The patent that revived slavery, signed by George WashingtonGeorge Washington: U.S. Patent Signed "Go: Washington" as president for "new machinery called the Cotton Gin" issued to Hodgen Holmes, not Eli Whitney. The patent is countersigned by Timothy Pickering as secretary of state and Charles Lee as attorney general. One vellum partly-printed page, 12.5" x 15", "City of Philadelphia," May 12, 1796. The patent is accompanied by a Hodgen Holmes letter describing his invention.
By signing this 1796 patent for Hodgen Holmes new cotton gin design, President George Washington - America's icon of independence - unwittingly signs away the freedom of future generations of African-American men and women. Holmes' design exponentially increased the efficiency and output of the cotton gin, first patented by Eli Whitney two years earlier. The invention transformed America, expanding the cotton culture in the South and spreading it westward. By doing so, it breathed new life into slavery, the institution that many had hoped would die a natural death.
The Holmes patent embodies a pivotal point in American history: the closing years of George Washington's presidency, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and the ominous stirrings of a resurgence that would pave the way to Civil War. Historian Pete Daniel, a former curator at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, states that this patent is "a crucial document in analyzing this important moment in history."
Washington-signed patents are extremely rare. Of the surviving examples, this patent, along with the Whitney precursor, had the most profound influence on American history. Ultimately, they paved the way to Civil War. This patent reads:
"Whereas Hodgen Holmes, a citizen of the State of Georgia in the United States, hath alleged that he has invented a new and useful improvement to wit: new Machinery called the Cotton Gin, which improvement has not been known or used before his application; has made oath, that he does veryly believe that he is the true inventor or discoverer of the said improvement; has paid into the Treasury of the United States, the sum of thirty dollars, delivered a receipt for the same, and presented a petition to the Secretary of State, signifying a desire of obtaining an exclusive property in the said improvement, and praying that a patent may be granted for that purpose."
Washington and Slavery
What passed through the president's mind when he gave his imprimatur to this invention? The "Father of Our Country," the man most responsible for American independence, was also a lifelong slaveowner. Washington himself recognized the dichotomy. Though he never publicly spoke out against slavery, he privately expressed his growing disdain for it. As Washington scholar Dorothy Twohig points out, however, it's not clear whether that disgust rested "on moral grounds . . . or primarily on the grounds of the institution's economic inefficiencies." Washington's refusal to break up slave families and his insistence on their humane treatment support the former premise. His often-voiced objections to the sheer inefficiency of slave labor show that the latter consideration weighed in as well.
One thing Washington knew: The country would be better off without slavery. "There is not a man living," he told financier Robert Morris in 1786, "who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of it" (Washington to Morris, April 12, 1786, in Fitzpatrick 28). At the time, Washington owned 216 men, women and children (105 were owned by him outright, while the remaining 111 were "dower slaves" from the estate of Martha Washington's first husband.) To another acquaintance, he wrote, "I never mean (unless some particular circumstances should compel me to it) to possess another slave by purchase, it being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the Legislature by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure, & imperceptible degrees" (Washington to John Francis Mercer, Sept. 9, 1786, in Fitzpatrick 29).
Slow and imperceptible were the watchwords. Slavery, Washington feared, had the power to tear apart the fragile young nation. As he presided over the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Washington watched the divisive issue gradually permeate all discussion. When the final draft of the U.S. Constitution emerged, Southern slaveholders had achieved most of what they wanted. Northern concessions included the "three-fifths clause" (counting slaves as three-fifths of a person, which resulted in extra representation in Congress for the South), as well as a twenty-year moratorium on abolition of the slave trade.
At least the latter clause left open the possibility of abolishing the slave trade at a future point, which might hasten the natural death of the institution. In the meantime, Washington made plans, beginning in 1794, to "liberate a certain species of property, which I possess, very repugnantly to my own feelings." He followed through, drafting a will in 1799 that manumitted all of the slaves held in his own name after he and Martha died.
The Cotton Gin: Eli Whitney vs. Hodgen Holmes
The cotton gin is one of the most important inventions in American history, responsible for changing the culture of the American South. Although most people today credit Eli Whitney with its invention, many scholars give the credit to Hodgen Holmes. His machine replaced Whitney's spikes with circular blades, which ginned the cotton (removed the seeds) much more efficiently. Dr. Wesley F. Buchele, the co-author of an upcoming book on the topic (Hodgen Holmes: Inventor of the Continuous-Flow Rip-Toothed Cotton Gin, Buchele Associates Ltd. Press) explains that nearly all the short-staple cotton picked in the world since the 1780s has been ginned with machines based on Holmes's design. The device patented here, Buchele writes, is the "real granddaddy" of the modern cotton gin.
Until the inventions of Holmes and Whitney, cotton was processed by using a pair of grooved wooden rollers, which revolved in opposite directions. But while the rollers could remove the smooth seeds of long-staple cotton, they could not successfully extract the tightly clinging seeds of the short-staple variety. That laborious task had to be done by hand. Since a single slave could clean only about a pound of cotton per day, the process was an expensive bottleneck in the chain of production.
Eli Whitney's story is well known: Shortly after graduating from Yale University in 1792, he traveled south to study cotton culture. While staying at the Georgia plantation of the widow of Revolutionary War general Nathanael Greene, Whitney studied the problem of processing short-staple cotton. He developed a model in about ten days; within six months he had built a working cotton gin. His design comprised a roller with wire teeth that projected through slits of an iron guard. As the rollers turned, fibers were pulled through the narrow slits of the guard. The seeds, wider than the slits, fell from the guard into a box. The fiber was then swept from the teeth by a roller brush that turned in the opposite direction. On March 14, 1794, Whitney was granted a fourteen-year U.S. patent for his invention.
The lesser-known Hodgen Holmes (sometimes cited as "Henry Ogden" or "Hogden" Holmes), however, is believed to have preceded Whitney. A South Carolina carpenter and blacksmith, he was one of the many unsung (and probably self taught) Southern inventors of the eighteenth century. Tradition has it that on March 14, 1789, the year before passage of the first U.S. Patent Act, Holmes was granted a 5-year "Caveat of Invention" from the War Department for his cotton gin design. (That document, if it existed, may have been destroyed in the 1800 War Department fire.) If that is true, then Whitney's patent was granted just one day after Holmes's filing expired.
Of the two machines, Holmes's caused less damage to the cotton, had greater output, and was easier to produce. Southern planters, eager to exploit the invention, used Holmes to make a case against Whitney's claim to exclusive rights, suggesting that Holmes had not only improved the device, but was actually the earlier inventor. Whitney, by now losing vast amounts of revenue, filed suit, claiming infringement. In 1807, after a decade of litigation, the courts ruled in favor of Whitney. Holmes's patent, in the meantime, had been voided, one of the earliest instances of such an action.
In the end, Whitney adopted Holmes's design. The new machines could gin fifty times the amount per day compared with hand cleaning. As a result, the cotton industry flourished and, alongside it, slavery. In 1790, the slave population of the Southern states numbered about 650,000; by 1810, 1.3 million men, women and children were held in bondage.
Rarely does a document revise an enduring but erroneous "fact." Holmes's ideas for an improved cotton gin, observes historian Pete Daniel, may have predated those of Whitney. Certainly, his design, substituting saws for wires, perfected the revolutionary gin. "This patent is critical to evaluating the history of cotton ginning in the U.S.," says Daniel, "and illustrates the contribution of a Southern mechanic to American invention and innovation."
During Washington's presidency the United States issued some 163 patents. As both the Patent Act of 1790 and the revised act of 1793 required the president's signature on the documents, this figure also represents the original number that bore Washington's signature. Despite that figure, Washington-signed patents are extremely rare. Of the surviving examples, the Hodgen Holmes and Eli Whitney patents are of the greatest historical significance. The patent is toned with minor separations along the fold intersections (some smaller holes exist along the folds). Some discolored splotches exist, one affecting "Pickering." Washington's signature, however, is unaffected.
The patent is accompanied by a Hodgen Holmes manuscript document describing his invention (one vellum page, 12.5" x 15", Philadelphia, May 12, 1796). The letter is toned with some minor separations at the fold intersections. Minor discolored blotches appear on the sheet. It reads in full:
"The Schedule referred to in these Letters patent, and making part of the same, containing a Description in the words of the said Hodgen Holmes himself of an improvement to wit new machinery called the Cotton Gin. Explanation of the whole machinery: This machinery for cleaning cotton from the seed, can be used in the following manner: vizt. The whole machine (standing on the floor) is made of wood six feet six inches wide five feet long and five feet high. By putting this machine in motion - for use of the before mentioned purpose, is to be done by the following direction. The cylinder from eight to fourteen inches in diameter, and six feet long with one row of teeth, to one inch, which runs on two iron Gudgeons, the feeder from eight to twelve inches in diameter with two rows of wires of one inch, and six feet long, and runs on two iron Gudgeons. The brush from 7 to 12 inches in diameter and 6 feet long, with two iron Gudgeons to each cylinder from three quarters of an inch, to one inch thick.
Bennett, Charles A. "The Toothed Gin Inventions of Eli Whitney and H. Ogden Holmes." http://www.pratthistory.com.
Buchele, Wesley F. and William Mayfield. Hodgen Holmes: Inventor of the Continuous-Flow Rip-Toothed Cotton Gin. Buchele Associates, Ltd. Press, 2010 (galley proofs).
Dobyns, Kenneth W. A History of the United States Patent Office. 1994. http://www.myoutbox.net/popstart.htm.
Fitzpatrick, John C. Writings of George Washington.
Hurrelbrinck, Nancy. "Freeing His Slaves is One of Washington's Greatest Legacies." The Papers of George Washington, 1998. http://www.gwpapers.virginia.edu/articles/hurrelbrinck.html.
Lakwete, Angela. Inventing the Cotton Gin: Machine and Myth in Antebellum America. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Lemuel Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. "Inventing the Cotton Gin: A Class Debate." National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution, 1998.
Pogue, Dennis J. "George Washington and the Politics of Slavery." Historic Alexandria Quarterly (Spring/Summer 2003).
Twohig, Dorothy. "'That Species of Property': Washington's Role in the Controversy Over Slavery." The Papers of George Washington. http://www.gwpapers.virginia.edu/articles/twohig_2.html.
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