Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. x-526, $35.00
Sven Beckert, “Emancipation and Empire: Reconstructing the Worldwide Web of Cotton Production in the Age of the American Civil War,” in The American Historical Review, vol. 109, no. 5 (December 2004), 1405-1438.
Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams and Sven Beckert’s “Emancipation and Empire” are two complimentary works. Both studies explore the relationship between slavery, capitalism, labor, and empire during the nineteenth century. Johnson’s monograph traces the rise and fall of the Cotton Kingdom in the Mississippi River Valley, while Beckert’s article investigates how the production and trade in cotton reestablished itself throughout the world following the American Civil War. Both works raise several questions about the place of cotton in the world’s economy and its influences on labor and trade (foreign and domestic).
The general gist of Johnson’s argument was that imperialism, capitalism, and slavery came together in the Mississippi River Valley, starting after the Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase. Jefferson believed that an “Empire of Liberty” could be achieved through yeoman republicanism, but this dream was quickly dissolved with the rise of steam power. The introduction of steamboats in the 1810s nurtured capitalist development, which gave rise to the Cotton Kingdom.
Although parts of Johnson’s work read like a stream of consciousness, especially his Braudelian descriptions of steamboats, cotton cultivation, and environmental changes—he also presents several thought-provoking ideas. First, he makes a compelling argument about how the western frontier and the rise of capitalism shaped, among other things, race relations, the environment, and class relations among whites. As the Cotton Kingdom rose to power, opportunities to make significant economic gains flourished. Everyone from riverboats captains to merchants in New Orleans made fortunes of the bourgeoning cotton trade. In many ways Johnson’s argument resembles a reoriented version of Frederick Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.” As frontier, this western region offered unlimited opportunities for economic gains. Unlike Turner, however, this frontier did not give rise to democracy, but instead Slaveocracy based on slave labor and cotton production.
The massive investments in slaves and plantations, however, made this empire dependent on the North for things such as food and clothing (this led to massive southern support for free trade). Outside material objects, this Cotton Kingdom also changed the environment (soil erosion and exhausted soil) and reified a harsh racial hierarchy. Also the Cotton Kingdom flourished in the first several decades, by the 1830s, intense economic competition between each other, soil exhaustion, and the Panic of 1837 destabilized their society. Although this interpretation is not new, Johnson connects this instability to elite slaveholders’ desire to expand their empire and reopen the slave trade. For example, he looks at slaveholders’ attempts to colonize Cuba and Nicaragua. Many slave-owners, arrogantly, believed in what he calls global “whitemanism.” This was the idea that expansion coupled with the reopening of the Transatlantic Slave Trade would solve the problems of the empire and solidify white slaveholders position at the head of the “interlocking circulatory networks” of the Atlantic World (418).
Although there is much to like in this work, Johnson leaves a few glaring holes in his assessment. First, he does not discuss religion, which many would argue was a key ideological component of the southern United States. Second, he does not discuss the role of slaveholder paternalism, which I was curious about in his sections on the “expansionist movement.” Did southerner slave masters present their arguments for expansionism in a paternalistic manner? Finally, Johnson does not spend enough time talking about the role of non-slaveholding whites in the development of the Mississippi River Valley. Despite these quibbles, this work is powerful testament to Johnson’s knowledge of American slavery.
The Cotton Kingdom fell with the outbreak of American the Civil War. This major event is where Sven Beckert starts his article. He argues that the Civil War gave rise “to the global empire of cotton.” This global empire was “structured by multiple powerful states and their colonies” and “worked by non-slave laborers” (1405). Why the rise of this global empire of cotton? Because in 1861 cotton production employed more than 20 million people across the world, and the United States provided more than 75% of the world’s cotton. The Civil War halted the production of this raw material, which led to the Great Cotton Famine. This forced countries around the world to search for a new source of cotton.
The search raised many questions, especially how “to extract labor for cotton production, without the use of slaves” (1424). Beckert uses three cases studies—India, Brazil, and Egypt—to demonstrate how the world searched for a new source of cotton and labor. The result of these searches was the foundation of “an entirely different system of labor control: unlike in sugar production, which, after emancipation, relied to an important extent on indentured laborers, cotton would be grown by cultivators who would work their own or rented land with the input of family labor and metropolitan capital” (1424). The movement to produce cotton in different regions led to major social changes such as the establishment of railroads in Berar, India; new telegraphic communications; the construction of the Suez Canal; and “moneylenders” became the slaveholders.
As peasants were used in the production of cotton outside of the United States, they became more dependent on moneylenders for advances in cash to support themselves. This, in turn, created a vicious cycle of debt, which led to different forms of slavery. Ironically, the emancipation of four million slaves in the United States—what some would argue as one of the greatest humanitarian achievements in history—actually led to the same vast system: “the destruction of slavery, along with the emergence of the United States as a power in manufactured cotton in its own right, motivated nearly all European states to secure labor, cotton lands, and markets in territories they controlled (usually through indentured servitude and coercion)” (1438).
This raises a major question: Did the Civil War actually enslave more people than it emancipated? In other words, did slavery actually expand on a global scale, following the War? Could one argue that imperialism, slavery, and capitalism created the Cotton Kingdom, led to the destruction of American slavery, and then gave birth to a new form of slavery.
These two works have changed how I understand the historiographical debate between slavery and capitalism (which I will outline—any comments here are more than welcome!)–
Two major schools of thought have dominated this debate. In the first group, historians such as Eric Williams and Eugene Genovese argue that capitalism arose in seventeenth century and was defined by the separation of workers from land, the establishment of the factory system, and the development of contract labor. Slavery, in their minds, defined non-capitalist society. Immanuel Wallenstein (world systems theory) and Fernand Braudel (Annales School) are two leaders of the second school of thought. They argue that capitalism emerged in the fourteenth century with the rise of global trade. In most cases, slave-produced goods were the commodities of choice exchanged between various places, therefore, making slavery a cornerstone of early capitalism.
If we accept Johnson and Beckert’s arguments, can we say that capitalism could not exist without slavery? Does capitalism require slavery to be successful? Has there ever been a time when capitalism existed without some form of slavery? (I am using slavery in a very general term here). These two studies have led me to ask such questions, which I am excited to explore further this semester.