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Tobacco in America: Establishing our Nation’s Roots - Tobacco Defines the New Republic

By Michael Rhodes

“I say, if you can’t send money, send tobacco.” -George Washington’s request to help finance the American Revolutionary War, 1776

From the nation’s earliest founding, agriculture (including tobacco) and slavery were seen as critical, connected economic concerns for the nation’s development. After the Revolutionary War with Britain, the newly independent American colonies were faced with the task of creating their own government. As the delegates to the Constitutional Convention gathered to discuss the replacement of the failed Articles of Confederation, it became evident that the new nation’s economy and the role slavery would play in it would be the key topics.

Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States, by Howard Chandler Christy (1940)

At the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, America’s founding fathers greatly debated the topic of slavery. When the new constitution was put forth for ratification James Iredell of the 1788 North Carolina convention apologized on behalf of “the pro-slavery character [as] the matter of Slavery ‘was regulated with great difficulty and by a spirit of concession which it would not be prudent to disturb for a good many years… [and] South Carolina and Georgia would not consent to an immediate prohibition of it” (Douglass, Statistics and History of Slavery). With these assertions, Iredell acknowledged both the division that existed among the thirteen original states and the importance of slavery (as they saw it) to the economic well-being of the southern states.

The representatives at the Constitutional Convention also took time to specifically address the importance of agriculture as an economic commodity and its importance to the growth of a new nation as “Patrick Henry said, ‘Tobacco will always make our peace with them,’ for at that time cotton was imported from India” (Douglass, Statistics and History of Slavery). Additionally, Alexander Hamilton noted the importance of the Southern States as they “possess certain staples, tobacco, rice, indigo, &c, which must be capital objects in treaties of commerce” (Douglass, Statistics and History of Slavery). With these words, the founding fathers solidified both the perceived need for slavery to further the fledgling economy and the importance to the newly formed nation of cash crops, particularly tobacco, as global commodities.

As if predicting the future, those words spoken at the Constitutional Convention would prove to be true in the decades to come as the newly-born United States would come to rely heavily on enslaved labor to produce agricultural commodities. Take for instance, the tobacco exports of 1855: the New Orleans Daily Creole reported a yearly export of nearly 10,000,000 pounds of tobacco valued at roughly $1.5 million, or equivalent to about $46 million today. Although that dollar figure may not seem staggering as the current financial environment has individuals worth billions of dollars, it is a large sum when considering that the United States had around 24,000,000 people according to the 1850 census, which is just under 14% of today’s population.

The cost of tobacco (and other cash crops) was not only measured in dollars; sometimes, it cost human lives. Sometimes, that cost came by way of bondage as it was reported that there were a total of 3,204,313 enslaved individuals in the United States at the time the 1850 census was conducted. This was, of course, a figure that rose decade over decade dating back to 1790 as the increased demand for slave labor to produce cash crops increased. Another such example of the cost of human lives occurred on a Saturday in 1854 in New Orleans when “the steamer Charles Belcher, just arrived from Nashville, caught fire and in a short time was totally consumed with her valuable cargo of cotton, tobacco, and Western produce. Thirty-two negroes and five white men perished in the flames” (Douglass, Disastrous Fire).

Formerly enslaved people photographed at Mordecai House in Raleigh in the early 1900s. Identified as Ananias, Mittie Ann, Jerry Hinton, and Chaney. Photo from the North Carolina State Archives.

The narrative of tobacco and slavery was also intertwined in states such as Maryland and Virginia where “[p]ersons harboring runaway slaves [were] subject to a fine of a hundred pounds of tobacco per hour, for the time that they harbor them, and in case of their inability to pay such a fine, then the offender [was] to receive stripes upon the back not exceeding the scripture number.” Likewise, “[o]wners suffering their slaves to raise any kind of cattle, as their exclusive right, are compelled to pay a penalty of five hundred pounds of tobacco for all and every offence” (Washington, Abominable Slave Laws). The use of tobacco, therefore, was not just a commodity to be traded on the global market, it was a staple of real value used in lieu of cash to pay penalties for infractions related to slavery.

As the relationship between slavery and tobacco continued to mature, few African Americans were able to cultivate a successful affiliation to the plant; specifically, Stephen Slade, Lunsford Lane, John P. Parker and Canadian born Elijah McCoy. (One of these gentlemen, Mr. Lane, will be highlighted in an upcoming blog post.) However, some African Americans were able to make use of their expertise in cultivating tobacco to take advantage of opportunities (limited as they were) after the Civil War, with some ultimately owning their own farms. For example, in 1870, there were 1,628 Black-owned farms in North Carolina, which was nearly doubled from ten years earlier, prior to the Civil War.

As Reconstruction began taking shape in the South, the tobacco industry was one of few that was able to prosper in North Carolina as people looked for a way to navigate the “new normal.” During Reconstruction, a major shift in agriculture took place that transitioned the South from plantation farming. Post-Civil War emancipation of enslaved individuals removed free labor from southern farms. It was also at this time that the W. Duke, Sons and Company was established in Durham, which eventually led to The American Tobacco Company. Tobacco production became more mechanized and began to take on the form of industry rather than simply agriculture. More efficient cigarette production led to increased demand for tobacco. These changes led to slavery being replaced by sharecropping; a labor practice that would last into the mid-twentieth century, and to tobacco’s continued place of importance as a cash crop for the North Carolina economy. Tobacco’s economic importance would continue to shape agriculture and labor in North Carolina for decades to come.

Works Cited:

Douglass, Frederick. “Disastrous Fire at New Orleans,” Frederick Douglass’ Paper, February 17, 1854, America’s Historical Newspapers.

Douglass, Frederick. “Statistics and History of Slavery,” The North Star, January 21, 1848, America's Historical Newspapers.

Washington Correspondence of the Republicans, “Abominable Slave Laws,” The North Star, March 9, 1849, America’s Historical Newspapers.

1850 Census, “Population of the United States and Territories” in the New Bedford Farmer’s Almanac, 45. New Bedford, 1855. Accessed July 2, 2021.

This post is part of a new series highlighting the history of tobacco farming prior to the museum's main interpretive time period of 1880-1950. Follow us on social media or check back on the blog to see future posts.

Mike's research is funded by a grant from Johnston County Unrestricted Endowment Fund and Cara Lee Powell Priest Endowment for Johnston County, component funds of the North Carolina Community Foundation.

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