JOHNSON: River of Dark Dreams (2013)

Posted: 7/10/2013
Reviewed By: Christine E. Sears

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2013. Cloth, ISBN: 0674045556. $35.00.

Walter Johnson opens River of Dark Dreams with a bang and a dream: the 1850 explosion of the steam boat Anglo-Norman at New Orleans and Thomas Jefferson’s “empire of liberty” dream. Between the steam and the dream, he traces how nineteenth-century Southerners embraced a gendered household political economy, new technologies, free market trade, and imperialism alongside slavery. Drawing on wide-ranging primary sources, including slave narratives, newspapers, legal cases, and diaries he explicates nineteenth-century Southern thought. Johnson purposefully avoids the specter of the Civil War, choosing instead to consider where Southerners thought they were going and “how they thought they could pull it off” (16).

To some extent, Mississippi Valley settlers realized Jefferson’s dream of self-sufficient, free yeomen who replicated a gendered household political economy on land claimed by racial conquest. As Adam Rothman did in Slave Country, Johnson shows how “self-sufficient” residents benefitted from government land policies and interventions. For example, the U.S. Army intervened in the 1811 German Coast Slave Insurrection and, in its aftermath, permanently manned a New Orleans garrison. Planters’ “slave race capitalism” (14) connected them to the world because it depended on free market trade and territorial expansion.

In their pursuit of “slave race capitalism,” planters sought to bend economy, ecology, technology and laborers to their will. Between 1820 and 1840s, planters invested in steamboats second only to outlays in slaves. Steamboats vanquished the river’s oppressive current, allowing planters to annihilate time and space by moving “markets closer to the goods” (78). Steam ships “overwrote the history of conquest” (74) with a tale of technological triumph.

Yet these “sublime…spectacles” (74) resisted planters’ grasp in many ways. The “steamboat economy” (87) required “dredging, straightening, and leveeing” (90) the infamously shifty Mississippi River. These activities left a flatter, faster river more likely to overflow its banks. As forests fed their insatiable engines, deforestation and increased soil erosion followed, exacerbating flooding. Even as they moved goods on an “unimaginable scale” (77) and made New Orleans the fourth largest port in the 1840s world, steamboats caused the price of freight and goods to drop. Built to maximize cargo space, steamboats cruised with high pressure engines that were “less efficient and more prone to explosions” (94) than also available low pressure engines. Explosions regularly destroyed cargo and “scalded, crushed,…mangled, and scattered” human beings (111). “Danger was,” as Johnson explains, “built into the boats” (123).

Johnson makes clear how much his planters desired complete hegemony with his chapter titles: “Dominion,” “Empire of White Man’s Will,” and “The Carceral Landscape.” In their search for domination, planters adopted Petit Gulf cotton, a versatile plant with enhanced “pickability” (152); that is, an adult hand could harvest 200 pounds more per day. Following agricultural reformers’ advice, they embraced “shit savings” (181) earned by raising livestock. Such animals provided fertilizer for cotton and fed slaves without importing Northern meat.

Planters’ curtailed slaves’ freedom of movement with technologies like literacy and patrolling with dogs and horses. Slaves, however, possessed superior knowledge of landscape and crops because they cleared land, built levees, planted and harvested, and loaded bales on steamships. Even “slaveholders’ visual power had limits,” and slaves knew exactly what old fields might provide cover from a masters’ surveillance (167).

Johnson reveals planters’ ardor for a pro-slavery future based on reopening the African slave trade, free trade, and imperialism. “Caught” as they were “between unsustainable expansion and unspeakable fire” of Haiti and threatening slave revolts, planters displaced their fears into global aggression (14). An active annexationist print culture “fired the minds” (310) of expansionist Americans and their imperialistic dreams. Planters schemed to bring “freedom” to Cuba, Nicaragua, and Honduras, along with slavery infused by a newly re-opened African slave trade.    

Their imperialistic visions added up to little, and abruptly ended with William Walker’s 1860 execution in Nicaragua. Abraham Lincoln’s election and Deep South secession swiftly followed. Intriguingly, the Confederate States of America’s constitution outlawed the external slave trade. In fact, strive as they might, slaveholders found command of credit, trade, the land, laborers, and technology elusive. Hegemony over “slave racial capitalism” evaded their grasp, much as supremacy slipped away from James Henry Hammond at Silver Bush. Perhaps, like Hammond, they found that the “Cotton Kingdom was less an accomplished fact than an ongoing project” (245).

Johnson thrusts Mississippi Valley residents into mainstream historical currents as described by scholars like Daniel Walker Howe. Like other nineteenth century Americans, Valley planters responded to a boom and bust economy, enmeshment with foreign markets, growing print culture, increased mobility, new technologies, and the anxieties all of these changes engendered. Johnson’s work brings to mind Charles Seller’s epic Market Revolution in its magisterial sweep and his proclivity for non-human actors.

Like James Oakes and Richard Follett and other scholars, Johnson finds these Southerners were efficient capitalists much like their Northern counterparts. Valley residents deluded themselves with a purely fictional paternalism. Johnson lays claims of “benevolent” masters against high child mortality, devastating malnutrition, brutal violence, and the often forced creation of capital from a “crop of slaves” (194). Importantly, Johnson disputes planters’ dehumanization of their enslaved property, arguing that planters’ behavior “signaled their reliance upon their slaves ‘humanity’” (207).

Johnson’s thought-provoking, wide-ranging work will appeal to historians as well as those interested in slavery, Southern history, and nineteenth century history. In reconciling Southern visions with broader currents of nineteenth-century history, Johnson suggests that all Americans bear some legacies of “slave race capitalism” though it “never came to pass” (17).

Valley residents strove for a progress and plenty that were haunted by exploding steamships, dangerous strangers, and rebellious laborers. For these planters, freedom existed as a “quantity to be forcibly extracted from the suffering bodies” of the most vulnerable individuals. For Johnson, this “seems to describe our world better than” the idea that freedom comes naturally to mankind (420). Particularly when read alongside works such as Seth Rockman’s Scraping By, Johnson appears to intimate that W.E.B. DuBois’ words apply equally to nineteenth century North and South: “for was not all this show and tinsel built upon a groan?” (46)
 

Christine E. Sears is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

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