River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson (review)
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River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. By Walter Johnson. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 526. $35.00 cloth)

Walter Johnson’s latest book examines the American conquest and development of the lower Mississippi Valley from the early nineteenth century until the Civil War. Tracking the development of a fully capitalist slave society or, as he explains it, the transformation of the region from a Jeffersonian “empire of liberty” into the “Cotton Kingdom,” Johnson finally lays to rest old debates, most famously those articulated by the late Eugene Genovese, about the economic development of the South. Yet, the capitalist vision of the South was much different from that of the North. Global in scope, this economic system was not only shaped by its dependence on slave labor and slaveholding but also on cotton monoculture and its accompanying ecological effects, the Liverpool cloth market, and specialized industrial technology (cotton gins and steamboats). Rationalized economically, the economy of the lower Mississippi Valley employed high-speed and high-pressure steamboats prone to accident and explosion, commodified human beings, transforming enslaved African Americans into “hands” that, dependent upon age and sex, [End Page 602] consumed a certain amount of food and picked a certain amount of cotton in a given time, and it attempted to expand the Cotton Kingdom abroad in order to create new markets and conquer new lands to replicate the transformation of the lower Mississippi Valley.

In many ways, Johnson tells the story of a supposed course of history gone horribly awry. After the removal of Native Americans from the region, officials had hoped that the Deep South would be settled by free white yeoman, whose prodigious and fecundate offspring would spread across the American continent. Instead, settlers used slave labor—many of the enslaved being purchased and brought from the Upper South—to transform the landscape into one of unfreedom, market production, and human misery known as the Cotton Kingdom. Drawing upon published accounts of gamblers, speculators, planters, runaway and escaped slaves, and travellers, Johnson is able to construct his narrative convincingly and powerfully. He then uses the intellectual endeavors—books, pamphlets, trade and farm magazines, and legislation—of southern political and economic leaders to demonstrate their vision of the future—the “Dark Dream.” Unlike previous historians, Johnson moves events usually treated as peripheral to the sectional conflict between North and South, such as filibustering or the campaign to reopen the transatlantic slave trade, to the center of the story. In fact, Johnson contends that we have to move beyond national, teleological models like “North/South” or “free/slave” to truly understand the global vision of the antebellum South. Coinciding with this argument, the author argues that we have to accept the southern economy as fully capitalist. The lack of “modern” infrastructure such as railroads had more to do with the interests of steamboat owners (the industrial technology of the Mississippi) and New Orleans merchants than some systematic backwardness. Likewise, paternalism towards slaves was not due to precapitalist aristocratic pretensions, but an acknowledgement that masters owned not only the slaves but also their reproductive capacities. Benevolence towards the enslaved meant more offspring, an important form of [End Page 603] liquid capital for the master class.

Quite simply, River of Dark Dreams is an incredible tour-de-force that will reshape the way historians think about slavery and capitalism in the antebellum South. There are two criticisms, however. First, the ecological transformations wrought by the rise of the Cotton Kingdom could have been examined in a more systematic way, perhaps dedicating a whole chapter to the subject. Secondly, Johnson did not take the argument far enough in places, especially in regard to the coming of the Civil War. Johnson suggests that nothing short of a unique capitalist system arose concurrently with the free-labor industrial economy of the North. If we take Johnson’s argument to its logical conclusion, the Civil War was not between a semifeudal South and a capitalist North and not only about slavery, but it was a struggle between two competing views of economic development and modernity. That said, although it can be a bit dense and...