In the foreground of the painting, Beattie presents a visual replica of an early Whitney gin, with an emphasis on its working parts. Beattie draws upon many earlier representations of the southern cotton plantation, including popular illustrations in nineteenth-century periodicals like Harper’s Weekly.
Unlike some of these images, which romanticize the work involved, Beattie uses compositional choices and juxtapositions to make the burden, labor, and foundation of the economic and agricultural system quite clear. The stooped backs of the robust yet enslaved African Americans indicate the fact that they are doing all the hard labor (picking and ginning the cotton) while a woman, a child, and a mule press the cotton into bales in the left background. Two white masters, wearing fine top hats and coats, examine the product of the labor and the gin as a white overseer checks the weight of a bag of cotton. In a nostalgic reference to the Old South, Beattie paints a late antebellum, Neoclassical mansion amid enframing trees near the center of the composition, but he places the shoulders of an enslaved man at the base of the mansion, making reference to the wealth of Georgia having been made literally and figuratively upon the backs of its enslaved peoples.