Wlliam Gilmore Simms
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The Power of Cotton: A Paper Read in the City of New York

Speech | 1856

         The Power of Cotton is a pamphlet published by Chatterton & Brother of New York in 1856.  The work claims to be a paper read in New York in November 1856.  The only known copy of the paper had been in the possession of Theodore Parker, the most prominent Unitarian and Transcendentalist minister in the northeast in 1856.  The work was bequeathed to the public library of the city of Boston from the Parker estate on 30 October 1864, four years after Parker’s passing.  On both the cover and title page, the precise location of the reading and the author’s name were both removed with a razor, and “William Gilmore Simms” was handwritten in cursive in place of the author’s name.  As early as 1892, William P. Trent considered Simms’s authorship of the pamphlet “doubtful.” In the bibliographic appendix of Simms’s works in his biography of the writer, Trent asserted, “Simms’s name is written on the copy in the Boston Public Library, but the handwriting is not that of Theodore Parker, to whom the pamphlet originally belonged.”[1]  Nevertheless, Trent attributed the pamphlet to Simms, and for the next 120 years the work continued to appear in bibliographies.  Recent evidence uncovered by the Simms Initiatives, however, suggests that The Power of Cotton should not be considered a Simms text; rather, it appears to be the work of a man by the name of David D. Deming. 

         It is not entirely clear as to how the work first became attributed to Simms, but one can speculate that the timing, location, and subject matter have all contributed to this estimation.  The paper was delivered in the city of New York in November 1856, as Simms was giving his northern lecture tour (or shortly thereafter) on the role of South Carolina in the Revolution; he happened to be in the state of New York, lecturing in its surrounding cities in November 1856.  The subject matter concerns the debate of free and slave labor and what role cotton has played in the nation’s economy; essentially, it is a defense of the southern economy.  The lecture contains many disparaging comments on free labor, industrialization, and African Americans.  The paper also has a decidedly philosophical-religious orientation, which might explain how the work became the possession of Parker.  A major problem for attributing Simms’s authorship arises by simply reading The Power of Cotton, whose writer repeatedly speaks as a northerner and even implies that he is a native New Yorker.

         Authorship was not attributed to Simms when excerpts from The Power of Cotton were distributed among various southern periodicals following the year of its publication.  DeBow’s Review published multiple excerpts in their May 1857 issue with an introduction that speculatively identifies the author of the pamphlet: “D. D. Deming, it seems, has read a paper in New York upon this subject, which he sends us.  We do not know the gentleman, but his paper contains some solid, bold thoughts which are not frequently heard expressed in that community.  We allow him to speak.”[2]  DeBow’s perhaps took editorial liberties by organizing their excerpts with headings—such as “Northern Free Labor,” “Capital North and South,” “Negro Slavery an Ordinance of Providence,” Free Trade and Taxation,” “Liberty of the Press North and South,” and “The Power and Might of Cotton”—not originally part of Deming’s pamphlet.[3]  The section, “Liberty of the Press North and South,” in particular, contains a brief editorial introduction to infer that Deming took exception to the northern press coverage of Simms’s 1856 lecture tour when Deming discussed freedom of speech, the partisan press, and the deteriorating discourse between North and South: “The writer evidently here has in his mind Mr. Simms’s late lecturing experience at the North.”[4]  The Southern Cultivator also published a brief excerpt, which they titled, “To What Free Labor Leads,” in their July 1857 issue and issued the following introduction: “In a paper read before an Institute in the city of New York, not long since, says the New Orleans Delta, by D. D. Deming, on the 'Power of Cotton,' the following state occurs.”[5]  The same edited excerpt was also published in the Southern Planter’s August 1857 issue.[6]  While these two publications provided more information and actually include the title of Deming’s paper, the lack of specificity as it pertains to both author and location remained conspicuous.

         Despite these findings, the Simms Initiatives will retain this text in our collection for several reasons.  First, it is a text traditionally associated with Simms as far back as 1892.  Second, it reflects directly on Simms’s northern lecture tour in New York; the DeBow’s Review in 1857 asserted as much in their inclusion of excerpts and commentary upon The Power of Cotton.  Last, one of our goals with the digital collection is to enable scholarly access to texts such as these which are not readily accessible in Simms research.  The Power of Cotton participates in a critical historical moment when discourse between the northern and southern regions of America had all but collapsed, signaling the inevitable conflict that awaited the fate of the country five years later.  The photocopy of the pamphlet held at the South Caroliniana Library at the University of South Carolina is the only known extant copy of this publication.  The title reads: The | POWER OF COTTON; | A PAPER READ | [a line has been razored out] | IN THE CITY OF NEW YORK, | BY | [a line has been razored out and William Gilmore Simms has been inscribed with pen] | [rule] "The nymph Gossypia treads the velvet sod, | And warms with rosy smiles the watery god." | [rule] | New-York: | CHATTERTON & BROTHERS, JOB PRINTERS, 102 MAIDEN LANE. | [rule] | 1856.

Michael Odom

[1] William P. Trent, William Gilmore Simms, American Men of Letters (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1892), 338.

[2] David D. Deming, “The Power of Cotton,” DeBow’s Review and Industrial Resources, Statistics, etc. Devoted to Commerce, Agriculture, Manufactures (May 1857): 540.

[3] It is also plausible that Deming himself organized excerpts of his own paper by adding such headings, but it seems more likely that DeBow’s took liberties not only to organize with headings, but also to insert editorial comments.

[4] Ibid.

[5] D. D. Deming, “To What Free Labor Leads,” Southern Cultivator 15.7(July 1857): 224.

[6] D. D. Deming, “To What Free Labour Leads,” Southern Planter 17.8 (August 1857): 457.