Cotton is in season among historians. The humble fiber has been pushed to the fore by scholars who are taking a new look at the conformation of land, labor, and capital accumulation in the Atlantic World in the nineteenth century. A surging interest in the history of slavery (Martin & Brooks, Linking the Histories of Slavery, 2015) has engendered a discussion of the commodity that slaves produced more than any other, and around which economy, society, and culture in the nineteenth-century US was conformed. Some scholars have revisited questions about cotton and capitalism in the US South, finding profit-driven modern businesses pushing forward capital accumulation by mobilizing social labor through compulsion and not the wage form (Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told, 2014; Johnson, River of Dark Dreams, 2016). One much-lauded recent book chalks up the development of capitalism to the cotton economy, from Manchester to Mississippi (Beckett, Empire of Cotton, 2014). [End Page 193]
In Seeds of Empire, Andrew Torget has written a solid contribution to this literature that tells the story of how the Atlantic cotton economy shaped the borderlands of what is today Texas, between 1800 and 1850. After the invention of the cotton gin around 1800, industry demand for the fiber boomed, first in Europe and later in the northeastern United States. Aspiring Anglos moved into the Deep South to create cotton plantations with slaves, and soon began pressing beyond the Mississippi into territory that was nominally under control of Spain and then Mexico. The vast expansion of cotton agriculture drove a market for horses, which were rounded up by Native Americans on the plains of Texas and sold eastward through merchant channels. Cotton also drove the demand for slave labor: free labor was never considered by southern planters, even though the Mexicans, British, and northerners in the US outlawed the slave trade. And this contradiction – an industrial society that demanded cheap cotton yet railed against slavery – was a key dynamic in the evolving political situation of the new Texas borderlands as it lurched toward its emergence as a slaveholding republic and later a slaveholding state.
Torget does a marvelous job managing the complexities of this history of multiple social actors fighting to dominate or simply survive in a nebulous political and social space. Wealthy Anglo farmers from Mississippi; Tejano elites; slaves from the South; European colonists; Mexican, British, French, and US politicians; Comanches; Caribbean smugglers: all these and more were brought together in an often bloody maelstrom by the swirling forces of cotton capitalism, and Seeds of Empire manages to weave them into a coherent tapestry. A wealth of regional and national libraries and archives in the US and Mexico were used to generate a close view of economy and society at the local and international levels. In a literature that is mostly focused on events and figures in Texan and US history, Torget is particularly impressive when he integrates a discussion of Mexican struggles over slavery and the relation of Mexico's central government to its far-flung northern reaches during the chaotic early years of that Republic.
Seeds of Empire is excellent borderlands history that locates the lives of people at the crux of cotton capitalism and state formation. Torget masters the historiography of the borderlands, and rather than quickly moving on, is explicit in his engagement with it. Seeds of Empire thus works through and reshapes the older literature in a systematic way to push the narrative in new directions. There are always, however, a few things on the wish list of a reviewer that a book does not provide. The book comes up a bit short in its engagement with the conceptual issues in a literature that expands beyond the region and period of the study. For example, there is a missed opportunity here to engage with the theoretical questions driving the new literature on the history of capitalism, slavery...