Westborough native Eli Whitney’s cotton gin sparks controversy over 200 years later

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By Brett Peruzzi, Contributing Writer

Eli Whitney

Westborough – In the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May and the subsequent protests, numerous perceived symbols of racism and racial oppression have been challenged throughout the United States.

In Westborough, the town seal, which includes an image of the cotton gin invented in 1794 by former resident Eli Whitney, has come under fire and inspired calls for the seal to be redesigned without the controversial item. 

Many historians believe that the cotton gin made cotton a much more profitable crop and thus was a major factor in the expansion and continuation of slavery. 

Spurred on by emails, phone calls and social media posts, Westborough officials have agreed to hold a public hearing in the near future to discuss possibly changing the seal by removing the image of the cotton gin. 

“We need to be clear about the purpose of seals, symbols, and monuments,” said Anthony Vaver, local history librarian for the Westborough Center for History and Culture at the Westborough Public Library. “These artistic representations are supposed to be embodiments of who we are, what we value, and what we aspire to be as a community, culture, and society. When our society changes, the symbols that represented who we are in the past may no longer do so for any given reason. We have other public places where such symbols can go—libraries, museums, and other, public, cultural institutions—so that they can be preserved and given proper context from the standpoint of our newly shared perspective.”

Whitney was born in Westborough in 1765 and his entrepreneurial skills were evident from an early age. By the time he was 14, he ran a profitable nail manufacturing business out of his father’s workshop. After working and saving money for many years, he left town at the age of 23 to attend what was then Yale College. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa three years later, and like many New Englanders of the time, went to the South to seek his fortune. While a guest on a Georgia plantation, he was introduced to a group of businessmen who were seeking a mechanized solution to efficiently separate cotton fibers from its seeds, which was being done by hand. Earlier, manual cotton gins (gin being an abbreviation for engine) had existed for centuries is various forms, but in 1794 Whitney’s was the first to be mechanized and patented. It also was more effective for the short-staple type of cotton grown in the American South, which contained more seeds.

A cotton gin

Whitney and his business partner, Phineas Miller, had originally planned on charging farmers to clean their cotton rather than selling the gins, much the same way that grist mills did for grain and sawmills did for lumber. Cotton growers resented this monopolistic approach, and because of the gin’s simple design and lack of strong patent law, competitors began producing gins of their own and Whitney and Miller resorted to selling the machines. Patent infringement lawsuits ate up much of their profits and they went out of business in 1797. 

Despite the failure of Whitney and Miller’s business selling cotton gins, the device was pivotal in transforming agriculture in the South and the nation’s economy as cotton exports soared. Yet ironically, the cotton gin, as a labor-saving device, as enslaved people were the ones previously separating cotton from seed by hand, is believed to have prolonged slavery by as much as 70 years, because it made cotton a much more profitable crop to grow using slave labor. Other crops that were grown previous to the 1790s with slave labor, including rice and tobacco, were no longer highly profitable, nor was cotton, until the cotton gin came into widespread usage. Without it, and the economic incentives it provided, historians believe slavery might have faltered of its own accord much earlier in Southern society. 

“Even if we decide to remove the cotton gin from our town seal,” Vaver explained, “people will still be able to come into the library to learn about Eli Whitney, his place in town, his invention, and view town documents with the 1967 seal on them.”

Whitney’s legacy as an inventor and businessman did not end with the cotton gin. Several years later he won a large contract to manufacture muskets for the federal government. His experience in this venture is credited with progress within manufacturing on such topics as interchangeable parts, cost accounting, and economic efficiency. He was also credited in the invention of what some believe to be the first milling machine, circa 1818.

As a historian, Vaver encourages people to become curious, rather than resistant, to new ways of thinking about and seeing the world. “We are reevaluating our town seal today because our understanding of Eli Whitney and his cotton gin is more nuanced – and consequently much more interesting – than it was in 1967,” he observed. “This ‘new’ narrative tells us a lot more about who we are as a people and gives us the opportunity to reconsider who we want to be. That’s what makes history so exciting. It’s not really about the past, but about who we want to be in the future.”

The current scrutiny in Westborough of Whitney’s most famous achievement coincides with the fact that the home at the site of his birthplace, at 36 Eli Whitney Street, is for sale. The four-bedroom, three-bath, 2401 square foot Colonial-style home has been completely renovated and is listed at $650,000.

Whitney’s birthplace, a 1700’s structure, was razed in 1854. The present building has been renovated and is for sale, but is not the actual birthplace of Eli Whitney.

Photos/submitted