“Cotton Capitalists: American Jewish Entrepreneurship in the Reconstruction Era” by Michael R. Cohen— Jews and King Cotton

Cohen, Michael R. “Cotton Capitalists: American Jewish Entrepreneurship in the Reconstruction Era”, (Goldstein-Goren Series in American Jewish History), NYU Press, 2017.

Jews and King Cotton

Amos Lassen

Many will be surprised to learn that in the nineteenth century, Jewish merchants found a place in the economy of the United States’ most important industry, cotton. They placed themselves at the forefront of expansion during the Reconstruction Era.  The success that was experienced in the cotton industry was transformative for both Jewish communities and their development, and for the economic restructuring of the South. Michael Cohen  analyzes this economy and reveals its origins arguing that Jewish merchants’ status as a minority was what “fueled their success by fostering ethnic networks of trust.” In the nineteenth century, trust was the basis of economic transactions and this trust was largely because of ethnicity.

“Jewish merchants in the Gulf South used their own ethnic ties with other Jewish-owned firms in New York, as well as Jewish investors across the globe, to capitalize their businesses.” These connections were to direct Northern credit and goods to South after the Civil War and they avoided the constraints of the anti-Jewish prejudices  which had previously denied them access to credit that would allow them to survive economic downturns.

Through these American Jewish merchants we see that ethnicity matters in the development of global capitalism. Ethnic minorities are and have often been at the forefront of entrepreneurship. They find innovative ways to expand narrow sectors of the economy and this was certainly the case for Jews as well as for other immigrant groups.  The story of Jews in the American cotton trade is not just the story of American Jewish success and integration—it is the story of the role that ethnicity plays in the development of global capitalism.

Jewish Americans played a key role in cotton economy of the South and brought European and New York capital into the South while she was still devastated by war.. For many this was previously unknown and it filled a critical niche in the southern cotton trade during the second half of the nineteenth century.  We are reminded that we cannot fully understand the South’s economic revival in the age of reconstruction without looking at the part that Jews played in it.

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