C is for Cotton

Lewis C. Gunn’s 1838 Address to Abolitionists

We are not about to tell you of the existence of slavery in our “land of the free,” or to inform you that nearly three millions of your countrymen are the victims of systematic and legalized robbery and oppression. This you know full well, and the knowledge has awakened your strong sympathy with the sufferers, and your soul-deep abhorrence of the system which crushes them.

We mean not to prove that this system is condemned by every principle of justice, every precept of the Divine law, and every attribute of the Divine character, — or that no man can innocently sustain to his fellow man the relation it has established. You already believe this proposition, and build upon it, as a fundamental doctrine, the whole superstructure of your anti-slavery creed and plan of operations. It is not our purpose to convince you that the slave, as your brother man, has a right to your compassion and assistance. You acknowledge his claim, and profess to be his fast and faithful friends. But we would propose to you a question of weight and serious import. Having settled your principles, in the clear light of truth, by fair and thorough investigation, do you practically carry them out in your daily life and conduct? To one point we would direct your attention. Do you, into whose hands this address has fallen, faithfully abstain from using the products of the slave’s extorted and unpaid labor ? If not, having read thus far, do not immediately throw aside this address with an exclamation of contempt or indifference, but read it through with candor.

Before entering upon a discussion of the question, whether our use of the products of slave-labor does not involve us in the guilt of slave-holding, we ask your attention to the two following propositions, viz.: The love of money is the root of the evil of slavery — and the products of slave-labor are stolen goods.

I. The love of money is the root of the evil of slavery.

In the Cotton FieldWe say that the whole system, with all its incidents, is to be traced to a mean and heartless avarice. Not that we suppose every individual slaveholder is actuated by a thirst for gold ; but that slave-holders so generally hold slaves in order to make money by their labor, that, if this motive were withdrawn, the system would be abolished. If nothing were gained, it would not be long before the commercial staples would cease to be produced by slave-labor, and this would break the back-bone of the system.

A comparison of the history of the cotton trade with that of slavery would show that every improvement in the cultivation and manufacture of cotton has infused new vigor into the system of slavery ; that the inventions of Cartwright, Whitney, and others, have diminished the proportional number of emancipations in the United States, enhanced the value of slaves, and given a degree of stability to the robbery-system which it did not before possess.

Indeed, every fluctuation in the price of cotton is accompanied by a corresponding change in the value of slaves. We copy the following statistics from the New York Herald, of November 23, 1837; they are extracted from a long “chronological table of the cotton trade.‘”

  • 1836. Cotton farms in Mississippi, fronting on the river, sell for $100 per acre, readily. Negro men, of prime quality, fetch from $1,500 to $2,000. Rapid settlement of new cotton lands. Great speculations. Heavy importations of foreign cotton goods.
  • 1837. Cotton trade opens in a highly prosperous condition. Fall of cotton from 20 cents to 8 cents per lb. Ruin of cotton factors. General languor in cotton trade.

One other fact growing out of the fall in the price of cotton in 1837, omitted in the above extract, we here supply : to wit, that negro men of prime quality” would fetch not more than $400 or $500. If any further evidence is wanted that “The Christian brokers in the trade of blood, Buy men and sell them, steal, and kill for gold,” we refer the reader to John C. Calhoun’s indignant allusion, last winter, to the nine hundred million dollars worth of slave property.

It is the love of money, then, that leads to the buying and working of slaves. And all the laws forbidding education, sanctioning cruelty, binding the conscience — in a word, all the details of the system, — flow from the buying of men and holding them as property, to which the love of money leads. Are we not, so far, correct?

II. Articles produced by slave-labor are stolen goods

Slave DriversBecause every man has an inalienable right to the fruits of his own toil. It is unnecessary to prove this to abolitionists. Even slaveholders admit it. John C. Calhoun says : “He who earns the money — who digs it out of the earth with the sweat of his brow, has a just title to it against the universe. No one has a right to touch it without his consent, except his government, and it only to the extent of its legitimate wants ; to take more, is robbery.” This is what slaveholders do. By their own confession, then, they are robbers.

It is no small aggravation of their offence, moreover, that in order to get the labor of slaves without wages, a system has been adopted which robs them of every thing else. In the language of Charles Stuart, “their bodies are stolen, their liberty, their right to their wives and children, their right to cultivate their minds, and to worship God as they please, their reputation, hope, all virtuous motives are taken away by a legalized system of most merciless and consummate iniquity. Such is the expense at which articles produced by slave-labor are obtained. They are always heavy with the groans, and often wet with the blood, of the guiltless and suffering poor.

Harvest TimeBut, say some, “we admit that the slaves are stolen property; and yet the cotton raised by their labor is not, strictly speaking, stolen, any more than the corn raised by means of a stolen horse.” In reply, we say that it is stolen. In every particle of the fruit of a man’s labor he has a properly until paid for that labor, unless it is performed under a contract, express or implied, by which he has relinquished his claims. The slave is under no such contract. He, therefore, who sells the produce of his toil before paying him, sells stolen property. If the case of the corn raised by means of a stolen horse be parallel, it only proves the duty of abstaining from that also. If it be not parallel, it proves nothing.

If, then, the products of slave-labor are stolen goods, and not the slaveholder’s property, he has no right to sell them.


The above is only the opening of this 14 page treatise.  Download all of Gunn’s booklet as a PDF below.

Download Address to Abolitionists (1838)


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