River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom
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When Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territory, he envisioned an “empire for liberty” populated by self-sufficient white farmers. Cleared of Native Americans and the remnants of European empires by Andrew Jackson, the Mississippi Valley was transformed instead into a booming capitalist economy commanded by wealthy planters, powered by steam engines, and dependent on the coerced labor of slaves. River of Dark Dreams places the Cotton Kingdom at the center of worldwide webs of exchange and exploitation that extended across oceans and drove an insatiable hunger for new lands. This bold reaccounting dramatically alters our understanding of American slavery and its role in U.S. expansionism, global capitalism, and the upcoming Civil War.
Walter Johnson deftly traces the connections between the planters’ pro-slavery ideology, Atlantic commodity markets, and Southern schemes for global ascendency. Using slave narratives, popular literature, legal records, and personal correspondence, he recreates the harrowing details of daily life under cotton’s dark dominion. We meet the confidence men and gamblers who made the Valley shimmer with promise, the slave dealers, steamboat captains, and merchants who supplied the markets, the planters who wrung their civilization out of the minds and bodies of their human property, and the true believers who threatened the Union by trying to expand the Cotton Kingdom on a global scale.
But at the center of the story Johnson tells are the enslaved people who pulled down the forests, planted the fields, picked the cotton—who labored, suffered, and resisted on the dark underside of the American dream.
circulated scale drawings, shared tables that calibrated cargo weight to displacement ratios, and presented their latest calculations of the per-Â�square-Â�inch thermodynamic pressure necessary to drive a 300-Â�ton steamboat upward against 650 cubic feet of water flowing downstream at three miles per hour. Indeed, there were no such drawings, tables, or calculations at all.59 Mississippi River steamboats were designed according to rules of thumb, rather than the laws of physics. That is,
shown and concealed cards. Betting was framed against the underlying knowledge that there were only fifty-Â�two cards in the deck—that there was a limited set of given facts as yet unrevealed. As the players watched one another play—who bet, who held, who folded, who flinched—they reÂ� fined their estimates of what might be hiding in the cards. To employ the conventional usage: they “navigated” the hand. The cards in a given hand had names. The first card dealt was the “hole” card; the middle
were about 1,100 serious steamboat accidents on the Western rivers; about 5 percent of the tonnage on the Table 2.â•…The recÂ�ord of some famous trips, from Commodore Rollingpin’s Almanac (D., H., and M. stand for Days, Hours, and Minutes). FAST TIME ON THE WESTERN WATERS FROM NEW ORLEANS TO NATCHEZ—268 MILES Run made in Â€ D. H. M. 1814. Orleans 6 6 40 1844. Sultana 1814. Comet 5 10 0 1851. Magnolia 1815. Enterprise 4 11 20 1853. A.Â€L. Shotwell 1817. Washington 4 0 0 1853. Southern Belle
ominous life preservers in our state-Â�rooms), I do not think that it ever occurred to any of our cheerful little party that they ought to be nervous, or that we ever called to mind the perils by which we were surrounded.”30 Cunynghame, with all of his morbid curiosity and his mental catalogue of recent diÂ�sasÂ�ters, was apparently not part of the blithely oblivious party that traveled with Mrs. Houstoun. Reading their accounts side by side, however, one realizes the extent to which steamboat
had been turned inside out. And yet: Robert made them nervous. At first there were rumors, and then jokes. “I heard no complaints made about him being in the cabin,” remembered Rufus Blanchard, “just some jokes passed to the effect that, if he acÂ�tually had African blood, he was a very smart fellow.” Indeed, Blanchard noted, the joke had initially been on him. Hearing a suggestion that “there was a passenger on board who probably had African blood in him, I thereupon asked my informant if it was