in that period–and the third policy system that followed–were state chartered corporations and banks. The two, linked as they were, sucked the policy air out of MED’s policy area. While other states tackled the External MED DTIS–railroad connect the dots–strategy, Alabama mostly left it to the private sector which did not particularly distinguish itself.



[1] The war was as much about white incursion into Indian lands as it was congruent with the Washington administration’s “plan of civilization” which continued in policy in subsequent administrations. In this plan the federal government through its Indian Agents encouraged, pushed, southeastern Indians to embrace white education, pursue agriculture which included plantations with Black slaves, and white clothing, gender roles, and Christianity. In the Creek instance, a leading “Lower” Creek, Alexander McGillivray, took arms with Jackson and fought the Tecumseh-inspired “Red Stick” Creeks. That complexity of divided Indian loyalties-classes, and the imposition of federal policies was later replicated by Jackson himself in 1828 with the Cherokee. See Thomas Chase, “Territorial Period and Early Statehood“, Encyclopedia of Alabama.

[2] Joshua Rothman, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: a Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson (University of Georgia Press, 2012), p. 4-5. Rothman also asserts a special role for Jackson in all this: “Andrew Jackson himself best demonstrated [the potential prospect of the humble man because of his] “storied rise from frontier wastrel to wealthy squire to the most forceful president the country had ever known having made himself the paragon of the self-made man and among the most popular individuals of his age” (p. 3). Today one might wonder how the paragons of Silicon Valley might play out over the next decades? American ED is not exempt from these frenzies, nor isolated from their impact.

[3] J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society: Alabama, 1800-1860 (Louisiana State University Press, 1978), pp. 10-12.

[4] Thomas Chase Hagood, Territorial Period and Early Statehood, Alabama Encyclopedia

[5] J. Mills Thornton, Politics and Power in a Slave Society, p. 13.

[6] William Rogers, et al, Alabama: the History of a Deep South State (University of Alabama Press, 1994), p. 68.

[7] William Rogers, et al, Alabama: the History of a Deep South State, p. 73.