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Book Review


Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013. Pp. 526. Notes and index. $35.00 (cloth).


     Many modern-day apologists for the Confederate States of America hold to the belief, despite considerable evidence, that the Southern states did not secede in order to preserve the institution of slavery. In fact, slavery, they often insist, had been diminishing for some time and was certainly on its way out by the time the "Yankees invaded America." Such an assertion completely flies in the face of not only available historical evidence but also simple logic—for if slavery had truly run its course, then why did it crop up again almost immediately after the closure of the Civil War, most notably in the form of peonage so ably documented by Douglas Blackmon in Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II (2008)? And why is slavery still with us, from the sweatshops of eastern Asia and the underground networks of international sex slavery to the neo-peonage inflicted upon undocumented domestic and agricultural workers here in the United States? By asserting that slavery's days were already numbered, Confederate apologists hope to decouple the institution of slavery from the economic system of capitalism, to represent them as antithetical to each other rather than interdependent.

     Even Walter Johnson admits, about halfway through River of Dark Dreams, that "the experience of slaves in the Mississippi Valley seems far removed—indeed, conceptually antithetical—to the world of 'capitalism'" at first glance, especially capitalism as embodied in northern factories of the era (244). However, such a view frames the political economy of slavery along old sectionalist, North versus South, lines, which overlooks not only the global reach of the cotton trade but also the efforts of many pro-slavery politicians and businessmen to expand the reach of the plantation system beyond the territorial boundaries of the United States by such means as promoting free trade on one end, and launching invasions upon Caribbean and Latin American countries ("filibustering"), on the other. As Johnson writes in his introduction, "the science of political economy, the practicalities of the cotton market, and the exigencies of racial domination entangled with one another—call it 'slave racial capitalism'—as planters and merchants set about trying, first, to reform themselves and, failing that, to remap the course of world history" (14). River of Dark Dreams is the chronicle of this effort.

     Johnson begins with the Louisiana Purchase, recalling how Thomas Jefferson's vision of turning the Mississippi Valley into a home for yeoman farmers was undermined by rampant land speculation and the removal to the region of thousands upon thousands of slaves whose labor would make the Mississippi Valley the nation's Cotton Kingdom. Johnson populates his book with more than just the rich, white planters—for here are slave stealers such as John Murrell, who "twisted the contradiction of human property—the governing fiction of the slaveholding South—into subversion" (66); riverboat captains—capitalists in their own rights—whose sublime (and often jerry-rigged) steamboats became "a sort of alibi for imperialism and dispossession," taking "expropriation and extermination and renaming them 'time' and 'technology'" (76); and gamblers such as George Devol, engaging in cons that were wholly symptomatic of the speculative fever of the age. One of the poles around which this story revolves is the region's slaves, whose sufferings come to light like never before, for the author does fantastic work in uncovering the full significance of certain facts: for example, the cotton monoculture not only resulted in the Mississippi Valley importing much of its food from the Midwest, but cotton fields produced clear lines of sight that made it that much harder for slaves to escape and left them without food crops to aid their journey northward. Along the way, Johnson takes the opportunity to deconstruct some of the historiography of slavery. For instance, he observes that the word "paternalism" so often used to describe the cultivation of slaves' relative wellbeing "seems a patent fraud" unless used to describe a "father-ist imposture by which the children born of one man and one woman came to be understood as the property of others" (194). Too, regarding slave owners' brutal treatment of their human property, he argues that "[i]magining that perpetrators must 'dehumanize' their victims in order to justify their actions, inserting a normative version of 'humanity' into a conversation about the justification of historical violence, lets them—and us—off the hook. History suggests again and again that this is how human beings treat one another" (207).

     Probably of greatest interest to world historians will be the latter half of this book, which illustrates the myriad ways in which Mississippi Valley planters and politicians sought to engage the larger world. Even before the acquisition of Louisiana, the Mississippi Valley was already tied up in an internationalist vision, for Napoleon had intended the region to serve as a supply colony for Haiti, which was devoted exclusively to the production of sugar, and the specter of the Haitian Revolution haunted the Americans who later settled the area, for slaves were one capital investment that could not simply be abandoned, like a farm or a factory, lest revolution recur. Johnson emphasizes that the North-South divide was not simply based upon wage versus free labor but also southern ire at their dependence upon northern ports for the shipment of their cotton abroad, that the foundational regional differences "had been reworked by federal regulation of the relationship between economic spaces within the United States and those of the rest of the world" (290). Southerners thus began looking further south, to Cuba and Central America, "to find a revitalizing (spatial) fix for the problems facing an economy that was overinvested in land, slaves, and steamboats" (320). Johnson devotes a chapter each to the privately financed invasions of Cuba and Nicaragua by General Narciso López and William Walker, respectively, observing of the latter that, "in the light of the hemispheric history of the expropriation of native lands, privatization of the land market, and promotion of commercial agriculture for an international market," Walker's invasion and brief rule "was not unlike the capitalist transformation of the Mississippi Valley" (367). The last chapter highlights efforts to reopen the slave trade and the contradictions wrought by the capitalist trade in human souls: the desire to lower the price of slaves to allow more whites to enter the slave-owning class, and thus paint over any inter-class antagonism, as opposed by the desire of many slave traders to keep high prices and profit margins.

     In closing, Johnson writes that "the victory of the United States of America over the Confederate States of America began the reconstruction of the history of the Civil War as a national story, one whose temporal and spatial parameters were contained within the limits of the United States" (420). The reality as so masterfully explicated by River of Dark Dreams, however, is that the exponents of "slave racial capitalism" possessed an international perspective, not only knowing that most of their cotton was destined for the United Kingdom, but also seeking to challenge world powers such as the Spanish empire for space into which they could expand their peculiar and profitable institution. This book is no simple regional history—instead, it does for the Mississippi Valley what William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (1991) did for the city of Chicago, showing how the capitalist system tied what was for so long the western borderlands of the United States to the rest of the nation and the world through lines of commerce, as well as how the capitalist demand for growth (paired with planters' inability to simply abandon slaves) impelled many southerners to create new outlets for plantation slavery. Magisterial in style and scope, River of Dark Dreams will most certainly change how slavery in the United States is understood and studied.

Guy Lancaster is the editor of the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture ( He holds a Ph.D. in Heritage Studies from Arkansas State University and has published numerous academic articles and book reviews on the intersection of race, class, and violence. You may contact him at


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