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Native Land and African Bodies, the Source of U.S. Capitalism

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz ( was born and grew up in rural Oklahoma. She is author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, and other works on the history of indigenous peoples, along with three books of historical memoir, including Red Dirt: Growing Up Okie.
Walter Johnson, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2013), 560 pages, $35.00, hardback.

Had Marx written Capital in the early twenty-first century, knowing what he could not discern in 1867—that the global dominance of capital, through the military and imperialism, would be realized by the United States—this is the book he may have written using the methodology he developed in the mid-nineteenth century.

What Walter Johnson desires is to change entirely the way we think about the history of the United States, particularly the development of capitalism. He also wants to change how we think about the application of dialectical materialism to the United States. Like Marx, Johnson marshals thick description to disclose the theses that emerge. The book comprises fourteen chapters that are interconnected and follow multiple themes, including critiques of historiography.

The first chapter begins by telling the story of the violent expropriation of the land that the indigenous agriculturalists—the Muskogee, Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations—had farmed for millennia before the arrival of Europeans. Very few historical studies of U.S. slavery even mention the initial expropriation and ethnic cleansing of the territory as Johnson does. Following the 1815 Battle of New Orleans, Johnson writes that Andrew Jackson “spent the next fifteen years—first as a general in the U.S. Army, then as the military governor of Florida, and finally as the president of the United States—supervising the ethnic cleansing and racial pacification of the southeastern United States” (28). The homelands of the Indigenous nations had, through military force, been converted into a vast reserve for the cultivation of whiteness.

With ethnic cleansing complete, slaveholders—with their reserve of capital, enslaved Africans—transformed the Mississippi Valley into the Cotton Kingdom that formed the basis for U.S. capitalism and world trade. “The extension of slavery into the Mississippi Valley gave an institution that was in decline at the end of the eighteenth century new life in the nineteenth. In 1800, there were around 100,000 slaves living within the boundaries of the present-day states of Mississippi and Louisiana; in 1840, there were more than 250,000; in 1860, more than 750,000” (32).

The Haitian Revolution was linked to the development of the Mississippi Valley. In 1809, 10,000 Haitians arrived—although a third of them were free people of color, while the other two-thirds were slaveholders and their human property. Fear of another Haiti, exacerbated by the 1811 slave uprising along the river to New Orleans, brought about full U.S. government complicity and what Johnson calls in Chapter 8 “the carceral landscape.”

In the aftermath of the revolt, those who supported federal governance in the Mississippi Valley emphasized the incompetence of the territorial militia and the indispensable role of the federal forces in their account of the way the rebellion had been suppressed. Thenceforth the privilege of slaveholders (and other whites) in the Mississippi Valley was backed by the power of the U.S. Army. Andrew Jackson’s one-time fear that an invading European army might “excite the Indians to War, the Negroes to insurrection, and then proceed to the Mississippi” was expunged with the bloody federal conquest of all of the above. In the years that followed, the military conquest of the Mississippi Valley was “fulfilled” in the shape of the Cotton Kingdom. Jefferson’s “empire for liberty” was transformed into the credit-importing, cotton-exporting leading edge of the global economy of the nineteenth century. (33–34)

President Andrew Jackson oversaw and personally intervened in the process of selling off the collective Native land base to individual capitalist planters. As mandated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which divided the Ohio country for white settlement, surveyors created imaginary straight lines over mountains, streams, and forests to divide the land into marketable plots. “The surveyors tracked their way across all of the hundreds of millions of acres in the lower Mississippi in the first half of the nineteenth century, laying them out in rectangular grids (still visible from the sky today) of 640-acre sections and then subdividing them into the 160-acre quarter-sections which were the standard unit of sale in Land Office auctions” (35).

This made the Mississippi Valley measurable, governable, and salable, transforming into property—land as the primary commodity, along with enslaved humans—for the accumulation of capital. The land sales gave birth to the first great economic boom in U.S. history up to that point, with capital flowing into the region. “Global capital investment translated into easy money in the Mississippi Valley. Carried along by a floodtide of money, the ’empire for liberty’ was transformed into a frontier of accumulation. The history of the military conquest of the [Indigenous Nations] Mississippi Valley was thus converted into speculative property” (37).

The profits from land sales went to the federal treasury and to speculators, but, as Johnson underscores, “it was the labor of black slaves that made the dream of the speculators into the material reality of the Cotton Kingdom.” Although there were already some enslaved Africans in the area before the boom, a domestic slave trade developed, transforming the original Atlantic plantation states into slave exporters. Approximately a million slaves were brought to the Mississippi Valley between 1820 and 1840, some with their migrating masters, but the majority bred for the purpose. Slave traders walked the slaves southward, bound wrist to wrist in a coffle (“chained together in a line”). An industry emerged with firms competing with individual slave traders, maintaining offices with jails, “that could house as many as a hundred slaves at a time, large yards where the human property could be exercised, and showrooms where interested buyers could question and examine the people they hoped to purchase, at both ends of the trade.” Slave traders developed a formal system of grading slaves—”Extra Men, No. 1 Men, Second Rate or Ordinary Men, Extra Girls, No. 1 Girls, Second Rate or Ordinary Girls,” and so on, “which allowed them to abstract the physical differences between all kind of human bodies into a single scale of comparison based on the price they thought a given person would bring in a given market” (41). Johnson reminds us that the so-called “domestic” slave trade was never just that:

the price of Southern cotton that the price of slaves so surely tracked was, as every planter was repeatedly told by every factor, set by the prices that cotton buyers in markets as distant as New York and Liverpool were willing to pay. The value of the ground beneath the feet of the new white inhabitants of the Mississippi Valley, as well as that of the slaves whom they drove westward and then out into the fields every morning, pitched and rolled in response to the rhythm of distant exchanges. (42)

Money and credit were at the center of the trade, producing, with difficulties, the rise of increasingly complex and convenient banking and credit/debt. Human bodies, enslaved individuals, became for the first time fully realized capitalist commodities, as well as being the factor of labor.

In Chapters 2–5, Johnson challenges and debunks the reigning assumption that the northeastern United States was the site of capitalist development. Johnson asserts that capitalism, manifest destiny, and imperialism were born in the Mississippi Valley between 1820 and 1850. Three of these chapters explore steamboat technology and operations that facilitated capitalist production.

The U.S. republic, the capitalist state itself, was from its birth the engine of primitive accumulation in expropriating Native land to sell to entrepreneurs in order to finance the government and its military, which carried out the expulsions and crushed slave resistance. The plantation economy that developed in the Mississippi Valley was fully realized capitalism. The planters’ capital was human, bodies were fungible private property which in total numbers were valued at more than all other private property, machinery, infrastructure, manufacturing, and free labor combined in the then-existing United Sates. Johnson writes:

While 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. Their capital would not simply rust or lie fallow. It would starve. It would steal. It would revolt. Beneath the commitment of the exegetes of slavery to their cause lay fearful visions of any future without it. (13)

The New England textile mills were integrated with and dependent upon plantation economy, using around 15 percent of the Mississippi Valley cotton.

The standard-issue milestones of nineteenth-century U.S. economic history locate the story of leading-sector development in the mills of Massachusetts rather than along the Mississippi. But if one sets aside the threadbare story of “industrialization” for a moment, and thinks instead in the technological terms more familiar to the time, the radical break represented by the steamboats comes into clearer focus. The mills in Lowell used energy according to a formula that was thousands of years old. A mere handful of the steamboats docked along the levee in New Orleans on any given day could have run the entire factory complex at Lowell, which was spread over forty square miles and employed 10,000 people. (6)

However, Britain was at the time the main industrial giant and imperialist power, and its primary industry was fueled by U.S. cotton. Slavery defined the developing capitalism. Most Mississippi Valley cotton went to Liverpool for sale, making up 80 percent of the cotton that British manufacturers imported. “The fortunes of cotton planters in Louisiana and cotton brokers in Liverpool, of the plantations of the Mississippi Valley and the textile mills of Manchester, were tied together through the cotton trade—the largest single sector of the global economy in the first half of the nineteenth century” (10).

Johnson notes that theorists, including Marxists, of U.S. capital accumulation maintain that with the industrial revolution, which they locate in the northeast United States, a proletariat arose. But in this reckoning, the labor relations involved in slavery are dealt with in a separate category. Much of the historical work on slavery has been done through the category of “the South.” Johnson describes this as a “conceptual anachronism,” in that those were the states that comprised the future secessionist Confederacy. Historians project backwards the histories of the territories that secession created and frame the narrative as the history of sectionalism.

What has been of much less concern has been the history of alternative visions of what “the South” might look like if instead of focusing on the sectional divide, one were to turn around and look in the other direction: if instead of looking at what “the South” was leaving and thereby defining “the South” wholly in reference to the politics of secession, one asked where Southerners (and slaveholders in particular) thought they were going and how they thought they could pull it off in the first place. In the invasion of Nicaragua and the reopening of the Atlantic slave trade, Valley extremists (read: a very large proportion of Valley slaveholders) were pursuing goals that had something to do with but were not reducible to secession. (16–17)

Johnson takes ups the question of whether the planters who owned slaves and lived by their labor were capitalists. Some historians argue that capitalism emerged in the seventeenth century with the enclosure of the commons in Europe, separating laborers from the land, leaving them with only their labor power to sell to the emerging factory system of production. With this premise, it is nearly impossible to argue that slaveholders were capitalist, so slavery is categorized as “precapitalist” or “archaic”—inside the emerging world capitalist system but not of it. He identifies other historians who have redefined capitalism as having begun as a global system with primitive accumulation beginning in the fourteenth century, long before the Industrial Revolution. These scholars include slavery as capitalist. “How else to describe the forcible transfer and sale of twelve million Africans to the Americas? How else to account for the emergence of industry in the very region of England which had most directly profited from the slave trade?” (252–53)

Johnson insists that we must begin with the “actual historical fact there was no nineteenth-century capitalism without slavery. However else industrial capitalism might have developed in the absence of slave-produced cotton and Southern capital markets, it did not develop that way” (254).

Extracting the history of industrial development (whether in Great Britain or the Northern United States) from the historical context of its entanglement with slavery, itemizing its differences from the economic field from which it had been artificially separated, labeling it “capitalism” in pure form, and then turning around and comparing it to the slavery on which it subsisted in order to judge the latter “precapitalist” or “noncapitalist”—this way of proceeding conscripts historical analysis to the service of ahistorical ideal types. (254)

Johnson proceeds to describe and analyze every aspect of cotton production and trade in the Mississippi Valley and identify slave owners as capitalists. The rise of capitalism is never a pretty picture in its Dickensonian details, but the hard facts of how capitalism rose in the United States—by 1872, the United States had overtaken Britain as the richest capitalist-state—presents a scenario that is hard to take and reflects on the nature of capitalism itself: “In the antebellum period, the vast majority of collateralized loans in East Feliciana Parish, Louisiana, involved mortgages on human beings,” rendering slaves “the most ‘liquid’ form of capital in the Mississippi Valley” (279).

Chapters 6–11 contain the unrelenting and excruciating evidence of the crime of slavery—the tortures, hunger, animalization, and continual violence against enslaved African Americans. Enslaved people in the Mississippi Valley experienced all the elements of their bondage in the original Atlantic slave states, but magnified exponentially by the domestic slave trade. Millions of enslaved people were sold and force-walked in chains from Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia, the depleted fields of which had been turned into the slave-breeding industry. Slave owners sold the myth, believed by most people today, that their very investment in humans as property meant that the enslaved were well treated­ (except for a few psychotic masters) out of the self-interest of the slaveholder himself in protecting his capital. Indeed, it was claimed that slaves were much better treated than free laborers, who worked under horrible conditions and were not fed, clothed, and housed. In reality, slaves were beaten, tortured, sleep-deprived (Africans were said to require less sleep), and always on the edge of hunger, as they were fed the bare minimum to keep down cost. Sexual violence was pervasive. Johnson details testimonies and records of such treatment in Chapter 6, titled “Dominion,” which is difficult to read, but effective in demolishing the romantic notion of the paternalistic nature of slavery. In this accounting, we see “the outlines of the gradual process by which human life was turned into cotton: the torturous conversion of labor to capital, and of living people to corpses.” In the following chapter, “The Empire of the White Man’s Will,” Johnson details food deprivations: “Malnutrition was visible to the eye. Diets low in calories and especially in protein led to the wasting away of subcutaneous fat, in which the human body stores energy. Planters used food to control their hungry slaves” (179).

Johnson writes: “The history of the enslaved people who toiled in those fields has generally been approached through durable abstractions: ‘the master-slave relationship,’ ‘white supremacy,’ ‘resistance,’ ‘accommodation,’ ‘agency.‘” He observes that in postmodern interpretations, those categories have been abstracted from the actual experiences of enslaved people. “The question of ‘agency’ has often been framed quite abstractly—counterpoised against ‘power’ as if both terms were arrayed at the ends of some sort of sliding scale, an increase in one meaning a corresponding decrease in the other. But ‘agency,’ like ‘power,’ is historically conditioned: it takes specific forms at specific times and places; it is thick with the material givenness of a moment in time. ‘Agency’ is less a simple opposite of ‘power’ than its unfinished relief—a dynamic three-dimensional reflection” (8–9). Johnson contends that in using the term, historians “have sometimes lost sight of the way that agency and resistance were themselves structured by power and exploitation” (214–15).

Therefore, Johnson is cautious about the ubiquitous use of the term “agency” to describe enslaved people’s actions under these conditions. Survival is perhaps a more appropriate term. Johnson points out that the work that slaves did required cooperative practices, an interdependency that generated mutual assistance in survival. Child care was also cooperative, with babies and children too young to be put to work were left in care of minders. “Slave communities were bound together by affective relations that crisscrossed generations and lines of descent.” Johnson concludes, “The material scarcity that people endured under slavery structured both the meaning of these acts of communion and slaves’ ‘agency’ itself” (210–12).

The everlasting hunger experienced by the enslaved, among other factors, limited escape. But escape they did:

There was nothing secret or occult about the fact that enslaved people knew the land in a way that slaveholders did not. Indeed, slaveholders depended on their knowledge—on the ability of their slaves to track cows in the woods, fetch the mail from the post office, carry notes to the neighbors, accompany goods to market, bring cotton to the levee, and make a journey cross-country on foot in the same time that it took a slaveholder to get there on horseback via the road. Enslaved people were thus privy to a landscape only partially accessible to their owners. Pressing down upon their slaves’ threshold of survival, they pushed their people out into the woods to fend for themselves, unwittingly allowing them to acquire the knowledge necessary to more effectively resist and even escape slavery. (229–31)

Johnson describes the Cotton Kingdom as “a landscape being fiercely cleared in a counterinsurgency campaign to which there would be no end.” And here, Johnson conjures “the sickening compass of the historical arc that joins these stories to Abner Louima and Abu Gharib, such accounts of enslaved human beings in extremis have another set of historical traces” (242–43).

In the final three chapters Johnson does something else rare for histories of slavery and capitalism in the United States—he interrogates the dilemma of class antagonisms among the white settlers, that is, between slaveholders and the non-slaveholding, landless poor whites, who made up about 40 percent of the population of the Mississippi Valley. The slaveocracy, with populist white support, attempted a solution to the contradiction that laid the groundwork for continental expansion (“manifest destiny”) and U.S. overseas imperialism in attempts to annex Nicaragua and Cuba in order to accumulate more land to distribute to the non-slave holders, while considering the reopening of the Atlantic slave trade in order to acquire more enslaved bodies to go around. Although these dreams of permanent slaveholding were not realized, the attempts during the decades leading up to emancipation set in motion the future of the United States.

A major problem arose in Jefferson’s “empire for liberty” in which every white man was to be, if not a king, at least a master. This was the increasing population of non-slave-owning white men. Their presence and behavior triggered fear of potential class consciousness, perhaps even alliances, with the enslaved. A considerable number of propertyless whites took up banditry, which included slave-stealing (61–67).

However, non-slave-owning whites were members of the superior race. They voted and served on juries, and although they did not own slaves, they were entitled to a share of the privileges of enjoying the society’s stock of slaves through rituals of humiliation and violation (intimidating the men, degrading the women, patronizing the elders, solicit the children, and so on). “As long as they did not go so far as to diminish the value held by actual slaveholders, non-slaveholding white men were baited by a hope that they might one day accede to a full share in slavery.” And under the rules of patriarchy, they were “masters” of their families, just as slaveholders were of theirs. “Yet the very identification of these men by the term ‘nonslaveholders’ marked them as somehow incomplete—men defined by what they were not rather than what they were (372–73).

Both slave owners and non-slave owners sought to create greater white equality outside the United States. The filibuster government that pirate-adventurer William Walker established in Nicaragua in 1856 thrilled them. They also sought to reopen Atlantic slave trade. Rumors spread in the Mississippi Valley that the skyrocketing cost of purchasing slaves and the lack of sufficient black bodies for all whites would lead to the forced enslavement of landless, non-slave-owning poor whites. The idea of immigration of the surplus white people to seized Caribbean and Central American, along with reopening the slave trade, made such ventures as Walker’s and similar invasion attempts in Cuba popular (372–73). Johnson finds these linkages missing in standard historiography. In focusing solely on the Missouri Compromise of 1850, there is little attention paid to the Mississippi Valley and obsession with Cuba and Nicaragua—or the fact that the U.S. president in 1852 devoted the first third of his state of the union speech to the Cuba issue. Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Atlantic slave trade were more important than Kansas.

Just as the slaveholding economy of the South marked the foundation and character of the development of U.S. capitalism, so it also gave rise to the U.S. obsession with control of the Caribbean and Central America and other military/imperialist ventures—the latter, in part, for non-capitalist whites to gain a sense of power equal to capital property, all in the name of patriotism. Although Marx rightly predicted that a proletarian revolution in the United States would be stunted by the existence of slavery, he did not perceive that class contradictions among whites would be resolved by white supremacy and imperialism.

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