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River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom Hardcover – February 26, 2013
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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With deep insights, original readings, expansive vision, and dramatic narratives, Walter Johnson reconfigures both the political economy of American slavery and the landscape of struggle in the slave South. (Steven Hahn, author of A Nation under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles in the Rural South from Slavery to the Great Migration)
Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams is a unique, brilliant, and relentless critique of the sordid logic of American slavery as it unfolded on cotton plantations, aboard steamboats plying the Mississippi, and in toxic proslavery adventures that spilled across the country's borders. The next generation of debates over slavery in the United States must wrestle with Johnson's startling and profound insights. (Adam Rothman, author of Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South)
River of Dark Dreams solidifies Walter Johnson's standing as a brilliantly gifted interpreter of the past, whose work sets the benchmark for a powerfully lucid--sometimes heart-wrenching--vision of what enslavement meant for slaveowners, for the women and men they enslaved, and for the nations that participated in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. (Jennifer L. Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Gender and Reproduction in New World Slavery)
Mining journals, correspondence, public records and popular literature, Johnson reminds us that New Orleans, not Richmond, was the engine of Southern prosperity: its largest city, largest slave market and the center of a booming international trading system...Mixed with fascinating anecdotes, grim accounts of slave life and a convincing argument for plantation slavery's essential role in the 19th century's burgeoning industrial capitalism. (Kirkus Reviews 2012-12-15)
River of Dark Dreams is an important, arguably seminal, book...It is always trenchant and learned. And in highly compelling fashion, it helps us more fully appreciate how thoroughly the slaveholding South was part of the capitalist transatlantic world of the first half of the 19th century. (Mark M. Smith Wall Street Journal 2013-02-22)
Johnson has written a book as big and bold as the Mississippi River valley region it surveys. In it, he maps the various interlocking connections among slavery, land surveys and speculation, steamboats, capital and credit, cotton planting, and more to show how President Jefferson's promise of an 'empire for liberty' to come from the Louisiana Purchase became instead a place of people grasping for advantage, gouging for wealth, and gaining through will and brutality. Readers will find Johnson's discussions of steamboat technology, adaptations of new strains of cotton, and credit and market arrangements especially compelling as he makes the case for a modernizing, slave-based cotton empire that sought to extend its reach across the continent and, through violence, to claim Central America and Cuba as well...An essential book for understanding the dynamism and direction of American economic ambitions and the human and environmental costs of the physical, political, and social energy that drove such ambitions and ended in civil war. (Randall M. Miller Library Journal (starred review) 2013-03-15)
[Johnson] firmly believes that the booms of the early 1830s, followed by the devastating collapse of cotton prices and fortunes in 1837 and then the same cycle again in the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War. For those who have the penetration to see it, the cycles were written on the land, the technology, the crafty new financial instruments, and the bodies of the enslaved. Johnson never misses a chance to remind us of the relevance of all this today: the deregulation, speculation, profit, bubble, bust, misery, and war...Johnson's book attempts something daring and bold. Instead of perpetuating the regularly compartmentalized treatment of American slavery and the global antebellum political economy, he follows the example of Eric Williams's Capitalism and Slavery (1944) by bringing both together. He does this with an eye toward the enslaved on the ground, observing what they ate and produced, how they lived, how they were brutalized and died. Johnson is brilliantly attuned to the stories of the enslaved whose lives were coexistent with the cycle of production, who planted and harvested cotton but were at the same time commodities themselves, whose every biological function (reproduction, waste elimination) was an economic calculation. (Lawrence P. Jackson Los Angeles Review of Books 2013-05-30)
Johnson paints a picture of slavery in the Mississippi Valley as rich in twists and surprises as the Mississippi itself...A seminal study. (D. Butts Choice 2013-07-01)
"River of Dark Dreams is at its best when it focuses on the day-to-day lives of slaves in
the valley. Johnson empathizes with his subjects, allows them to speak for themselves
through written records they left behind, and is a gifted enough writer to make the past
come alive in his prose...Few books have captured the lived experience of slavery
as powerfully as River of Dark Dreams."
(Ari Kelman Times Literary Supplement 2013-07-26)
This most impressive piece of history writing will be a source of inspiration and debate for many years to come. It demonstrates the national significance of regional history and the transnational scope of 'slave holding agro-capitalism.' It has an overarching story to tell and argument to make, but many of its meaty chapters take a vital area of research and decisively reorder it.
(Robin Blackburn Dissent 2013-07-01)
About the Author
Walter Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
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First, the Author writes using many "asides" or parenthetic comments in which he feels compelled to denigrate Southern planters even more mean-spiritedly than seemed possible before I read the book. I agree that it is impossible to find a good reason to justify slavery, but the author's hate of southern planters (white southerners) is astounding. The Author seemed to feel a need to express his opinions, and in my opinion, moved dramatically away from expression of valid historical commentary.
Second, in a number of cases the vocabulary clearly expresses a lack of interest in having the book widely read, and a high degree of academic arrogance. With all due respect, I do not believe that many of the words used are part of the Author's normal or academic vocabulary (e.g.: concupiscence, fustian, hortatory, magniloquent, simulacrum, synecdochic, tessellate, etc., among many others).
The chapters in the middle of the book, particularly 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9, are characterized by turgid prose, and are a chore to read. These chapters should have been an editor's delight, but were clearly not carefully addressed by a determined content editor. All in all, this is not a book that I could recommend. I am astounded at the general positivity of the reviews.
Johnson's treatment of Indian Removal is rudimentary, if not callous. He should have consulted The Armstrongs of Indian Territory (1953) by Carolyn Thomas Foreman. She describes in detail the part that my great great-grandfather William Armstrong and his brother Francis (sons of General James "Trooper" Armstrong, who had supported Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans) played in removing the Five Tribes. Using both brothers' journals and correspondence, she details the harrowing uprooting of and transplanting them west of the Mississippi. >from Johnson also includes a concise explanation of how the financial Panic of 1837 was tied to cotton, slaves, and Indian Removal..page 4
The most debilitating tactic first employed by our government was to speed up the decline in the deerskin trade so essential to those tribes. Already in trouble because of declining prices for pelts in Europe, not to mention the scarcity of animals after a century of indiscriminate hunting, the Chickasaws, Creeks, Choctaws Cherokees, and Seminoles (though they were not actually a tribe but a mish-mash of renegades) were in dire straits long before Jackson forced them west in the 1830's.
While praising Jefferson for hoping to populate the Louisiana Purchase Territory with small white farmers, Johnson failed to criticize that president's racism, who planned systematically to get rid of the Indians. Jefferson also planned to send blacks back to Africa, a program finally institutionalized by his protégé and neighbor James Monroe. His neighbor and cousin Chief Justice John Marshall, the Federalist midnight judge appointed by Adams, opposed both plans.
Of all the presidents, Jefferson, founder of the Democratic Republican Party, is after Washington the most quoted by opposing factions claiming his approval. Jackson gets all the blame for Indian Removal but those policies were Jefferson's. He had plotted to remove the tribes west as early as 1802 by which time those Indians had already become "yeomen farmers" a process he had consistently encouraged. The Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Cherokee cultivated about 80% of the food they ate.
Farseeing as usual, Jefferson sought land for small white freeholders between the Alabama and Mississippi rivers. In 1802, he already schemed to displace the Chickasaws by usury: "We establish among them a factory or factories for furnishing them with all the necessaries and comforts they may wish (spirituous liquors excepted), encouraging these and especially their leading men, to run in debt for these beyond their individual means of paying; and whenever in that situation, they will always cede lands to rid themselves of debt."
After paying Napoleon fifteen million dollars for Louisiana, Jefferson was eager to turn a profit by reselling the land. Through the contrivances just mentioned, he bought Indian lands for about $.25 cents per acre, while the government resold it for about $1.25 per acre. Thus, in essence, the resale of the Indian lands within it, paid for the Louisiana Purchase. (Miller, 2006). Next to tariffs, government land sales produced the most revenue maker for the nation until the Civil War.
Meanwhile, cotton made inroads. Trading companies and individual merchants that once happily traded with the tribes began to buy and export cotton. Indian debt was vigorously pursued thereafter. To collect, traders colluded with speculators, merchants and federal agents familiar with Indian commerce to manipulate the tribes into ceding their lands in lieu of payment. By 1822, the Choctaws alone were bilked out of more than 13,000,000 acres in this manner. Jackson's Indian Removal later vacated them from the upper valleys of the Pearl River in 1830; Chickasaws left the northern Mississippi Delta in 1832; Creeks left Alabama the same year; and finally the Cherokee's sad exodus in 1835 opened a large portion of the Tennessee River Valley. It took three wars to evict the Seminoles from Florida.
During the Removals, land speculators went wild but future deeds were often contingent on the exit of the natives who often stalled as long as they could. Frenzied speculation ensued in the boom years of 1831 through 1835. Land Offices were overwhelmed, and distressed Surveyor Generals tried to deal with thousands of square miles of unprocessed land claims. Clearing the way for well-to-do planters to buy the land, "pre-emption" laws were passed that forced squatters to pay up their claims within a year or their land was foreclosed and re-sold. Speculators gobbled up these pre-emption claims as many squatters could not afford to stay on the land they had already in some cases improved. However, many of these quick sales were paid for with banknotes instead of hard cash. These came with between a 1 and 10 % discount according to the bank's reputation. In early 1836, the Whigs and Democrats finally agreed to disburse federal surplus revenue from land purchases to all the states in the form of specie. Between September 1836 and May 1837, federal specie reserves in New York diminished from 7.2 million to 1.5 million.
Jackson's insistence on specie caused consternation because it brought into question the value of banknotes. In response, the Bank of England cautiously increased the discount rate for that scrip. Even so, technological innovation in textile manufacturing and distribution spurred demand for more raw cotton, even as prices for cloth steadily fell. Thus, the Cotton Kingdom expanded despite the bursting bubble. Indians and poor whites were cast out or thrust aside. Fluctuating and unpredictable harvests exacerbated the situation. Whenever prices fell, as they did most disastrously in 1837 and 1857, planters, factors, and traders went bankrupt, their dreams busted and their estates foreclosed. Today, our history textbooks usually blame the Panic of 1837 on general market uncertainties caused by Jackson's destruction of the 2nd Bank of the United States headed by Nicholas Biddle, but it was largely due to cotton and slaves as Johnson said, but it was also partly caused by Indian Removal.
Johnson's worst defect, however, is his lack of demographic knowledge. Throughout River of Dark Dreams, he correctly recites the mantra of "bales per hand per acre." What did improve productivity was richer soil, particularly in the Yazoo Mississippi Valley. Surely, some improvements in labor organization were made here and there, but technology in the fields never changed much though transportation did. The reason that historians imagine increased labor efficiency on the plantations is partly because in recent decades the number of slaves smuggled into the Deep South, roughly 250,000, have been ignored.
Many of those illegals were concealed from state and county records in which some slaves took the place of dead slaves that had previously been counted, and from federal censuses. Johnson miscalculated that average productivity rose 60% from 1820 to 1860. There were simply more slaves to grow and pick it than were reflected in the public records. In fact, Tadman found that many slaves were hidden from the state and county tax rolls, over 20,000 in South Carolina alone during the 1850's. The gap between the number reported for state and county taxes and those who were enumerated in the census has not been studied. Johnson also acknowledged that a third of slave pregnancies were not carried to term and that child mortality hovered around 75%. This totally invalidates any and all ideas of natural increase to explain the numbers of slaves in the federal census of 1860. This is the X-Factor: bozales smuggled into the United States from Africa via Cuba and other lesser waystations in the West Indies and even in Mexico and Central America.
River of Dark Dreams attempts to malign and utterly contemn the faulty expansionist logic of the Deep South planters. It vividly illustrates some planters' desperation to buy more slaves to plant, grow, tend, pick, gin, bag, and ship ever more cotton. Truly, "the entire Southern economy was devoted to agriculture, yet it could not feed itself". Monoculture dominated Dixie. The cotton and sugar planters had to import food from the Upper South and from the North. That Johnson does not recognize the illegal imports of bout a quarter of a million slaves after 1808, and stupidly sides with most scholars since U.B. Phillips in assuming that almost all of the slaves migrated from the Upper South is unsurprising because it's now generally accepted.
Johnson does excel in treating the river steamboats that oversaturated the river-ways by 1840. On them, he documents that racial segregation was rigorously enforced. After 1840, railroads began to supplement them but he doesn't go into great detail about them. If he had, he would have discovered that they too were segregated. This disproves C. Vann Woodward's influential thesis in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955), in which he assigned the first transportation segregation to the railroads of the North.
Johnson cannily compares risk-taking cotton planters to riverboat gamblers. He neglects however, to calculate the traffic of cotton and slaves traveling by steamboat and for the effect railroads had on such cargoes. Thus, his steamboat tangent, which discusses how individual slaves employed on the boats as cooks or other servants, or stevedores on the docks, often escaped, but does not address the far more important issue of the conveyance of plantation slaves by steamboat up or down river even though that method dominated until the war.
Curiously enough though, Johnson implies that many lives were lost, blacks especially, in steamboat disasters. He accentuates their anonymity, assuming that most were never reported because they were slaves. I assume that if any number of plantation slaves being shipped on a steamboat were wounded or died, local newspapers would have reported it, for if anything was true about the Cotton South it was that slaves and cotton were the main topics of conversation. News of slaves lost on a riverboat was an important communication to convey. What would have been different in the relaying of steamboat disaster news if the slaves lost were technically illegal? Maybe some papers deliberately suppressed the news if the slaves being transported were illegal.
By the 1850's, most slaves whether legal or illegal, poured mainly into New Orleans. There they were reloaded onto river steamboats for passage upriver to Donaldsonville, Baton Rouge, Natchez, Vicksburg, Greenville, and Memphis. From such river entrepots, for example Vicksburg sent overland in coffles to slave marts in Clinton, and Jackson Mississippi, and elsewhere. From such important Gulf ports as Mobile, Galveston, and Apalachicola, many illegals could also be shipped upriver. No one yet has estimated how many slaves died in these journeys but there were more than a thousand steamboat accidents before 1851 in which 2, 300 people--almost all whites--are known to have perished.
The last third of River of Dark Dreams describes in vivid detail only three filibuster expeditions, two to Cuba and one to Nicaragua. He grossly overplays the support of planters for filibustering, including expeditions that never came to be. They were, in fact, merely a sideshow. David C. Keehn in Knights of the Golden Circle (2013) shows how the main supporters of the filibusterers, the Knights and their offshoots was not in backing the quixotic filibusterers but in intimidating abolitionists and Unionists in the Southern and Border states.
The real fight for the expansion of slavery was in our own western territory. Johnson also downplayed the crucial importance of the Compromise of 1850, which admitted California as a free state (whose gold would finance the Civil War) in return for the Fugitive Slave Law, which Northern States refused to enforce in spite of the Dred Scott decision. Thus, the Compromise of 1850 turned out to be a greater disaster for the South, worse even than the Kansas/Nebraska crisis of 1854, both measures engineered by Stephen A. Douglas, whose attempt to be nominated in 1860 disastrously split the party.
** Its scholarly peers include K. Stampp, "The Peculiar Institution;" J. Blassingame, "The Slave Community;" E. Genovese, "Roll Jordan Roll;" P. Wood, "Black Majority;" G.M. Hall, "Africans in Colonial Louisiana," & very few others.
Funny how the descendants of the White Planters are still exploiting blacks and whites in the South to this day.