Rebelling Against the King: Opposition to the Confederate Cotton Embargo in 1861 Open Access

Leiner, Benjamin D. (2014)

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In the early days of the Confederacy, Southern politicians, planters, and everyday citizens were discussing how the seceded states would successfully break away from the North and cement their independence. Southerners knew that European recognition, particularly by Britain and France, would be essential to the security of the Confederate nation. Most Southerners, including Confederate President Jefferson Davis, placed their hopes of foreign recognition on the South's domination of global cotton markets and the European powers' economic reliance on the staple. Based on his belief in "King Cotton," Davis decided to place an embargo on Confederate cotton once the war broke out, believing that Britain and France would rather break the Union blockade and procure cotton from the South than risk economic catastrophe and political upheaval at home. Previous historical works have assumed that the ubiquitous belief in "King Cotton" throughout the South led directly to Davis's embargo policy. However, there was a fierce debate throughout the South about how to use cotton to achieve European recognition and intervention in the Civil War. Robert Barnwell Rhett, a Confederate Congressman and one of Davis's most vocal critics, opposed the president's embargo, believing a policy based on free trade and the extension of commercial treaties to Britain and France would be a stronger guarantor of European recognition. Through his newspaper, the Charleston Mercury, and in the halls of Confederate Congress, Rhett fought against a policy based solely on the South's commercial power. Newspapers from Richmond to New Orleans opposed the embargo through their editorial pages and by reprinting articles from British newspapers condemning the embargo. The debate over the embargo even infiltrated the Confederate cabinet, where some of Davis's personal advisors vehemently protested his foreign policy platform. Although Davis was not willing to turn his back on his faith in King Cotton, a prominent constituency within the Confederacy fought against a foreign policy strategy that would ultimately fail to obtain European recognition.

Table of Contents



Chapter I: The King Ascends the Throne


Chapter II: The Search for a Confederate Foreign Policy


Chapter III: The Cabinet Debates the Embargo






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