HIST 1151 American History to 1877 Primary Source Readings 4: An Expansive Nation

HIST 1151 American History to 1877 Primary Source Readings 4: An Expansive Nation

Letters Between Thomas Jefferson and Eli Whitney (1793)

Letters Between Thomas Jefferson and Eli Whitney (1793)

Eli Whitney


Introduction (Secondary Source)[1]

Eli Whitney graduated from Yale in September of 1792. He was penniless and uncertain of his prospects. He contemplated studying law, but accepted a position as a tutor to the children of a Major Dupont in South Carolina to reduce his debts. As he journeyed south, he fell ill and he heard that his employer would meet only half of the promised wage. He was not feeling lucky.

His traveling companions Catherine Green, widow of the late Revolutionary War hero General Nathaniel Green and Phineas Miller, a Yale acquaintance and Mrs. Green’s estate manager, invited the 23 year old Whitney to stay at Mulberry Grove, her plantation in Georgia.

Whitney made himself useful on the plantation improvising clever devices. He had been a precocious builder as a youth managing his own nail forge when he was 14. At Yale, a local craftsman whose tools Whitney sometime borrowed had lamented that it was sad to loose such a fine mechanic to the dull world of scholars. So it is no accident that he listened attentively to a need voiced by planters who visited Mulberry Grove.

Cotton agriculture was snarled in its infancy. Demand for the fiber was growing both in the North and overseas.. Sea Island Cotton’s long fibers were easily separated from its black seeds. But this strain was delicate and would grow only along the coast. Green seed cotton would grow in the vast undeveloped inland regions, but its short fibers clung to the seed. Picking seeds from a pound of cotton by hand was a day’s work for a quick fingered woman. A new cotton engine was essential to the growth of cotton agriculture.

Mrs Green encouraged Whitney to consider the problem. His mind involuntarily preoccupied with the challenge, he hit upon a solution of elegant simplicity. In just 9 days he would construct a model that mechanically combed out seeds in a fashion that has changed little in 200 years.

This was not invention of grueling labor. It was a flash of brilliance and serendipity: Whitney was the right person in the right place at the right time. Whitney changed the world almost by accident.

Whitney took Phineaus Miller as a partner to develop his cotton engine. Thomas Jefferson awarded Whitney his patent in 1794 and so admired the device that he inquired when he might purchase one. But there were snags. Whitney and Miller had promised to produce too many gins, too soon, and at too stiff a price. The planters had opened new fields. A fire devoured Whitney’s Wooster Square factory on March 11, 1795. The fields readied for harvest. The planters realized they could produce their own gins. The brilliant simplicity of Whitney’s gin cost him a fortune. Home-built gins whirred all over the South. Mills opened in the north. Years pursuing lawsuits recovered little financial reward.


Questions to Consider:


  1. Context: Who is the author(s) (include a brief bio)? When did s/he write the piece (include some brief context)? Who is the audience? What was the agenda?
  2.  Why is Jefferson personally interested in Whitney’s invention?  Significance?
  3.  According to Whitney, how does the machine compare to manual labor in terms of production?  What might be the impact of this?
  4. Why does Whitney goes into such detail outlining the invention of and operation of the machine?
  5. What insights does this document have to offer about American society? Be Specific! [please be sure to consider author, agenda, bias, etc.]


Primary Source



Your favor of Octob. 15. inclosing a drawing of your cotton gin, was received on the 6th. inst. The only requisite of the law now uncompiled with is the forwarding a model, which being received your patent may be made out and delivered to your order immediately.As the state of Virginia, of which I am, carries on household manufactures of cotton to a great extent, as I also do myself, and one of our great embarrassments is the clearing the cotton of the seed, I feel a considerable interest in the success of your invention, for family use. Permit me therefore to ask information from you on these points, has the machine been thoroughly tried in the ginning of cotton, or is it as yet but a machine of theory? what quantity of cotton has it cleaned on an average of several days, and worked by hand, and by how many hands? what will be the cost of one of them made to be worked by hand? Favorable answers to these questions would induce me to engage one of them to be forwarded to Richmond for me. Wishing to hear from you on the subject, I am Sir Your most obedt. servt

Th: Jefferson

P.S. Is this the machine advertised the last year by Pearce at the Patterson Manufactory? [2]

* * *

Respected Sir

I received your favor of the 16th. inst. yesterday and with pleasure take the earliest opportunity to answer your enquiries concerning my machine for cleaning cotton.

It is about a year since I first turned my attention to constructing this machine, at which time I was in the State of Georgia. Within about ten days after my first conception of the plan, I made a small, though imperfect model. Experiments with this encouraged me to make one on a larger scale. But the extreme difficulty of procuring workmen and proper materials in Georgia, prevented my completing the larger one, until some time in April last. This though much larger than my first attempt, is not above one third so large as the Machines may be made, with convenience. The cylinder is only two feet two inches in length and six inches diameter. It is turned by hand and requires the strength of one man to keep it in constant motion. It is the stated task of one negro to clean fifty Wt. (I mean fifty pounds after it is separated from the seed) of the green-seed cotton Per Day. This task he usually completes by one o’clock in the afternoon. He is paid so much Per lb. for all he cleans over and above his task, and for ten or fifteen Days successively he has cleared from sixty to Eighty Wt. Per day and left work every day before sunset. The machine cleaned fifteen hundred weight in about four weeks, which cotton was examined in N. York, the quality declared good and sold in market at the highest price.

I have, sir, been thus particular in relating the experience I have had of the performance of this Machine, that you may be the better able to judge of its utility and success.

I have not had much experience in cleaning the Black-seed cotton. I only know that it will clean this Kind considerably faster than it will the green-seeded, but how much I cannot say.

After the workmen are acquainted with the business, I should judge, the real expense of one which will clean a hundred Wt. Per Day, would not exceed the price of ten of those in common use.

I shall have another person concerned with me in carrying on the business after the Patent is obtained. We have not yet determined at what price we shall sell the machines, it will however be so low as to induce the Purchaser to give them a preference to any other. We are now erecting one on a large scale, to be turned by horses, for our own use, and I do not think it will be in our power to make any for sale this winter.

This, sir, is not the machine advertised by Pearce at the Patterson Manufactory. I never saw a machine of any kind whatever for ginning cotton, until several months after I invented this for which I have applied for a Patent. Some time last spring, I saw it mentioned in a Savannah News-Paper that Mr. Pearce of New Jersey had invented a machine for ginning cotton, but there was no mention made of the construction. I have since understood that his improvement was only a multiplication of the small rollers used in the common gins. This is every thing I know concerning the machine to which I suppose you allude in your Postscript.

I think the machine is well calculated for family use. It may be made on a very small scale and yet perform in proportion to its size. I believe one might be made within the compass of two cubic feet, that would cleanse all the cotton which any one family manufactures for its own use. The machine itself does considerable towards carding the cotton, and I have no doubt but by leaving out the clearer and adding three or four cylinders, covered with card-teeth, it would deliver the cotton completely prepared for spinning. You will be able to form a more perfect idea of the machine from the model, which will be so complete as to perform the operation of separating the cotton from the seed.

It is my intention to come to Philadelphia within a few weeks and bring the model myself; but per[haps] it will not be in my power, in which case I s[hall] send forward the model with an order for the patent. I am Respected Sir your very humbl. Servt.

Eli Whitney[3]




[1] "Inventing Change: the Whitney Legacy" by Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0


[2] From Thomas Jefferson to Eli Whitney, 16 November 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-27-02-0359. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 27, 1 September–31 December 1793, ed. John Catanzariti. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 392–393.]


Primary source is in the public domain.

[3] “To Thomas Jefferson from Eli Whitney, 24 November 1793,” Founders Online, National Archives, accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-27-02-0407. [Original source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 27, 1 September–31 December 1793, ed. John Catanzariti. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, pp. 433–435.]

Primary source is in the public domain.


Image: George Caleb Bingham, “The County Election,” 1854, via Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

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