By 1790 slavery was on the decline in America. Apart from tobacco, rice, and a special strain of cotton that could be grown only in very few places, the South really had no money crop to export. Tobacco was a land waster, depleting the soil within very few years. Land was so cheap that tobacco planters never bothered to reclaim the soil by crop rotation -- they simply found new land farther west. The other crops -- rice, indigo, corn, and some wheat -- made for no great wealth. Slaves cost something, not only to buy but to maintain, and some Southern planters thought that conditions had reached a point where a slave's labor no longer paid for his care. Eli Whitney came to the south in 1793, conveniently enough, during the time when Southern planters were in their most desperate days. In a little over a week, he started the biggest avalanche of production that any economy had ever experienced. The South would never be the same again.
Eli Whitney was born on December 8, 1765 in Westboro, Massachusetts. The tall, heavy-shouldered boy worked as a blacksmith. He had an almost natural understanding of mechanisms. On a machine made at home, he made nails, and at one time he was the only maker of ladies' hatpins in the country.
In his early twenties, Whitney became determined to attend Yale College. Since Yale was mostly a school for law or theology, his parents objected. How could Yale College help enhance his mechanical talents? Finally, at the age of twenty-three, Whitney became a student at Yale. By this time, he seemed almost middle-aged to his classmates. After he graduated with his degree in 1792, he found that no jobs were available to a man with his talents. He eventually settled for teaching, and accepted a job as a tutor in South Carolina, his salary was promised to be one hundred guineas a year.
He sailed on a small coasting packet with only a few passengers, among whom was the widow of the Revolutionary general, Nathanael Greene. The Greenes had settled in Savannah after the war. When Whitney arrived in South Carolina, he found that the promised salary was going to be halved. He not only refused to take the position, but decided to give up teaching all together. Coming to his aid, Mrs. Greene invited him to her plantation where he could read law, and also help out the plantation manager, Phineas Miller. Miller, a few years older than Whitney, was a Yale alumnus and the fiancee of Mrs. Greene. Whitney accepted the offer.
Over time Whitney got settled in, and one day while neighbors were visiting the plantation, their conversation fell to discussing the bad times. There was no money crop whatsoever; the only variety of cotton that would grow in that region was the practically useless green seed variety. Ten hours of manual work was needed to separate one point of lint from three pounds of the small tough seeds. Until some kind of machine could be built to do the work, the green seed cotton was little better than a weed.