Winner of the SHEAR Book Prize, Society for Historians of the Early American Republic
Honorable Mention, Avery O. Craven Award, Organization of American Historians
A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of the Year
“[One] of the most impressive works of American history in many years.”
Timothy Shenk, The Nation
“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
“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.”
A. O. Scott, New York Times
“River of Dark Dreams delivers spectacularly on the long-standing mission to write ‘history from the bottom up.’”
Maya Jasanoff, New York Review of Books
“Few books have captured the lived experience of slavery as powerfully as River of Dark Dreams.”
Ari Kelman, Times Literary Supplement
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About the Author
Walter Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University.
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.
Table of Contents
Introduction: Boom 1
1 Jeffersonian Visions and Nightmares in Louisiana 18
2 The Panic of 1835 46
3 The Steamboat Sublime 73
4 Limits to Capital 97
5 The Runaway's River 126
6 Dominion 151
07 "The Empire of the White Man's Will" 176
8 The Carceral Landscape 209
9 The Mississippi Valley in the Time of Cotton 244
10 Capital, Cotton, and Free Trade 280
11 Tales of Mississippian Empire 303
12 The Material Limits of "Manifest Destiny" 330
13 "The Grey-Eyed Man of Destiny" 366
14 The Ignominious Effort to Reopen the Slave Trade 395