River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

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When Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory, he envisioned an “empire for liberty” populated by self-sufficient white farmers. Cleared of Native Americans and the remnants of European empires by Andrew Jackson, the Mississippi Valley was transformed instead into a booming capitalist economy commanded by wealthy planters, powered by steam engines, and dependent on the coerced labor of slaves. River of Dark Dreams places the Cotton Kingdom at the center of worldwide webs of exchange and exploitation that extended across oceans and drove an insatiable hunger for new lands. This bold reaccounting dramatically alters our understanding of American slavery and its role in U.S. expansionism, global capitalism, and the upcoming Civil War.

Walter Johnson deftly traces the connections between the planters’ pro-slavery ideology, Atlantic commodity markets, and Southern schemes for global ascendency. Using slave narratives, popular literature, legal records, and personal correspondence, he recreates the harrowing details of daily life under cotton’s dark dominion. We meet the confidence men and gamblers who made the Valley shimmer with promise, the slave dealers, steamboat captains, and merchants who supplied the markets, the planters who wrung their civilization out of the minds and bodies of their human property, and the true believers who threatened the Union by trying to expand the Cotton Kingdom on a global scale.

But at the center of the story Johnson tells are the enslaved people who pulled down the forests, planted the fields, picked the cotton—who labored, suffered, and resisted on the dark underside of the American dream.

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Editorial Reviews

Steven Hahn
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.
Adam Rothman
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.
Jennifer L. Morgan
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.
Wall Street Journal - Mark M. Smith
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.
Los Angeles Review of Books - Lawrence P. Jackson
[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.
Choice - D. Butts
Johnson paints a picture of slavery in the Mississippi Valley as rich in twists and surprises as the Mississippi itself...A seminal study.
Times Literary Supplement - Ari Kelman
"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."
Dissent - Robin Blackburn
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.
New Republic - Andrew Delbanco
Johnson shows in horrific detail how the culture of slave society--intellectual, social, sexual--arose out of the imperative of more and more cotton cultivation. In a brilliant chapter titled 'The Carceral Landscape,' Johnson's book reads as a kind of scholarly companion to Quentin Tarantino's studiously gothic film Django Unchained...What makes Johnson's book more than a catalogue of horrors is its account of how slave-owners, too, were caught in the cycle of fear...As new technologies (not only the cotton gin) and new markets (Europe as well as the industrializing North) drove the expansion of cotton production against any and all compunction, talk of ending slavery, which had once been central to debate about the future of the republic, became a deadly threat to the economy of the South and, to a significant degree, of the whole nation...Johnson's point is not to equate the suffering of slaves with the anxiety of slaveholders; but his book has the effect of showing their interdependence in a way that makes the abstractions of political history--'property,' 'expansion,' even 'slavery' itself--feel vivid and immediate.
New York Times - A. O. Scott
Walter Johnson's River of Dark Dreams shows how the Cotton Kingdom of the 19th-century Deep South, far from being a backward outpost of feudalism, was a dynamic engine of capitalist expansion built on enslaved labor.
New York Review of Books - Maya Jasanoff
The artistry of River of Dark Dreams lies in the close-up--in Johnson's mesmerizing attention to the 'material' in historical-geographical materialism. In the pointillist style so dexterously displayed in his reconstruction of the New Orleans slave market, Soul by Soul, Johnson zooms in on the 'nested set of abstractions' that made the Cotton Kingdom run: money, markets, maps, labor...River of Dark Dreams delivers spectacularly on the long-standing mission to write 'history from the bottom up': from the soil tangy and pungent with manure, and the Petit Gulf cotton plants rooted into it, and the calloused fingers plucking its blooming, sharp-edged bolls. This is a history of how wilderness became plantations that became states, nations, and empires--of how an overseer's lashes sliced into a slave's back turned 'into labor into bales into dollars' into visions of America's future in the world... Johnson recreates the grinding, sometimes deadly work of moving in the Mississippi Valley with such originality that it doesn't much matter that the analytical payoff rests largely in metaphor...Whereas Johnson's analysis of steamboat imperialism turns on metaphor, his detailed description of slavery acts as a rebuke to the oversimple metaphors that are used to describe slaves' lives and labor: money and markets.
The American Civil War is still being fought. The racist inheritance of the South now permeates the collective unconscious of many who are taking their stand against African Americans and other people of color through this country's racist legal and prison system and also through cutbacks in government that fall most heavily on those whom this society dragged across oceans to enslave and exploit. To understand the dynamics of the present, we must perceive the peculiar way in which racism is intertwined with a global system of economic exploitation that continues to flourish, rewarding some while disinheriting many others. Walter Johnson's magnum opus puts the economy of slavery at the center of American history. His account succeeds in avoiding the sort of vulgar Marxist reductionism that misses the depth of human suffering that reached an apex in the first sixty-five years of the nineteenth century--suffering which in its modern twenty-first century manifestations continues to exact a heavy price from the bodies of African Americans and from the emotional well-being of everyone else. Johnson's detailed account of the Cotton Kingdom prepares us to understand the later manifestations of oppression and imperialism that have shaped much of the world ever since slavery was officially abolished (but more plausibly taken into new forms and globalized).
The Nation - Robin Einhorn
As the Harvard historian Walter Johnson explains in his bracing new history of slavery and capitalism in the Deep South, River of Dark Dreams, the slaveholders were the quintessential American capitalists…River of Dark Dreams…casts his insight about slavery-as-capitalism onto a broader canvas: the history of the Mississippi Valley and its political economy in the first half of the nineteenth century. Johnson, of course, is hardly the first historian to think about slavery in the context of capitalism…But Johnson moves in another direction. The relationship between slavery and capitalism, he insists, does not depend on any connection between American slavery and European (or American) industry. On the contrary, plantation slavery was capitalism.
The Nation - Timothy Shenk
[One] of the most impressive works of American history in many years.
Chronicle of Higher Education - Sven Beckert
An important book…Johnson sees slavery not just as an integral part of American capitalism, but as its very essence.
Kirkus Reviews
A dense analysis of pre–Civil War Mississippi Valley commerce, culture and society. In 1803, Thomas Jefferson happily included the Louisiana Purchase in his vision of a future America of self-sufficient, white farmers. He ignored the modest debate over allowing slavery into the territory; his well-publicized objections were purely intellectual. Sadly, Jefferson's rural Eden never happened, as wealthy slave owners quickly snapped up the best Mississippi Valley land. Mining journals, correspondence, public records and popular literature, Johnson (History and African-American Studies/Harvard Univ.; Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, 2001) 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. Cotton dominated; nearly 90 percent went to Britain. Johnson describes its biology, cultivation, harvest, sale and transportation via steamboat, a new technological marvel that converted the Mississippi into the world's busiest river. He emphasizes the dismal story of the slaves who planted, picked, packed and loaded it. Ambitious planters yearned to extend the institution of slavery--not to "bloody Kansas," where no respectable slave owner wanted to live, but to Cuba and Central America. Many publicly advocated reviving the slave trade. A scholarly work that will appeal to history buffs who can navigate the often academic prose, economic theory and statistics 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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674045552
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 2/28/2013
  • Pages: 560
  • Sales rank: 120,747
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Walter Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 7: “The Empire of the White Man’s Will”

Manure may be a homely subject, but on its preparation and use every thing is depending. Without it, the deep green of our pastures, the golden yellow of our corn-fields, and thfine beef and white loaf of our tables, could not exist.

The American Cotton Planter

Throughout the antebellum period, the Lower Mississippi Valley, declared by its chroniclers to be the richest agricultural region in the world, imported most of the wheat, corn, beef, and pork its residents required to live from the Mid-West and Ohio Valley. It was an entire economy devoted to agriculture, and it could not feed itself. Cotton, it was said by one planter, was “so much more profitable than other kinds of cultivation,” that planters supplied themselves “almost entirely from the upper country.” There were, scattered amongst the many plantation owners who planted nothing but cotton, a few planters who tried to diversify their crops, usually with corn. Corn would provide feed for livestock, who could in turn reduce Southern planters’ dependence upon imported foodstuffs—a concern that became particularly pressing during the Depression of 1837, when a sharp drop in the price of cotton made imported food appear even more dear. “We were driven by necessity to break our intolerable bondage to the grain growing states, and raise within ourselves what was necessary for our own consumption,” wrote one Hinds County planter in what most would have regarded as a too-optimistic assessment of the potential of the plantations in the Mississippi Valley to feed their owners.

Planters who valued self-sufficiency used corn to feed the cattle and pigs they hoped would reduce their reliance upon imported foodstuffs. Cattle and pigs were marked with patterns cut into their ears or brands on the flank, turned out into the woods, swamps, and roadways to forage for feed. In the autumn, Charles Ball remembered, “Neither the hogs nor the cattle required any feeding at our hands. The woods were full of nuts and the grass was abundant.” Hogs were generally driven in from the woods to be slaughtered after the cotton had been shipped, but while it was still cold enough to preserve their flesh while it was processed into meat. “Each carcass is cut into six parts,” explained Solomon Northup, “and piled one above the other in salt, upon large table in the smoke-house. In this condition it remains a fortnight, when it is hung up, and a fire built, and continued more than half the time during the remainder of the year.” “This smoking,” he continued, “is necessary to prevent the bacon from becoming infested with worms.” For planters this feral economy—forage to flesh to meat and milk—had the advantage of providing protein at the cost of little extra labor: the cows and pigs themselves did much of the work of converting nature to the service of the cotton economy (as well as, in many cases, the bounty of the public domain into the benefit of private consumption).

There were, however, well-known limits to stock-raising in the agro-capitalist ecology of “the Cotton Kingdom.” Like corn, livestock drew upon the same land and labor as cotton. The energy of each sector of earth could be converted to stock or staple, but not both; the labor of each hand had to be committed to raising either fodder or fabric. In an economy where both planting and productivity were measured by a calculation of bales per hand per acre, allocation of either land or labor away from cotton and towards corn, cattle or hogs represented an unaccountable loss in the minds of cotton-crazed planters. Or at least an unaccounted loss, suggested one planter in observing that “large plantations” were not suited for the raising of pigs, “for it is found to be almost impossible to prevent the Negroes stealing and roasting young pigs.” And so planters throughout the Mississippi Valley (and elsewhere in “the Cotton Kingdom”) imported food in order to export cotton throughout the antebellum period.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 12, 2014

    A powerful, revealing book about an industry (cotton and slavery

    A powerful, revealing book about an industry (cotton and slavery) that foretold the development of modern industry that operates under extreme capitalistic methods. At times wondered a little off topic, and  challenging writing but worth it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 10, 2013

    Funny story PART TWO To Camostar w/ note

    and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried and cried annnnd cried. Basically he cried for a VERY long time. And the people around him screamed...--***--ok im sorry about skipping the last res. Its just my mom would flip if she looked at my "Recently Viewed" list and saw that book on there. Peace for now Silverstream/Lilyflower

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 10, 2013


    Like what?..

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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