@Book{ johnson2013,
	author = {Walter Johnson},
	title = {River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom},
	address = {Cambridge, Mass.},
	publisher = {Harvard University Press},
	year = 2013,

Some very preliminary thoughts/questions after an initial read done earlier in fall 2013 semester.

  1. Johnson showing how slaveholders could be both incredibly confident/aggressive and incredibly fearful/paranoid. Rather than being mutually exclusive, these things were deeply related; they were aggressive because they were afraid. Their proslavery imperial ventures were driven by a sense of the “limits” (material, territorial, environmental, economic, human) of the cotton/steamboat empire. “They displaced their fear of their slaves into aggression on a global scale” (14). This is one of the senses in which their “dreams” were “dark”: visions of destiny and progress driven by dark thoughts about slave insurrection, economic panic, regional collapse.1
  2. Need to think more about what Johnson means by “slave racial capitalism” (14) but a useful question to ask of the book is, how did this actually-existing form of capitalism in the nineteenth-century South (10) differ from “capitalism” in general or in the abstract. One key difference that might be related to my work on wartime refugees is that in times of crisis, the “capital” at the heart of “slave racial capitalism” could not “easily shift its shape. While individual slaveholders might liquidate their holdings in response to bad times, slaveholders as a class could not simply transfer their investment from one form of capital to another, cutting their losses and channeling their money into the Next Big Thing” (13).
  3. Johnson, pushing back against Fogel and Engerman, depicts slaves as severely malnourished as a rule; food was used as an instrument to coerce labor (179), though Phil Morgan isn’t sure malnutrition has really been demonstrated.
  4. Need to think more about how, or whether, Johnson’s book revises the “coming of the Civil War” narrative.
  5. Makes a distinction between slavery as an attempt to “dehumanize” people versus an attempt to “dishumanize” people, by which he means (I think) greater attention to slaveholders’ full cognizance of “slaves’ humanity—indeed, they were completely dependent upon it. But they continually attempted to conscript—simplify, channel, limit, and control—the forms that humanity could take in slavery” (207-208).
  6. In endnotes, Johnson identifies this work as part of a broader “materialist turn in the study of slavery” (473n22), which he also associates with the work of Stephanie Camp, Anthony Kaye, and Vincent Brown. Sometimes by this he seems to mean “a focus on what happened, rather than on how what happened was different from what should have happened” (254), but at other times he seems to mean, by “materialist turn,” his earlier call for study of “the condition of enslaved humanity” in his “On Agency” article:

The lives of enslaved people were limited, shaped, even determined by their enslavement—bales per acre per slave, pounds per day, lashes and rations, field and woods, solidarity and betrayal: these were the circumstances in which slaves made history. Their love took the form of sharing food because those with whom they shared were starving; they succored the wounded because the wounded had been beaten; they sheltered the escaped because the escaped had run away; they talked about the departed because the departed had been sold. These specific forms (and others like them) were hosts of the slaves’ ethic of care, which was neither separable from their enslavement nor reducible to it. … Even as their enslavement provided the circumstances of their actions, it occasioned the expression and reproduction of ethics of care and practices of solidarity that transcended and actively reshaped their enslavement (217).

More quotes

p. 2:

… the great city of New Orleans: the commercial emporium of the Midwest, the principal channel through which Southern cotton flowed to the global economy and foreign capital came into the United States, the largest slave market in North America, and the central artery of the continent’s white overseers’ flirtation with the perverse attractions of global racial domination.

p. 12:

It is easy to see in retrospect that overinvestment in slaves, overproduction of cotton, and overreliance on credit made Valley planters vulnerable to precisely the sort of crisis they experienced during the Depression of 1837. Cotton planting was extraordinarily capital intensive, and most of planters’ money was tied up in land and slaves. For the money they needed to get through the year—for liquidity—they relied on credit. And to get credit, they had to plant cotton. Their situation—the fact that they were “overaccumulated” in a single sector of the economy—was expressed in the antebellum commonplace repeated to the Northern traveler Edward Russell as he made his way up the Red River in 1854. Planters, a man told Russell, “care for nothing but to buy Negroes to plant cotton & raise cotton to buy Negroes.”

  1. But Matt Karp rightly raises some questions about this view of proslavery imperialism as produced primarily by regional anxieties. Maya Jasanoff also says Johnson could elaborate on the theme of how continental empire was connected to overseas empire.