Reinterpreting the Cotton Kingdom

– Connor Donegan

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
By Walter Johnson
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013, 526 pages, $35 hardcover

WALTER JOHNSON’S RIVER of Dark Dreams has been justly praised as a landmark study of American slavery, sure to remain an important reference point for years to come. (1) Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University whose previous book Soul By Soul (2001) offered a history of the New Orleans slave market that pieced together the experiences of enslaved African Americans.

Dark Dreams is an ambitious history of the Cotton Kingdom from the Louisiana Purchase, and the ensuing ethnic cleansing that captured the region for the United States in the first third of the 19th century, to the invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua in the 1850s in the lead-up to the Civil War.

Both of Johnson’s books contribute to the scholarly movement of the past two decades away from the highly influential perspective of Eugene Genovese – whose theory of “paternalism” in particular has been singled out as a refurbished version of the planter-class’s own ideology – while also challenging some of the latest trends in the field. Genovese left a tremendous legacy in providing a comprehensive picture of Southern society that tied together the supposedly “precapitalist, quasi-aristocraticic” character of the planter-class with their tradition-bound and paternalistic culture.(2)

Dark Dreams rarely makes reference to Genovese or his arguments but offers a similarly impressive, “comprehensive” analysis of the Cotton Kingdom to displace Genovese’s: for Johnson, the Cotton Kingdom was a ruthlessly capitalist economy, fully integrated into the circuits of global capitalism, and bent on imperialist expansion. The planters’ power rested not on “paternalism” and negotiation but on terror and torture. (3)

Drawing extensively from slave narratives and other personal accounts, Dark Dreams is a neo-abolitionist history which offers an original perspective on what is certainly among the most formative episodes in U.S. history.

“Empire of Liberty”

Following the Haitian Revolution, which sent a flood of “refugee” planters to the mainland, U.S. slaveholders deeply feared that “their own” slaves might also be incited to violent rebellion. The threat was indeed real, as the rebellion that began January 8, 1811 proved.

An insurgent battalion of an estimated 200 slaves, having taken an armory, marched towards New Orleans, burning plantations and recruiting slaves and maroons (escaped slaves) along the way. Suppressed and mutilated by a combination of federal troops and volunteer militia, the rebel army never reached New Orleans. [The definitive book on this rebellion, An American Uprising by Daniel Rasmussen, was reviewed in ATC by Derrick Morrison ( – ed.]

U.S. statesmen saw the prospect of slave-rebellion as a weakness that their rivals could exploit, indeed were doing so, to their advantage. Andrew Jackson likely held Spanish Florida in mind when he wrote that the U.S.’s imperial rivals might strategically “excite the Indians to war, the Negroes to insurrection, and then proceed to Mississippi.”

At the same time as statesmen like Thomas Jefferson looked to the acquisition of new, ethnically cleansed territory as the basis of a republic of free white farmers, some hoped that the expansion of the plantation economy into new territory would lessen the threat of slave rebellion by “dispersing” the slave population. The internal control of enslaved population and the imperialist expansion of the U.S. were thus “indissoluble aspects of each other.” (25–26)

For better or worse Johnson’s work is not the place to find a detailed history of the colonization of the Southeast, but he does provide an overview of the process that highlights the contradictory relationships amongst the multiple groups and historical forces involved in the process – the Haitian Revolution; the Indigenous nations of the region (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole); colonial power rivalries among Spain, France and the United States; poor and middling white settlers; land speculators; and the potent ideology of the Jeffersonian Republic.

Jefferson’s dream that private property on ethnically cleansed land would serve as the basis of a republic of free white farmers – what he called an “empire of liberty” – was only half-realized. Following the implementation of Jackson’s genocidal Indian Removal policy, massive influxes of capital rapidly transformed the ecology and social relations of the region, quickly integrating it into eastern financial markets while capturing large tracts of the most fertile land for the wealthiest investors.

“But it was the labor of black slaves that made the dream of the speculators,” Johnson writes, “into the material reality of the Cotton Kingdom.” There were perhaps as many as one million slaves forcibly marched from the East between 1820 and 1860. While about a third of them were relocated as part of “intact plantation relocations,” the rest were fed into the new domestic slave trade.

The “slave trade” had its roots in the ventures of dozens of independent speculators who bought lots of ten or so slaves, generally on credit, in Upper-South states like Virginia and Maryland. They then walked them southward, after binding them wrist to wrist in a “coffle,” to the emerging regions of the Lower South – first Georgia and later Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama – selling slaves as they went. As it became clear that there was a great deal of money to be made in buying, transporting, and reselling slaves, a set of highly organized firms emerged to compete with the footloose speculators. (41)

This process of expansion was also a process of converting new property – distant tracts of land in various states of “improvement,” human beings in various states of health and age, and diverse products of labor – into definite monetary values for the purpose of credit and exchange. Yet the construction of a viable currency and banking system at first struggled to keep pace with the powerful flood of capital and movement of “commodities.”

The price of slaves was, however, tied to the value of Southern cotton, itself “set by the prices that cotton buyers in markets as distant as New York and Liverpool were willing to pay.” The value of the land beneath their feet, like the price of the slave’s own person, “pitched and rolled in response to the rhythm of distant exchanges.” (42)

The expansion of plantation agriculture into the newly conquered territory hardly allayed fears of rebellion. Instead, white fear of black revolt reached a fever pitch in the “panic of 1835” in Madison County, Mississippi. Acquired through the Choctaw land cessions of 1820 and 1830, the enslaved population had grown far more rapidly than the white, doubling in the five years leading up to the panic. Rumors of a planned slave rebellion spread, “[b]ut what happened in the end was less a revolt than a pogrom, a preemptive strike against a conspiracy that may never have existed and that left at least sixteen slaves and seven whites dead, their backs scored by torture before their necks were snapped and their legs left quivering at the end of the gallows’ arc.” (47)

“Slave Racial Capitalism”

Not only did speculative capital follow on the heels of the acquisition and conquest of region, it was also the primary condition and driving force of the Cotton Kingdom’s expanded reproduction. Only if the capital invested in production could yield an additional surplus-value upon its realization in the sale of cotton could a planter pay his creditors, receive a fresh loan, and renew or expand his productive capital.

New York and London financial institutions, working through middle-men (“factors”), annually advanced capital to basically every single plantation in the Deep South. Johnson’s narrative thus attacks with some force the idea that merchant’s capital predominated over the region. While “factors” can hardly be said to have ruled the day as mercantile houses did in an earlier era, the accumulation of capital was the sole and single aim of production.

For enslaved persons, this meant that their labor produced a surplus-value that was appropriated by planters as well banks like Browns Brothers, Barings, and N.M. Rothschild and Sons. It was they, quite tellingly, who took possession of numerous plantations and slaves in the wake of the financial panic of 1837.

Seemingly inspired by Marx’s concepts of concrete and abstract labor as “the two-fold character of labour embodied in commodities,” Johnson details the physical process of production – such as its ecological determinants and the hand-motions of cotton picking – and their articulation with the quality standards set by the Liverpool market. As Johnson points out, by far the best place to find a detailed account and explanation of the labor process is in slave narratives, in which one may even find a certain “satisfaction – even the pride – that ex-slaves expressed about some of the work they had done in slavery (though certainly not all of it), and about their own mastery of the conversion of the natural world into usefulness.” (164)

Yet planters’ overriding concern was with the extraction of the greatest amount of surplus-labor – the purely quantitative demand for human labor in the abstract. While tracking aggregate yields in terms of bales per acre per hand, “the governing standard of the Cotton Kingdom,” Johnson writes, “was calculated in pounds per day.”

Planters kept precise daily records of productivity against which each slave was measured and evaluated – as a “full hand,” “half-hand,” “quarter-hand,” etc. Planters strove to extract the greatest amount of surplus-labor as was physiologically possible while always seeking to increase productivity. Thus, between the years 1820 and 1860 the average productivity of slave-labor increased six-fold. (244)

Likewise, “the translation of the landscape into a measured grid – rows five feet apart, furrows three inches deep, cotton seed dropped from a distance of three feet, and countless other agricultural precepts, both inherited and created – all of these were efforts to measure, rationalize, and exert control over the process of growing cotton ‘to the hand.’” (166)

Through their subjection to a torturous metric of punishment and discipline, the “hands” themselves underwent a “forced neuro-muscular transformation” to acquire the qualities of the skilled cotton picker – “precision,” “dexterity,” “celerity” and “knack” in the words of Solomon Northrup. (Quoted, 1626#8211;3)

The power of the lash, Johnson argues, derived not only from the pain inflicted on its target but also the terror and other emotions instilled in all of those who listened and watched – “slaveholders tried to cow slaves into submission by jamming their senses with the sounds of human suffering.” Among William Wells Brown’s earliest memories is of hearing his mother crying out – “Oh! Pray – Oh! – Oh! Pray! ... Though the field was some distance from the house, I could hear every crack of the whip, and every groan and cry of my poor mother ... The cold chills ran over me, and I wept aloud ... It was not yet daylight.”

While we tend to think of sounds “as impressions that end when our eardrums cease to vibrate,” Johnson writes, “these memories tell of sounds that were as lasting as the scars on the former slaves’ bodies.” (172)

To borrow a phrase from Marx, what emerges from Johnson’s narrative is an economy that grafts the historical determinations of capitalist commodity production, or “the civilised horrors of overwork,” onto “the barbaric horrors of slavery ... ” (4)

The political economy of the Cotton Kingdom was driven by the requirements of capital – to constantly transform itself from one physical form to the next (money into seeds, land, and slaves into cotton and back to money again), to complete its entire circulation process as quickly as possible by “annihilating space by time” with new transportation technologies, all while attempting to overcome its own crisis tendencies through spatial expansion.

While unmistakably influenced by David Harvey’s Limits to Capital (5), Johnson supersedes the coordinates – geographical and otherwise – of Harvey’s highly abstracted reasoning. By following the circulation of capital through the violent, labor-intensive plantation economy he contributes to Harvey’s longstanding project of theorizing how uneven geographical development is internal to the process of capitalist accumulation.

For Genovese and more recent proponents of the non-capitalist thesis such as Charles Post, the question of underdevelopment is central. They argue that the South’s inability to fully industrialize and urbanize sets it apart from the capitalist mode of production for the simple reason that they consider capitalism inseparable from industrialization. (6) They document the features of peripheral economies identified by Samir Amin’s Marxist theory of underdevelopment – dependent and “disarticulated” regional or national economies within which capital accumulation fails to instigate a synergistic development of agriculture and industry. (7)

They conclude, based on their a priori definition, that these traits are proof of the non-capitalist character of the slave-plantation economy while attributing underdevelopment solely to slavery.

Johnson’s critique of their approach is brief but highly pertinent. A materialist analysis “begins from the premise that in actual historical fact there was no nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery.”

However else industrial capitalism might have developed in the absence of slave-produced cotton and Southern capital markets, it did not develop that way. Extracting the history of industrial development (whether in Great Britain or the Northern United States) from the historical context of its entanglement with slavery, itemizing its differences from the economic field from which it had been artificially separated, labeling it ‘capitalism’ in pure form, and then turning around and comparing it to the slavery upon which it subsisted in order to judge the latter “precapitalist” or “noncapitalist” – this way of proceeding conscripts historical analysis to the service of ahistorical ideal types. (254)

However important and convincing this is, the medium of the historical manuscript (bereft of any explicit theoretical development) is not the place where such questions can be fully resolved. His rich narrative is highly suggestive and will likely be a reference point for any future attempts to characterize the slave-plantation economy, but Johnson’s own exposition unfortunately falls short of realizing that task. Political economists may find his work wanting for clearer argumentation and for concise elaboration of if or how economic categories such as surplus-value and fixed capital are relevant to the plantation economy.

The Ecology of Domination

Planters maintained strict control over the plantation food supply, typically providing slaves with meagre rations each week. Johnson argues that the rituals, customs and rules regulating the preparation and distribution of food on plantations “mirrored and affirmed the plantation social order” which distinguished sharply between “higher- and lower-order bodily functions: taste on the one hand; digestion on the other.”

While whites ate with exquisite china and silverware and prayed over their food, enslaved blacks were routinely forced into close contact with domesticated animals, their food, and at times their waste. “The former slave Andrew Jackson,” for example, “recalled that his master ‘fed them the refuse of his table where he fed his dogs.’”

Punishments also were frequently conducted in such a manner as to associate the enslaved with domesticated animals. Slaves were threatened, tortured, mutilated and branded in the same places where animal flesh was butchered and prepared for human consumption, such as the smokehouse or the cellar. When Charles Ball was suspected of kidnapping a white girl, he was taken to the cellar and ordered to lie naked on his back. Bound by the hands and feet, “[t]he doctor ... opened a small case of surgeon’s instruments and told me he was going to skin me alive.” (190)

Jacob Stroyber recounts the story of a man named Jim, beaten for stealing a hog. “A cured middling of a hog was [then] tied around his neck ... One morning ... the overseer ... found him dead, with the large piece of meat hanging on his neck.” It was, likewise, common practice to brand slaves like cattle or to cut notches into their ears, as is extensively documented by advertisements for runaways.

The practice of placing slaves in close proximity with the animal world was systematic, or as Johnson puts it, “standard operating procedure.” The structured association of Blacks with carnality and flesh was interpreted differently by critics and defenders of slavery. Slave narratives frequently reference the treatment of human beings as barnyard animals or even pieces of meat in order to indict the system, while slaveholders “refashioned the socio-ecology of the Cotton Kingdom into racial ideology which affirmed their own being with the higher-order sensations of satiety and taste ...”

However, it would be misleading to claim that slaveholders “dehumanized” the enslaved in order to justify their own actions. Johnson is quite right to argue that by “[i]magining that perpetrators must ‘dehumanize’ their victims in order to justify their actions” we adopt an idealistic view of human nature which runs counter to what we know as historical fact. Racist ideologues, in their own writings and everyday actions, explicitly recognized Blacks as “human beings” and members of a “cognate race.”

Arguing otherwise would have contradicted their belief in the biblical account of Adam and Eve. While authors likened blacks to animals, they did so by analogy. Rather than dehumanize slaves, slaveholders “continually attempted to conscript – simplify, channel, limit, and control – the forms that humanity could take in slavery.” (207–8)

The argument also echoes Orlando Patterson’s theory that dishonor is among the defining characteristics of slavery throughout human history: by dishonoring and degrading the slave, the master proportionally enhances his own sense of honor and prestige. (8)

Another theme of Johnson’s work is found in his description of slavery as “materially defined at the juncture of body and landscape.” Just as the rows within the fields were organized so as to maximize productivity and control, the wide open fields themselves and surrounding thickets structured the coordinates within which resistance and escape occurred.

The master’s control over the slave’s possessions, his determination of the abilities they could and could not acquire, and the overseer’s superior command of space due to the use of horses, teams of dogs and firearms created a “carceral landscape,” a massive series of open-field prisons.

An “Ethics of Solidarity”

Within this context, the enslaved developed what Johnson calls an “ethics of solidarity.” If a slave was hiding in the woods to avoid punishment, others – particularly a loved one – might share their rations with her, putting their own bodies at risk to carry it into the woods at night.

A runaway too might depend on strangers for nourishment on the perilous journey towards freedom. Solidarity, then, “was less an achieved state than a continual terrified request: Can you help me? Do you know the way? Will you share what you have? Will you risk your life to save mine? Many were the individuals whose supplications were unsuccessful.” (215)

Johnson offers an alternative to presenting “power” in opposition to “agency,” “as if an increment added to the first ... forced an equal and opposite diminution of the latter.”

Instead of this “fashionable” approach, Dark Dreams suggests that we consider how the terms of enslavement structured and determined the forms of resistance that were possible and necessary: “[t]heir love took the form of sharing food because those with whom they shared were starving; they succored the wounded because the wounded had been beaten; they sheltered the escaped because the escaped had run away; they talked about the departed because the departed had been sold.” (217)

Forgotten Road to Civil War

The expansion of the cotton economy produced several tensions within the social order. The increase in the price of slaves pushed slave-ownership out of reach for a growing segment of the white population, undermining their support for slavery. At the same time, the internal slave trade was draining the Upper South of its enslaved population, causing concern that the region would turn towards wage labor.

Worst of all, the region was entirely dependent on the North – for credit, for transportation, marketing, and food imports. The South seemed to be falling behind even as it expanded prodigiously.

In response to these tensions planters in the Cotton Kingdom presented various schemes for industrial development, for regional self-sufficiency, and to make the Mississippi Valley (rather than New York) the center of a hemispheric empire. Deep South planters launched numerous attacks on Spanish Cuba, seeing the island as a natural extension of the Mississippi Valley.

In 1856 fifty-seven mercenaries took control of Nicaragua and instated William Walker as “President.” Planters hoped to open Nicaragua to settlement and relieve the pressures of the growing poor white population while also building a new connection to the Pacific. Lastly, Deep South planters sought to increase the supply of labor by building a movement to reopen the Atlantic slave trade. (Though Johnson does not mention it, Du Bois found that the illicit Atlantic trade expanded so rapidly in the 1850s that “the movement may almost be termed a reopening of the [Atlantic] slave-trade.” (9))

Historians of the Civil War, Johnson argues, have focused on the Missouri Compromise and the battle for Kansas at the expense of the issues that figured far more centrally in the minds and actions of those involved. It was, after all, the issue of the Atlantic slave trade that “effectively demolished the Democratic Party” and “ensured the election of Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of the slaveholding states ...” The Deep South states walked out of their party’s 1860 convention when it refused to include a statement demanding the Atlantic trade be reopened.

In short, Johnson stresses that the standard narrative “projects a definition of spaces which resulted from the Civil War ... backward onto its narrative of the description of the conflict over slavery before the war.”

A short review such as this can hardly do justice to a book of such scope as Dark Dreams. While one reviewer has written that questions of gender and male-domination are somewhat underdeveloped in the book (10), even in respect to those questions Johnson’s book is not without its contributions.

As a whole, this is a highly provocative, original and often compelling history of the Cotton Kingdom. Yet Dark Dreams – centered as it is on torture and execution, incarceration, crisis-ridden capitalism, free trade doctrines, imperialist war, and ecological destruction – also offers an implicit but unshakable commentary on the continuity of the past with the nightmare of our society’s present condition.


  1. See Roundtable Review, Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams. The Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, June 2013:; Dr Erik Mathisen, “review of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, (review no. 1496):; James M. Shinn, Jr.,River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, Slavery and Abolition: Journal of Slave and Post-Slave Studies, Vol. 35 (1), 2014: 187–188.
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  2. Eugene Genovese, Political Economy of Slavery, New York: Vintage Books, 1967 and Roll, Jordan, Roll: the World the Slaves Made, New York: Vintage Books, 1976.
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  3. In this sense Johnson’s work is comparable to William Dusinberre’s Them Dark Days: Slavery in the American Rice Swamps, Athens and London: University of Georgia Press, 2000.
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  4. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume One, Edited by Fredrick Engels. New York: International Publishers Co., 1967: 226.
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  5. Gabriel Winant, Slave Capitalism, N + 1, 26 August 2013.
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  6. Genovese 1967; Charles Post, The American Road to Capitalism, Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2012.
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  7. Samir Amin, Accumulation on a World Scale. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1978.
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  8. Patterson, Orlando, Slavery and Social Death, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
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  9. Du Bois, W.E.B., The Suppression of the Slave Trade to the United States of America, 1683–1870, New York and Bombay: Longman’s, Green, and Co., 1896: 178.
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  10. Joseph M. Adelman, A View From Beyond the Valley in Junto: A Group Blog on Early American History, 6 June 2013:
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ATC 170, May/June 2014