J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Wednesday, February 08, 2017

The Memory and Mystery of Eli Whitney

At Slate, Ruth Graham recently published an article on “Why So Many People Think Eli Whitney, Cotton Gin Inventor, Was Black.”

As Graham says, Whitney (shown here) was white. His life is well documented. He was born in Westboro in 1765, graduated from Yale, and then went south as a tutor, ending up on the slave-labor plantation of Gen. Nathanael Greene’s widow, Catherine.

There he took up the challenge of Mrs. Greene and her overseer Phineas Miller (more gossip about them one day) to invent a way to pick seeds out of newly picked cotton.

Through Google searches, Graham found lots of people who recently believed that Whitney was black, some of them certain they had learned that in school. However, she found no textbooks or other educational materials stating that as fact. So where did the notion come from?

It strikes me that it’s probably a logical conclusion from these two statements, remembered separately:
  • Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.
  • A black man was crucial to inventing the cotton gin.
Therefore, any student of Aristotle or Dodgson knows, Eli Whitney was a black man. And we can find both those statements in recent educational materials.

Interestingly, both statements are questionable. It’s not at all clear that Whitney deserves full credit for the cotton gin. He developed one machine, and received a patent for it, but there were others already in use. He and Miller lost lawsuit after lawsuit trying to enforce that patent. Whitney’s reputation was resurrected by a couple of articles published in 1832, seven years after his death, in The Southern Agriculturist and Register of Rural Affairs (by a writer credited only as “S.”) and The American Journal of Science (by Denison Olmsted).

As for the second statement, the tradition of an enslaved helper was circulating at least a century ago, as shown by Daniel Murray’s article “Who Invented the Cotton Gin?: Did a Negro Slave Supply the Idea and Eli Whitney Claim the Credit?” published in Voice of the Negro in 1905. Murray was an official at the Library of Congress and an expert on African-American literature. [After writing this post, I was surprised to find a review of a new biography of Murray in the New York Times Book Review.]

During the 1904 Presidential race, some bigot had claimed that blacks never created anything worthy, and a Maryland man had replied by stating, “To a Negro this country is indebted for the invention or discovery of the cotton gin…” Asked to comment, Murray had written:
That he [Whitney] got the idea from a Negro slave has been a matter of common gossip for many years. It has been the lot of many colored men to advance a patentable idea that some white man would take up and profitably exploit.
Murray’s “Who Invented the Cotton Gin?” article went back through the record of the invention, reading the pro-Whitney articles critically to point out how often he had relied on other people’s ideas. Murray clearly felt the belief that a black man had given Whitney crucial help was plausible. And it’s still obvious why Whitney, his supporters, and even his detractors in the slave-owning class would suppress the idea of such help. Nevertheless, Murray couldn’t offer any evidence to support the claim.

In 1913, another Washington-based scholar of African-American history, Henry E. Baker of the U.S. Patent Office, published a pamphlet called The Colored Inventor. He tried to assemble every pertinent example of such inventiveness, and he would have liked to include the cotton gin. But, while careful to avoid openly contradicting Murray, he wrote:
There has been a somewhat persistent rumor that a slave either invented the cotton-gin or gave to Eli Whitney, who obtained a patent for it, valuable suggestions to aid in the completions of that invention. I have not been able to find any substantial proof to sustain that rumor. Mr. Daniel Murray of the Library of Congress, contributed a very informing article on that subject to the Voice of the Negro, in 1905, but Mr. Murray did not reach conclusions favorable to the contention on behalf of the colored man.
Two prominent works of African-American history published in 1922—Carter G. Woodson’s The Negro in Our History and George Edmund Haynes’s The Trend of the Races—cited Baker’s conclusion.

Nonetheless, the claim continued to float around. In the Negro Year Book, compiled by Monroe N. Work and published annually by the Tuskegee Institute after 1914, the section titled “Inventions” stated: “It has been claimed, but not verified, that a slave either invented the cotton gin or gave to Eli Whitney, who obtained a patent for it, valuable suggestions to aid in the completion of that invention.” That meant many American households continued to read about the idea as a serious possibility.

I found the story next in 1972, in Robert C. Hayden’s Eight Black American Inventors. And now it had a name attached:
On one of his trips to Georgia, Whitney saw a crude comb-like instrument that loosened the seeds from cotton. It had been made and was being used by a slave. The slave, whose name was Sam as the story goes, had learned how to make this labor-saving tool from his father. Eli Whitney improved upon and perfected the slave’s invention.
I don’t know where “Sam” came from. The “slave known only by the name Sam” appeared more definitely in the textbook America and Its Peoples: A Mosaic in the Making, credited to James Kirby Martin. And the same story appears in this collection of school readings about the Revolution from 2003.

So some American students might learn and remember the story about a slave with the crucial idea for the cotton gin in one year, and then the name Eli Whitney as that machine’s inventor in another year—with the result that they conclude the inventor was a slave. As Graham noted, that understanding of the story has a painful irony attached to it: a slave inventing a machine to save labor which actually ended up expanding slavery. That irony makes the myth even more memorable than the actual foggy history.

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