RIVER OF DARK DREAMS by Walter Johnson


Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
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A dense analysis of pre–Civil War Mississippi Valley commerce, culture and society.

In 1803, Thomas Jefferson happily included the Louisiana Purchase in his vision of a future America of self-sufficient, white farmers. He ignored the modest debate over allowing slavery into the territory; his well-publicized objections were purely intellectual. Sadly, Jefferson’s rural Eden never happened, as wealthy slave owners quickly snapped up the best Mississippi Valley land. Mining journals, correspondence, public records and popular literature, Johnson (History and African-American Studies/Harvard Univ.; Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, 2001) reminds us that New Orleans, not Richmond, was the engine of Southern prosperity: its largest city, largest slave market and the center of a booming international trading system. Cotton dominated; nearly 90 percent went to Britain. Johnson describes its biology, cultivation, harvest, sale and transportation via steamboat, a new technological marvel that converted the Mississippi into the world’s busiest river. He emphasizes the dismal story of the slaves who planted, picked, packed and loaded it. Ambitious planters yearned to extend the institution of slavery—not to “bloody Kansas,” where no respectable slave owner wanted to live, but to Cuba and Central America. Many publicly advocated reviving the slave trade.

A scholarly work that will appeal to history buffs who can navigate the often academic prose, economic theory and statistics mixed with fascinating anecdotes, grim accounts of slave life and a convincing argument for plantation slavery’s essential role in the 19th century’s burgeoning industrial capitalism.

Pub Date: Feb. 26th, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-674-04555-2
Page count: 524pp
Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15th, 2012


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