From the Wall Street Journal Bookshelf, "When the South Was Flat: The brutal "slave-ocracy" along the Mississippi was far more integrated with the global economy than is often suggested," by Mark M. Smith, on 22 February 2013 -- Observers today speak breathlessly about the global economy and the flatness of the world's financial system as if those were recent trends. Such observations are at least a couple of centuries too late.
In the decades leading up to the American Civil War, the Mississippi Valley grew increasingly flat, physically as well as financially. Slaves there cut down a lot of trees. "Whole forests were literally dragged out by the roots," recalled one bondman. In the process of this radical deforestation, slaveholders literally flattened their world and, in a practical sense, accelerated a process of cotton production and capital accumulation that thoroughly embedded them in the transatlantic economy. The arduous work that slaves performed on the region's plantations, the cotton they grew and the capital they helped planters generate were intimately connected to the cotton traders (called "factors") in New Orleans, the merchant houses of New York and Liverpool, and the textile mills of Britain. As the planters surveyed their world from the banks of the mighty Mississippi, they understood fully their place in this Atlantic arc and began to dream of new connections, especially with Cuba and Nicaragua, links they hoped would secure the future of their slaveholding society.
River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom; By Walter Johnson
It was not supposed to happen this way. The Louisiana Purchase, all 828,000 square miles of it acquired in 1803 for a piddling $15 million, was supposed to protect and project liberty. Thomas Jefferson envisioned an empire populated with self-sufficient, non-commercial white men. In their stead, as Walter Johnson, a professor of history at Harvard University, shows in "River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom," came an exceptionally rapacious slaveocracy, which dominated the region's political economy and subordinated freedom to the irresistible imperatives of a robust, thriving and relentlessly exploitative system.
The Mississippi Valley (which runs through parts of Louisiana, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri) emerged, Mr. Johnson writes, as the "credit-importing, cotton-exporting leading edge of the global economy of the nineteenth century." A rabidly speculative spirit drove the process, and the flush times of the 1830s gave rise to booms in the region's powerful economic triptych: cotton, land and slaves. Into this maelstrom of unabashed acquisitiveness stepped the speculators: the land grabbers, the merchants, the slave traders. Riverboat operators also figured prominently, with steamboats able to move considerable freight upriver, melting away barriers of time and space. By the eve of the Civil War, steamboats carried over $200 million of trade, mainly in cotton, and were a leading sector in the region's economy.
In Mr. Johnson's telling, the antebellum Mississippi Valley is an unexpectedly modern place, more technologically advanced than the mills of Massachusetts or Manchester and certainly just as connected to and driven by the dictates of the world economy. The technology powering steamboats, for example, was new, designed to overcome the river's mighty flow, pushing goods and people upstream at an impressive if not always safe speed. The textile mills of the North and Britain, by contrast, still relied on an ancient, riparian technology, one hostage to the force of gravity. As Mr. Johnson notes: "A mere handful of the steamboats docked along the levee in New Orleans on any given day could have run the entire factory at Lowell."
A great deal of the capital underwriting this technology came directly from the North and Britain. New Orleans bankers managed the circulation of Northern and British capital in the region. With that capital, planters bought slaves, the human capital to cultivate cotton. The slave traders—there were as many as 20 establishments in New Orleans in the antebellum period whose sole business was the buying and selling of bondpeople—thus completed the dismal if highly profitable circuit in capital and labor.
The forces underwriting the region's feverish economic development were also making it a place where uncertainty prevailed. Numerous slaves in the Mississippi Valley were engaged in fomenting insurrection—hundreds of them, armed with axes and shovels, marched on New Orleans in 1811—or resisting the exploitation of their labor by running away or by taking from their masters the food and drink usually denied them. Paper currency could not always be trusted (it was frequently unbacked, and bills of exchange were often far removed from the original issuer). Steamboat travel was highly dangerous, and on land or river, no one was entirely sure of the true character or, indeed, the race of those they encountered in this booming region (was that a light-skinned slave or a free white man?). There was an imprecise, speculative air. But things got done, impressively if sordidly. By 1840, Mr. Johnson writes, there were "more millionaires per capita in the Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States."
Mr. Johnson's appreciation of the global and imperial aspirations of Mississippi Valley slaveholders helps us to make sense of the events leading up to the Civil War. These "full-throttle capitalists" were filled with expansionist zeal. Valley planters and politicians made dedicated efforts to overthrow Cuba's Spanish colonial government in the 1850s. They feared what might happen if the anti-slavery British gained control of Cuba. Emancipation there might inspire slave insurrections and even race wars in their own part of the world. More optimistically, they thought Cuba could be the key to further economic success, valley-style. "It is sufficient to look over the extensive valley of the Mississippi," wrote one supporter of annexation, "to understand that the natural direction of its growth, the point of connection of its prodigious European commerce and of its rational defense, is Cuba." So, too, with Nicaragua. If Cuba functioned as the imperial slaveholders' transatlantic connection, Nicaragua, at least in the conviction of William Walker (who invaded the country in 1855, proclaimed himself president and promptly reinstituted slavery), represented the slaveholders' ambitions to link to the Pacific. (Walker was overthrown by local troops and shot in Honduras in 1860 after another attempt to establish a colony.)
Louisiana and Mississippi slaveholders were keen to reopen the African slave trade in the late 1850s, which, the thinking went, would allow more whites to own slaves and dilute the tensions from an emerging class of slaveless whites. (As slave prices spiked in the late antebellum period, fewer whites were able to move into the ranks of the small slaveholding class.) For the slaveholders and merchants of New Orleans and the Mississippi Valley, "the issues of Nicaragua and the Atlantic slave trade were more important than the question of Kansas (dismissed by many as a fight over a place where no real slaveholder would ever want to live anyway) and more important than what was happening in Congress."
The valley slaveholders do not fit the standard narrative of the coming of the Civil War, which tends to stress the centrality of expansion into western lands. Their sense of liberty was rooted less in expansion westward to places that seemed unlikely to support cotton culture and far more in efforts to repopulate the South with fresh slaves and to acquire territory outside of the United States where slavery would be more secure.
In this depiction, the coming of the Civil War assumes more of a regional flavor and less of a sectional one. Different imperatives operated in different regions of the South. Exporters of slaves in the upper South (roughly a million people were sold "down river" between 1820 and 1860) were reluctant to reopen the slave trade. Their overriding concern was maintaining their role as the South's exporter of slaves and, by extension, their own economic well-being. "Open the Slave Trade and what will our Negroes be worth?" asked one Virginia editor nervously.
Yet it is important to remember that Mr. Johnson is describing what did not happen rather than what did—what he calls "the history of alternative visions." The slave trade was not reopened, and expeditions in the Caribbean were largely bungled affairs involving relatively few people—more than half of whom, in the case of Walker's Nicaraguan adventure, were not from the valley or the South at all but were, rather, Northern adventurers. The fact that this particular vision of a pro-slavery future never came to pass only emphasizes that these same slaveholders did eventually secede and fight in a war, even if it was for what Mr. Johnson calls "a sort of lowest common dominator," a "politics of negation—of seceding from."
And more than the politics of negation may have linked the Mississippi Valley slaveholders with others elsewhere in the South. Pro-slavery political economists (whom Mr. Johnson examines in detail) were harsh critics of free wage labor and liberal capitalism, but so were the influential pro-slavery divines and theologians (whom Mr. Johnson slights). They saw liberal capitalism as a profound threat to the social hierarchy, which was rooted in self-serving claims about paternalism, the enduring value and desirability of organic social and economic relations, and the intimate connection between slaveholding society writ large and the integrity of individual, patriarchal white households. The arguments developed and circulated by the pro-slavery theologians resonated with slaveholders and non-slaveholders throughout the South.
Recognizing such features of Southern society, as well as acknowledging the tortured way in which paternalism braided together the lives of the enslaved and the enslavers, goes some way toward "unflattening" the world Mr. Johnson describes. Nonetheless, "River of Dark Dreams" is an important, arguably seminal, book. If sometimes dense, it is always trenchant and learned. And in highly compelling fashion, it helps us more fully appreciate how thoroughly the slaveholding South was part of the capitalist transatlantic world of the first half of the 19th century. [source: The Wall Street Journal]