Eli Whitney's Patent for the Cotton Gin
This lesson correlates to the National History Standards.
- Era 4 -Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
- Standard 2D -Demonstrate understanding of the rapid growth of the "peculiar institution" after 1800 and the varied experience of African Americans under slavery.
This lesson correlates to the National Standards for Civics and Government.
- Standard V. B.3. -Evaluate, take and defend positions on issues regarding economic rights.
This lesson relates to the power of Congress to pass laws related to the granting of patents ( Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 ).
Share this exercise with your colleagues in history, government, language arts, and science.
Analyzing the Document
- Ask students to look carefully at the patent drawing of the cotton gin.
Ask them to read the following description and identify the parts of the cotton
gin mentioned in the quote:
"The cotton gin cranked cotton through rollers with teeth made of wire. The wire teeth tore the green seeds from the cotton. Iron slits let the cotton pass through, but not the seeds. A second rotating cylinder of bristles removed the seedless cotton from the wires. Through a simple arrangement of belts, the same crank turned both the cylinder with wires and another smaller one with bristles."
- Direct students to analyze Whitney's petition and complete the Written
Document Analysis Worksheet. (Students may be surprised to find that Whitney's
petition was handwritten. Remind them that the typewriter was not invented until
the 1880s.) Lead a class discussion using the following questions: Why was the
petition addressed to the Senate and the House? What is a memorialist? Why did
Whitney write this in the third person? What promise does he think was made to
him by the government in the patent acts it passed under Article I, Section 8,
Clause 8? Why does he feel the government has not fulfilled its promise to him?
Are you moved by his plight? Why or why not? Why did Whitney leave out all reference
to the growth of slavery in his petition?
- Because Whitney wrote the argument on his own behalf, the claims he made must be evaluated with caution. Whitney argued that the cotton gin proved to be of major importance to America. Elicit from students the statements Whitney made to support this claim and write them on the chalkboard. Then ask students to compare his claims to the facts presented in the Historical Background section. Ask the students whether they think he exaggerated the cotton gin's importance.
- Because slaves were forbidden by law to learn to read or write, we have few
written accounts of their lives. However, slaves did sing songs that powerfully
expressed their experiences and later became the basis for what we now call the
Blues. Direct students to compose a "Cotton Gin Blues" using the call
and response form in which the first line is "called" and repeated
in the "response" -- AAB, CCD, EEF, etc. The "Saint Louis Blues"
is a good example. Alternatively, ask students to write an interview with a slave
on a cotton plantation. Solomon Northup was a New Yorker and a freeman when he
was kidnapped and sold as a slave in 1841. His description of the time he spent
on a cotton plantation in Louisiana will help students realize the impact made
by the cotton gin on the daily lives of slaves:
"The hands are required to be in the cotton field as soon as it is light in the morning, and, with the exception of ten or fifteen minutes, which is given them at noon to swallow their allowance of cold bacon, they are not permitted to be a moment idle until it is too dark to see, and when the moon is full, they often times labor till the middle of the night. They do not dare to stop even at dinner time, nor return to the quarters, however late it be until the order to halt is given by the driver. The day's work over in the field, the baskets are "toted," or in other words, carried to the gin-house, where the cotton is weighed. No matter how fatigued and weary he may be -- no matter how much he longs for sleep and rest -- a slave never approaches the gin-house with his basket of cotton but with fear. If it falls short in weight -- if he has not performed the full task appointed of him, he knows that he must suffer. And if he has exceeded it by ten or twenty pounds, in all probability his master will measure the next day's task accordingly. So, whether he has too little or too much, his approach to the gin-house is always with fear and trembling."
- Direct students to read the relevant passages of the following charters: Thomas Jefferson's original draft of the Declaration of Independence, which contains a clause condemning the slave trade; The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which excluded slavery from the Northwest Territory; and Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 of the Constitution, which empowers Congress to end the importation of "such persons" after the year 1808. Next, ask students to research the growth of slavery and the market value of cotton following the invention of the cotton gin. Then conduct a class debate on the following statement: Resolved, that without the invention of the cotton gin, slavery would have slowly died out in America.
- Eli Whitney did not win the right to renew his patent, but students will
learn a great deal about the patent clause in the Constitution by role-playing
his hearing in Congress. After reading the Historical Background section and
the Purpose of Patents article, divide
students into three teams: Whitney and his lawyers, Southern planters and their
lawyers, and congressmen. Set up the room with Whitney and his lawyers on one
side, the Southern planters and their lawyers on the other, and the panel of
congressmen seated in a row at the front of the room. Begin the hearing by allowing
Whitney to state his claim before the congressional panel. Next, allow the Southern
planters to state their claims. Finally, allow the members of Congress to ask
questions of both sides.
Note: Whitney and his lawyers can argue that the flouting of Whitney's rights by the planters, his legal costs, and the insufficient amounts the planters finally paid relative to how much they profited to prove that his patent should be renewed. "An invention can be so valuable as to be worthless to the inventor," wrote a bitter Whitney. Such outcomes will discourage other inventors whereas the Constitution intended to encourage them. The Southern planters and their lawyers can argue that the planters have already paid Whitney enough through the various legal suits he won and his agreement with the state legislatures. They can try to show that Whitney & Miller, in originally refusing to sell them rights to build their own gins, were trying to set up a monopoly, which would have strangled the fledgling cotton industry. Whitney had his chance to profit from his first patent; it is in the financial well-being of the whole country not to further Whitney's goal to monopolize his invention. The Constitution intended the well-being of the nation to take precedence over that of the individual inventor. Congressmen can pose questions and eventually vote for or against the renewal of Whitney's patent.
Relating the Past to the Present
- Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 as the 18th century turned into
the 19th century. As we approach the 21st century, ask students to consider what
types of inventions will most affect their lives. The New York Times has a column
every Monday in its "Business Day" section describing recently granted
patents. Clip this column and discuss with students how some of the new patents
may affect their inventors, the companies that will try to market them, and their
own lives. Ask students which new inventions may have the potential to harm as
well as help us. (Consider inventions related to genetic engineering , nuclear
devises, and computer technology, for example.) The patents listed in this column
are identified by patent number and copies are available from the Patent
and Trademark Office, Washington, DC, 20231.
The documents included in this project are from Record Group 233, Records
of the United States House of Representatives, and Record Group 241, Records
of the Patent and Trademark Office. They are available online through the National Archives Catalog National Archives Identifiers:
The National Archives Catalog replaces its prototypes, the Archival Research Catalog (ARC) and NARA Archival Information Locator (NAIL). You can still perform a keyword, digitized image and location search. The online catalog's advanced functionalities also allow you to search by organization, person, or topic.
The online catalog is a searchable database that contains information about a wide variety of NARA holdings across the country. You can use the National Archives Catalog to search record descriptions by keywords or topics and retrieve digital copies of selected textual documents, photographs, maps, and sound recordings related to thousands of topics.
Currently, about 80% of NARA's vast holdings have been described in the National Archives Catalog. Thousands of digital images can be searched in the National Archives Catalog. In keeping with NARA's Strategic Plan, the percentage of holdings described in the National Archives Catalog will grow continually.
This article was written by Joan Brodsky Schur, a teacher at Village Community School in New York, NY.