Plantation Kingdom: The American South and Its Global Commodities by Richard Follett, Sven Beckert, Peter Coclanis, Barbara Hahn (review)
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Plantation Kingdom: The American South and Its Global Commodities. By Richard Follett, Sven Beckert, Peter Coclanis, and Barbara Hahn. Marcus Cunliffe Lecture Series. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016. Pp. [viii], 165. Paper, $19.95, ISBN 978-1-4214-1940-4; cloth, $49.95, ISBN 978-1-4212-1939-8.)

This slim volume features an essay on each on the four crops—rice (by Peter Coclanis), cotton (by Sven Beckert), sugar (by Richard Follett), and tobacco (by Barbara Hahn)—that made the antebellum South a leading global commodities market participant, a status that evaporated in the postbellum decades. Although the four rise-and-fall stories have different aspects, a short introduction and shorter conclusion, both authored by Follett, seek to draw connections between the individual crop studies and to extract themes about the plantation South's role in the development of global capitalism.

Plantation Kingdom: The American South and Its Global Commodities provides useful, albeit highly compressed, summaries of portions of the widely praised books that the authors have published on their respective commodity specialties. To summarize the summaries: first, Coclanis describes rice's "road to commodity hell," observing that even though "rice in and of itself explains little about… [the] Atlantic economy as whole," it is worthy of study because "the evolution of the industry provides important insights into the expansion and elaboration of global capitalism and the positive and negative factors relating to it" (pp. 12, 14, 15). He describes the emergence of a rice industry in South Carolina in the first third of the eighteenth century; the rise of a small but fabulously wealthy large slaveholder elite by the eve of the American Revolution—"an expression … of the economic expansion of early modern Europe"; and the decline of the region even before the Civil War and emancipation, principally due to the burgeoning maritime trade between the Asian rice-producing regions and Europe (p. 29). "[M]ore and more scholars" have accepted, Coclanis notes, his thesis of "long-term declension" (p. 34).

Beckert's cotton story varies considerably from Coclanis's rice narrative. Timing is a key difference. Only in the 1790s did American planters begin growing cotton for world markets, with Eli Whitney's cotton gin playing a crucial role. Size and significance are other differences. As the supplier of the raw materials for the cotton industry, the antebellum South was the backbone of the first great phase of capitalist industrialization that spread across Europe. Cotton became important to the South, Beckert avers, because cotton had become important to the global economy. That seems a safe contention. There are, however, some questionable elements in Beckert's story. For example, he asserts that the most important tension leading to the demise of the "cotton-slavery nexus" was slaveholders' fears of a SaintDomingue-style [End Page 414] slave revolt (p. 54). As for the postbellum South, Beckert's account of the transformation of a "global countryside" into a cotton manufacturing power, manifesting its continuing "vanguard role" in global capitalism, seems grossly disconnected from on-the-ground microeconomic miseries (p. 60).

Next, Follett observes that although sugar was not the South's most important crop, "it defined the history of the Atlantic world" (p. 61).Sugar was intimately linked to the rise of slavery, but by 1900 the fall had come for all the New World's sugar colonies. Louisiana's sugar interests "danced to the tune of international and domestic sugar markets," and when offshore competition became very successful, only a strong tariff could save domestic cane planters (p. 68). Without that tariff, commodity hell for the sugar region arrived.

The primary question in Hahn's tobacco story is "What are the varietal types, and how did they develop?" (p. 91). Her primary answer is that "specific institutions, including both government regulations and trade relationships, created incentives" for particular cultivation methods in particular regions (p. 91). That is, plant types were products of historical processes. She ably describes the postbellum shift of tobacco dominance from Virginia to Kentucky and the changes that the postbellum world brought to tobacco technology. Hahn is particularly critical of technological myths, whereby a device drops from the sky and revolutionizes...