Water and Soil, Grain and Flesh

Water and Soil, Grain and Flesh

Walter Johnson reconsiders the connection between slavery and capitalism.


For decades, historians have been attacking the shopworn idea of Northern industrialists as the dominant figures of American capitalism in the first half of the nineteenth century. Resting on a rich array of misconceptions and a few outright lies, this idea has withstood even the most severe factual challenges because, as an explanation for the Civil War, it has been useful no matter how the war is remembered. It has licensed romantic interpretations of the War of the Rebellion, the War Between the States and even the War of Northern Aggression. One could assign all kinds of political faults to the antagonists but still commemorate the fratricidal tragedy of Billy Yank and Johnny Reb because the notion of an industrial North dragging an agrarian South into the capitalist future offered magically offsetting historical alibis. By divorcing the North from slavery and the South from capitalism, it ennobled all of the white men involved.

On the Southern side, the stereotype has permitted a misinterpretation of the war’s economic circumstances and consequences. After the war, and largely because of it, the South was the poorest region of the United States. Even today, the states that had very large slave populations in 1860 tend to have low per capita incomes, with Mississippi perennially at the bottom. If, however, wealth is assessed the way most white people calculated it at the time—by counting enslaved African-Americans as valuable property rather than as victims of the desperate poverty that slaveholders imposed on them—the South was the nation’s wealthiest region before the Civil War. Two-thirds of all Americans who owned estates worth more than $100,000 lived in the South in 1860; Mississippi and Louisiana boasted more millionaires per capita than Massachusetts and New York; and more capital was invested in enslaved African-Americans than in railroad and industrial assets combined.

But the Southern slaveholders were more than just rich. As the Harvard historian Walter Johnson explains in his bracing new history of slavery and capitalism in the Deep South, River of Dark Dreams, the slaveholders were the quintessential American capitalists. They were early adopters of technology, avid consumers of financial data, expert manipulators of legal arcana and aggressive speculators in everything, including not only human chattel and cotton but also unstable paper money and exotic credit arrangements. Above all, the slaveholders of the Cotton Kingdom were rapacious—and highly effective—
masters of the essential capitalist process of converting labor into commodities. The whole point of plantation slavery, Johnson explains, was this chain of capitalist mutations: from “lashes into labor into bales into dollars into pounds sterling.”

Much of the North’s wealth also depended on the exploitation of slave labor, even though the Northern states abolished slavery within their boundaries in the decades after the American Revolution. Many of the early Northern factories turned Southern cotton into cheap textiles, which were then sold to the slaveholders as low-grade “negro cloth.” But the factories were not the big story, since they remained relatively small in this period. Most Northerners were farmers rather than industrialists or industrial workers. The serious profits were made in commerce, especially shipping, financing and insuring the cotton that accounted for roughly half the value of all US exports from 1820 to 1860. Southern cotton, even more than the grain hauled through the Great Lakes and Erie Canal, fed the rise of New York to commercial eminence.

The slave-labor economy of the Mississippi Valley endowed the masters at the top of its pyramid with fabulous wealth and a profoundly exaggerated sense of their power in the world. Because the American South supplied 80 percent of the world’s cotton, the planters believed that the world economy depended on them instead of the other way around. They thought riches and ruin were theirs to mete out, not only to the American North but also to the major European powers. They were wrong. When they acted on their imperial fantasies by engaging the North in the Civil War, they lost their wealth, their slaves and their market power, as their erstwhile customers turned to competing cotton suppliers in Egypt and India.

But the imperial fantasies that interest Johnson had nothing to do with the North. On the contrary, he urges us to stop thinking of the antebellum South with reference to the Civil War—as we do when we call it “the South” and labeling the period “antebellum.” This way of thinking, he argues, blinds us to the spectacle of what actually happened in the Cotton Kingdom. Freeing ourselves from the “anachronistic spatial frames and teleological narratives” imposed by the Civil War enables us to see that for the Mississippi Valley slaveholders, Cuba felt closer to home than Virginia, and Nicaraguan political conflicts were more relevant than “Bleeding Kansas.” On what we know to be the eve of their destruction, the states of the Cotton Kingdom were contemplating a magnificent destiny—or, in Johnson’s words, a “millennial vision of a pro-slavery future.”

* * *

Johnson’s first book, the brilliant and beautiful Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999), established him as a leading scholar in what has long been the deepest talent pool in the field of American history. In Soul by Soul, he used a detailed and often downright lyrical description of the domestic slave trade to slice through analytical tangles and reach the capitalist essence of slavery: the definition of a slave as a “person with a price.”

The domestic slave trade, a massive and hideous business centered in New Orleans, may have sold as many as 1 million African-Americans “down the river” from the declining tobacco lands of Maryland and Virginia into the rapidly expanding cotton fields of the Deep South. The domestic trade replaced the African slave trade in the United States after the nation closed its ports to further “importations” in 1808. To study this traffic, Johnson examined the records of slave-trading firms and a fascinating batch of Louisiana court documents related to state laws granting slave buyers warrantees for “defects”—from undisclosed health problems to rebellious attitudes and inclinations toward escape. The testimony in these warranty cases disclosed the complicated strategic behaviors of the buyers, sellers, traders and slaves who met on the roads and in the pens (jails) and showrooms of the slave market. In his analysis, Johnson also relied heavily on the narratives of former slaves: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Solomon Northup and many of their less famous comrades.

Historians had long worried about the reliability of these narratives. Since most were written and published for the explicit purpose of rallying anti-slavery opinion, wouldn’t one expect their authors to exaggerate the violence and other horrors of slavery? Johnson’s master stroke in Soul by Soul was to use these texts for a different purpose: to show the centrality of the slave market—with its sales, threats of sale and accompanying degradation—to the way 
African-Americans understood the economic, cultural and political meanings of slavery. Armed with these narratives and court cases, Johnson described the boundless creativity with which slaves manipulated the market (such as by encouraging sales to buyers from whom it would be relatively easy to escape). Most of all, Johnson rendered the slaves’ interpretations of these experiences as theory and critique—and not just any theory and critique. At the very time that, in Europe, Marx and Engels were developing their analysis of capitalism as the commodification of human labor, the slaves were reaching the same conclusion. The implication was revelatory: the American workers with the most advanced understanding of the alienation and commodification of capitalist exploitation were not the white wage earners of Northern factory towns but the enslaved African-Americans of Southern plantations.

River of Dark Dreams is Johnson’s second book, and it casts his insight about slavery-as-capitalism onto a broader canvas: the history of the Mississippi Valley and its political economy in the first half of the nineteenth century. Johnson, of course, is hardly the first historian to think about slavery in the context of capitalism. Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery (1944), explored the role of West Indian sugar plantations in accumulating capital to finance early industrial ventures in Britain. Sidney Mintz, in Sweetness and Power (1986), took Williams’s analysis a step further by following the sugar grown in the West Indies to England, where it was manufactured into the cheap calories that industrial workers consumed to survive on their pitifully low wages. But Johnson moves in another direction. The relationship between slavery and capitalism, he insists, does not depend on any connection between American slavery and European (or American) industry. On the contrary, plantation slavery was capitalism. To define slavery as capitalism only to the extent that it resembled or supported the more canonical example of industrial wage labor is to fall into “prefabricated questions and threadbare tautologies.” Thinking of slavery apart from wage labor, like thinking of the Mississippi Valley apart from the Upper South or the United States, exposes the materiality of that particular version of a capitalist economy, along with its allied institutions, behaviors and ideologies.

* * *

If all we mean by “capitalism” is exploitation for profit, then Kenneth Stampp’s The Peculiar Institution (1956) might have put an end to the discussion by demonstrating the profit-driven exploitation and cruelty of slavery. Johnson, however, has more in mind. Before turning directly to the production of cotton on plantations, he describes the violence of territorial conquest, the savagery of white responses to real and imagined slave revolts, and the ecological destruction of turning diverse natural landscapes into grids of cotton fields. Johnson then devotes three fascinating chapters to the world of the steamboats that plied the Mississippi River. The steamboat discussion begins with a genre of booster literature that Johnson calls the “steamboat sublime.” In these writings, “the commercial geography of the valley was rescaled in the key of awe.” The river, the boats, the fertile land, the exotic racial and linguistic diversity, the palpable threat of apocalyptic slave revolts, and the mud-caked elegance of commercial New Orleans (the world’s fourth-busiest port in the 1840s)—all contributed to “the promethean grandeur of the river world,” which seemed to astound even the alligators in the stream.

The steamboat economy of the Lower Mississippi, immortalized for modern readers in Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man (1857), was the domain of gamblers, hustlers, planters, thieves, slaves and free people of color, plus slaves who claimed to be free and people of color passing as white. There were ladies and gentlemen (or people claiming to be such) in the cabins and riffraff on the open decks. It was exciting and dangerous. Pilots raced, engines exploded and boats ran aground. Because profit margins were slim, boat owners skimped on expenses by installing inferior engines and pressuring crews to stretch their capacities. In 1852, the federal government stepped in to regulate this chaos by passing the Steamboat Act, which established licensing and inspection and mandated lifeboats, fire pumps and life preservers. But the basic problem on the Mississippi River remained: “too many boats making too many runs competing for too little business on too little water.”

Once Johnson leaves the river for the plantations, he describes the horrifying daily violence inflicted on slaves—over and over, and in prose intended to shock, as if readers might fail to appreciate the fundamental evil of slavery. Extensive discussions of torture define “the human condition of owning” as “the condition of gazing, claiming, supervising, delighting, penetrating, climaxing, and maiming at will.” Planters starved their slaves, used food to control them, and then gloated about the results in rhetoric that “processed starvation into racism.” They raped women to “convert their own semen into capital,” but such “forcible genital penetration of enslaved women by white men” was only part of their perverse sexual violence, which included stealing the milk of lactating women by forcing them to nurse “children too young to know that they owned the breast from which they hungrily sucked,” and dressing children in cheap shifts that exposed “their buttocks and genitals—their penises, their pudenda.” In Mississippi, whites considered slaves confessing to crimes under gruesome torture to be such a normal fact of life that “it became a settled principle of law that…slaveholders could make slaves say whatever they wanted.”

Johnson also insists that the terms “inhuman” and “dehumanizing” should not be used to describe slavery, in part because their use can mask the actual humanity of the slaves. “We cannot any more separate slaves’ labor from their humanity than we can separate the ability of a human hand to pick cotton from its ability to caress the cheek of a crying child, the aching of a stooped back in the field from the arc of a body bent in supplication, the voice that called time for the hoes from that which told a story that was centuries old.” But there is also a separate issue. The oppression of slavery depended on slaveholders recognizing the fundamental humanity of their “property.” Not only did they rely on their slaves to perform all kinds of irreducibly human tasks, but “the satisfaction that they got from violence…depended on the fact that their victims were human beings capable of registering slaveholding power in their pain, terror, grief, submission, and even resistance.” Johnson then makes a puzzling suggestion: instead of thinking of slavery as dehumanizing, we should think of it as “a concerted effort to dishumanize enslaved people.”

Johnson goes on like this, noting how the slaveholders bent even the landscape to their violent will. Fruit trees might signify agricultural diversification, but they also yielded the switches that, as an ex-slave narrator recalled, “cracked the skin so that the blood oozed out.” Slaves trying to escape measured distances “not simply in miles, but also in suffering: in wounding and exposure, in the fearful nausea of a human being hunted like an animal, the mind-shattering loneliness of a person starving to death somewhere on an unknown map.” Slaveholders created a “carceral landscape” and “visuality of mastery” that frustrated slaves’ efforts to flee, permanently or merely for a few stolen hours, by withholding shoes, coats and blankets; by preventing slaves from learning how to read or swim; and also by clearing forests, riding horses and deploying “weaponized dogs.” Material and spatial as much as economic and legal, the Cotton Kingdom “was built out of sun, water, and soil; animal energy, human labor, and mother wit; grain, flesh, and cotton; pain, hunger, and fatigue; blood, milk, semen, and shit.”

* * *

As powerful as the Mississippi Valley slaveholders were, they were haunted by the recurrent nightmare of a revolutionary slave revolt like the one that had established an independent black republic in Haiti. By the 1850s, with slavery also abolished in Barbados and Jamaica, not to mention the Northern United States, slaveholders saw imperial expansion and the forging of closer links to the slave societies of Cuba and Brazil as a way to fortify slavery in the Americas under their leadership. Their successes at home, meanwhile, had created another problem. High slave prices, spiraling beyond the reach of young white men who had not been lucky enough to inherit slaves, threatened to spark dangerous class conflicts within the ruling race. For some, the fantasy of empire was merely a show of bravado, but for many it bespoke real confidence in an expansive future. The Gulf of Mexico would replace the Mediterranean, declared 
DeBow’s Review, the voice of the Cotton Kingdom. New Orleans was Alexandria, and Havana could be “the Constantinople of our empire” if Cuba could be wrested from Spain. Nicaragua promised a new frontier of opportunity for would-be slaveholders if Americans could take possession. And the threat of class conflict could be kept in check indefinitely if planters liberated themselves from Maryland and Virginia by resuming direct importations from Africa, thereby lowering slave prices.

When Johnson turns to describing the “imperial” projects of the cotton planters, he mixes scenes of intense violence with jocular stories about con artists and fools in the business of “filibustering,” a term that referred to unauthorized warfare waged by private armies rather than obstructionist speeches. We follow Narciso López to his inevitable doom in Cuba, in an invasion widely publicized in advance to raise money and men, and filled with false hopes—such as an army of Cuban rebels awaiting his leadership. Then there was William Walker, “a shape-shifter who had been a doctor in Nashville, a newspaper editor in New Orleans, a lawyer in San Francisco, a filibuster in Sonora” and, incredibly, a former president in Nicaragua. American railroad interests were attracted to Nicaragua for a route to the Pacific, a canal like the one that later would be dug in Panama. Walker, who recruited followers “with the insistent consciousness-raising of a late-night infomercial,” presented a different vision, offering disappointed white men land and slaves on a new frontier, until he was finally undone “by a private army paid for by Cornelius Vanderbilt, captained by a British mercenary, and fighting under the flag of Costa Rica.”

These imperial ventures failed ignominiously, but they made sense as expansions of the same type of process that had built the Mississippi Valley. And establishing the success of that capitalist conquest is the overarching point of River of Dark Dreams. Its wrenching detail supports Johnson’s description of a Cotton Kingdom resting on “the gradual process by which human life was turned to cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” It is no accident that this formulation evokes a more traditional analysis of capitalism. In Capital, Marx relies on similarly thick description to portray production as the consumption of human life: “Capital is dead labour which, vampire-like, lives only by sucking living labour.” A working day stretching into the night “only slightly quenches the vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.” Mill owners were “spinning silk for 10 hours a day out of the blood of little children.”

Johnson argues that “there was no 
nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery,” but the reverse is equally true: there was no nineteenth-century slavery without capitalism. The “ruling trinomial” at the heart of the Cotton Kingdom’s murderous project—bales per acre per hand—might have been extracted in another way. But it was actually extracted by slavery.

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