"Loss of the Packet Ship Albion," ca. 1823-1829. Collection New-York Historical Society.

Dramatic Growth of the Cotton Trade

By 1822, cotton shipments accounted for almost half of total New York exports. Ten years later, dozens of New York ships were crossing the ocean each month, often with crews of black sailors. In the 1840s and 1850s, much of the southern cotton was feeding the New England and upstate New York mills.

Keeping Track of Maritime Commerce

New York merchants operated out of five-story buildings called counting houses. Clerks stood at their desks and copied letters, bills of lading, and customs forms. Partners calculated how to buy desirable goods at low prices and unload them quickly and profitably.

Uncertainty ruled. Tastes in china and fabrics changed quickly. Supplies of cotton, wheat, or sugar at a distant port could be tight or flush. Ships could be lost at sea. Communication was slow and unsure.

Thousands of Transactions Built an International Economy

A storekeeper in rural Georgia was eager to acquire and sell the latest tiller to local planters, and the most up-to-date printed fabric to their wives. So he sold or consigned the planters' bales of local cotton to an agent in Savannah. He in turn traded the cotton to a New York importer, who was likely to be located on South Street and who was often in partnership with a Liverpool or London firm. From there the cotton went to a manufacturer in Britain, France, or elsewhere in Europe. The price rose in increments of two and three per cent, as the bales were graded, shipped to New York or Europe, insured against shipwreck, landed, and resold.

The Business of Cotton

  • After the Chickasaw people were expelled from their land in the 1830s, the New York and Mississippi Land Company bought the land and sold it in parcels to cotton planters, earning handsome annual profits for the next 40 years.
  • 25% of New Orleans businessmen were natives of the North.
  • In 1860, Natchez, Mississippi was one of the richest cities on earth.
  • In 1860, investment in slaves exceeded the dollar value of all the nation's banks, railroads, and manufacturing.

Sugar, The Other Product of Slave Labor

Aside from cotton, sugar provided the most lucrative commodity for New York traders. Moses Taylor dominated the city's sugar trade. Sugar coming from Louisiana, Cuba, Brazil, Haiti, or elsewhere in the Caribbean often found its way to the world's largest refineries, located along the Brooklyn waterfront. From there it made its way to American and European homes, where it sweetened pies, cakes, and afternoon tea.

The South's Reliable Ally in the Democratic Column

On the national level, the Democratic party aimed to keep the Union together by suppressing the slavery issue. Democratic success depended on a strong alliance between New York City and southern pro-slavery politicians. President Martin Van Buren led New York Democrats for a generation.

In almost every presidential election from 1832 to 1868, New York City went for the Democratic candidate. (In 1848, the Democratic vote was split and the city supported Whig Zachary Taylor, a slaveholder.) The margins increased over time. Abraham Lincoln won less than 35% of the vote in both 1860 and 1864, though New York State as a whole went Republican.

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