The capitalist economy and dark dreams of the slaveholding South
This is a dark book about a dark subject. Walter Johnson burst onto the historical scene with the 1999 publication of his influential Soul by Soul, which positioned the slave market as the central institution of the antebellum South, shaping not only the southern economy, but also white self-conceptions and black lives. With chilling efficiency, the book unpacked the practical and psychological difficulties in commodifying what should not be commodified. Johnson sought to reduce slavery to its basic equation—“a person with a price”—and to show how this omnipresent calculation permeated and undergirded every aspect of southern life.
In River of Dark Dreams, Johnson deals with some of the same themes, but the Winthrop professor of history and professor of African and African American studies expands them outward in every direction. The new book, too, is rooted in an equation, or rather a conversion—“lashes into labor into bales into dollars into pounds sterling”—one that governed the lives of planters and slaves, shaped the land, development, and society of the Cotton Kingdom, and drove a global economy extending to banks in London and mills in Lancashire. The book is not simply the history of a region (the antebellum Mississippi Valley) or a work of political economy (what Johnson terms “slave racial capitalism”), though it is certainly both of these things. In a larger sense, it is the history of a mentality out of which would emerge a vision of global empire premised upon the commodification of cotton and the human beings forced to tend it.
Johnson’s is a story of land, slaves, cotton, steamboats, dizzying economic growth, and the nearly unlimited capital that made it possible. As with any work of political economy, it relies on abstractions, aggregations, and synthesis to cover ground quickly and to analyze the big picture. Commodification and capitalization, his subjects, are themselves, of course, methods of abstraction, and this could easily be a book without individual people. But it is not.
To his credit, Johnson alternates between the macro and micro view, interspersing richly detailed anecdotes and even chapters within his larger analysis, and he populates the Cotton Kingdom with captivating and repulsive characters. For instance, he provides an illuminating examination of steamboat technology as well as lurid accounts of horrifying accidents and their increasing frequency as boat owners and operators pushed their machines and people well beyond the limits of safety and common sense in a never-ending quest to best their competitors and extract further profit. In these pages, one meets Charles Deslondes, the Creole slave who led an unsuccessful 1811 revolt in Louisiana only to be gruesomely executed; the mysterious and murderous slave-stealer John Murrell; the ill-fated, misguided, and almost pitiable Cuban “liberator,” General Narciso López; and the “shape-shifter” William Walker, that “grey-eyed man of destiny,” who rose from obscurity to briefly conquer Nicaragua in the name of advancing southern interests and the progress of the white race. Throughout, Johnson seeks to stress the human and environmental resistance that always conditioned white ambitions, and to remind us that on the ground, “The Cotton Kingdom was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.”
In the longstanding historical debate over whether southern planters should best be viewed as premodern, paternalistic anticapitalists or as modern, market-driven capitalists whose factories happened to be in fields, Johnson has always come down on the capitalist side, but here he drives the point to the hilt. Mississippi Valley planters were not merely capitalists, he argues, they were global free-trade capitalists, whose obsession with efficiency and productivity drove them to wring every last dollar out of their fields and their enslaved people. Measuring distance in dollars, not miles, planters always kept one eye on the cotton prices and shipping rates in Liverpool, New York, and New Orleans even as they kept the other carefully trained on their slaves for any sign of slackening, resistance, or rebellion.
Yet it was capitalism with a twist. Whereas in most capitalist societies, capital and labor are separate, usually oppositional, forces, here they were blended together in the persons of slaves. Johnson pulls no punches in presenting slavery in all its dehumanizing ugliness while also emphasizing the many ways slaves found to resist their masters, shape their environments, and, within the constraints of oppression, make lives of their own. Still, slaves remained the most valuable and liquid form of capital in the South, one that could be moved easily and sold anywhere, and it was the territorially bounded (i.e., domestic) slave market, Johnson argues, that made the South the South by knitting together the upper southern states and Deep South into a single slave economy. For white slaveowners, the slave market always remained “the factory of slavery’s future” and the “prime engine of spatial and temporal transformation.”
The last quarter of the book deals with southern visions of empire as Mississippi Valley-boosters sought to reinvigorate their regional economy by seizing new lands and gaining new slaves in order to advance “global whitemanism.” Johnson takes the imperialist aspirations of southern proslavery advocates seriously, and he provides an in-depth examination of American filibustering expeditions in Cuba and Nicaragua as well as the efforts (mostly talk) to reopen the Atlantic slave trade. For whites in the Mississippi Valley, he reminds us, the map of the United States and the South remained very much unfinished. As the steamboat economy reached its physical limit and railroads began to reorient western trade eastward, instead of southward, southern spokesmen in the 1850s sought to expand their slave economy and establish the direct trade connections necessary to sustain it. In their view, Cuba was the natural and inevitable gateway to the slave South, and Nicaragua offered a path west to connect the Mississippi Valley to the emerging Pacific economy. Although unsuccessful, these efforts to bring new lands under southern white control and reopen the Atlantic slave trade, Johnson argues, shared a common vision, one “that outlines what the world and the future looked like to slaveholders and other white men in the Mississippi Valley on the eve of the Civil War.”
To be clear, this book is emphatically not about the coming of the Civil War. Johnson’s interest lies in the antebellum South as a region of global economy, one that sought economic revitalization through global integration and international free trade. In fact, he finds the traditional narrative of sectional tensions leading to armed conflict to be anachronistic and too “resolutely nationalist in its spatial framing” when it comes to understanding the Mississippi Valley. Historians, he charges, have projected the geographic Confederacy backwards, defining the South by what it would later become rather than what it might have been. The imagined pro-slavery empire that he explores represented an alternative vision of the future, the direction in which white southerners thought they were headed before Confederate defeat forever crushed their hopes.
That said, one must wonder about the representativeness of some these views, even among Mississippi planters. Johnson tells us that “a very large proportion of Valley slaveholders” supported the invasion of Nicaragua and the reopening of the Atlantic slave trade, but he provides little concrete evidence to demonstrate this widespread support. Instead, he relies on the writings of well-known proslavery spokesmen without much discussion of their larger resonance. More to the point, if reopening the slave trade was so popular and believed to be so vital to the future of the South, then why did delegates from the seceded states of the Deep South go out of their way to forever prohibit it when they had their chance to draft their own national Confederate constitution in February 1861? Why let it go without much more than a whimper? Johnson passes over this fact quickly, and there are several possible explanations, but a more thorough examination would seem to be required, given the thrust of his argument.
Still, this is a monumental book, and perhaps Johnson’s greatest achievement is how effectively he conveys the uncertainty and fear that pervaded the daily lives of slaveholders. Dependent on weather and crops that might fail, slaves who might rebel and certainly would resist, steamboats that might (and often did) explode, cotton prices that might drop, shipping costs that might rise, credit that might evaporate, paper money that might be valueless, distant parties who might be fraudulent, not to mention the uncertain compliance of an envious nonslaveholding southern white majority, Mississippi Valley planters built their society and economy on a powder keg, and they knew it. In a place where nothing was fixed, identities were uncertain, and wealth or ruin could come in a blink of an eye, a deep-seated and very much justified anxiety weighed on every planter’s mind and governed his actions. As Johnson puts it, “the Cotton Kingdom was less an accomplished fact than an ongoing project, less a fixed bastion of slaveholding power than an excruciating becoming.” Far from taking their ease on their verandas, dark dreams haunted the minds of the lords of the Cotton Kingdom, and their power and profits came at a terrible price.
Historian Michael T. Bernath, Ph.D. ’05, is Tebeau associate professor at the University of Miami and the author of Confederate Minds: The Struggle for Intellectual Independence in the Civil War South (2010).
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