River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom

Excerpted from River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, by Walter Johnson (footnotes omitted), published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2013 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.

[It] was the labor of black slaves that made the dream of the speculators into the material reality of the Cotton Kingdom. By and large, the slaves who remade the Valley were brought there from the East, perhaps as many as a million of them in the years 1820–1860, about a third of whom were brought west with their masters as parts of intact plantation relocations, the other two-thirds of whom were traded through a set of speculations that was quickly formalized into the “domestic slave trade.” The “slave trade” had its roots in the ventures of dozens of independent speculators who bought lots of ten or so slaves, generally on credit, in Upper-South states like Virginia and Maryland. They then walked them southward, after binding them wrist to wrist in a “coffle,” to the emerging regions of the Lower South—first Georgia and later Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama—selling slaves as they went. As it became clear that there was a great deal of money to be made in buying, transporting, and reselling slaves, a set of highly organized firms emerged to compete with the footloose speculators. These firms maintained offices, complete with high-walled 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. The large firms employed salaried agents who haunted estate sales and county jails at the north end of the trade, hoping to pick up slaves on the cheap who could later be sold for premium prices in the urban markets of the Lower South.

In order to make sure that they could count on a price differential sufficient to justify the effort and expense of dragging as many as a hundred unwilling and potentially rebellious slaves on a weeks-long journey across the backcountry or on a lonely sea journey around the Atlantic coast, the larger firms and even simpler two-person partnerships mailed one another frequent reports on the condition of the slave market at either end of the trade. These reports formalized a 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 kinds of human bodies into a single scale of comparison based on the price they thought a given person would bring in a given market. By 1820, the daily practice of slave traders—gathering information about the economy by inquiring into the price of cotton in New Orleans, New York, and Liverpool and the price of slaves in the Upper and Lower South, comparing them, and making a bet about whether the “market” would rise or fall—was sufficiently developed to ensure that slave prices in Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans would track both one another and the price of cotton (and to a lesser degree that of sugar) with a remarkable degree of precision. The daily practice of the slave trade, shipping slaves from one region of the South to another and sending information back and forth about how much they cost, knit a territory that stretched from Louisiana to Maryland into a single slave economy. It was held together not by its devotion to a certain crop (for the crop culture of Virginia was, as slaves traded southward were the first to note, radically different from that of Louisiana), or by a shared mode of production (for slave prices in Richmond tracked only those in New Orleans, ignoring those in Havana or Rio), but by the territorially bounded slave market that Congress had established in 1808.

The “domestic” slave trade, however, was never just that, for 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.

What held these regional, national, and international economies together over space and across time was money. The abstract scale of dollar values allowed business to take place in a space not strictly delimited by the physical properties of the thing being traded. The value of a barrel of salt pork, which would go bad if it sat on the levee waiting for the crop to come in, could be noted and paid off in sugar when it finally did; the value of a young woman in Virginia in May might be compared to that of an old man in Louisiana in September, although their bodies were distant in time and space, and distinct in physical proportion and capacity; the value of either might be compared to a bale of cotton in Liverpool in January, a barrel of sugar in New York in June, or a plot of land that was for sale down the road two days hence. Yet money sometimes moved while things stood still: the ownership of a bale of cotton in a warehouse in New Orleans or a descendant’s claim to a particular slave in a share of an estate on the Red River, for example, might be transferred several times, although the actual bale of cotton or the actual slave was never carried away. Nothing in this economy moved without money. The real problem, it sometimes turned out, was moving the money.

Because the dimensions of their economy outstripped the available technologies for gathering and sharing information, those who bought or sold cotton or sugar or slaves could not simply have funds transferred by depositing them in one bank and having them readily available for withdrawal at another bank miles away. They had to find ways to move money in its physical form —metal or paper—from where it was to where it needed to be. In terms of commercial complexity, the easiest form in which to move money was specie, which ensured negotiability at par in every corner of the transoceanic economy. Specie, of course, presented its own problems. It was everywhere scarce, nowhere more so than in the Mississippi Valley. And even when specie could be had, the very physical properties which made it so attractive to antebellum political economists—its luster, its density, and its malleability—made it a liability to those who would carry much of it very far. The physical substance that most often linked Valley slaveholders to regional, national, and international networks of trade, profit, and purchasing was paper.

No one in the antebellum economy, of course, thought that pieces of paper were inherently valuable—they were representations of value, or, more specifically, of debt. Most simply, there were banknotes: printed markers of an amount of money that was notionally deposited in the bank whose name was on their face—the Merchant’s Bank of Philadelphia, the Farmer’s Bank of Tennessee, the Citizen’s Bank of Louisiana. These banknotes circulated far and wide in the antebellum economy, usually trading at a discount of between 1 and 10 percent, based on how much information about their bank of origin existed at the point where they were being exchanged. These discounts were a shorthand way of answering a set of questions about the representational value of a piece of paper with a printed picture on the front: Did the Farmer’s Bank of Tennessee really exist? Could its unknown managers be counted on to maintain a sufficient reserve of deposits in order to redeem the notes they had issued? How much trouble would it be to get someone to accept a note that carried with it these uncertainties, or, alternatively, to turn up on the bank’s doorstep and demand the value in specie represented on the face of its notes?

In the settled commercial cultures of the Northeast, many of these were questions that had long been settled; but in the land of the “wildcat” bankers of the Southwest, they pressed in upon every transaction.

Even more difficult to exchange were promissory notes. These were simple promises to pay scripted out by the parties to a transaction on a scrap of paper —what you or I would call an IOU. In a specie-scarce economy, these promises to pay frequently circulated as a form of money, passed from buyer to seller in a series of transactions that can be followed by the successive signatures scrawled on the back of the original note. Unlike banknotes, these notes were termed “obligations,” due at a point in the future stipulated on the front of the note (usually three to twelve months), and generally carried interest based on the term of the note (a note payable “at 6 percent in twelve months’ time” would pay $1.06 on the loaned dollar when it came due). In many cases, sympathetic creditors would renew the notes they were holding at the end of the term for another three to twelve months, allowing debtors another chance to raise the money to pay the note.

As they migrated further and further from the original exchange of goods or services represented on the front of the sheet, these notes, too, traded at a discount. In the case of promissory notes, that discount reflected questions about both the parties to the note and its ultimate legal standing as a negotiable instrument. Could the third party (or fourth or fifth) to a distant transaction be sure that the original debtor was still alive, still at the same address, and still good for the debt? Indeed, could parties along the line even be sure that the people whose names headed the succession of debts really existed in the first place? And even assuming all of those things were true, could the person who ended up with the note be sure that the parties to the original transaction had understood that the note was negotiable and would honor it when it made its way backward along the chain of debt that linked them to one another? What if, for example, Poor Farmer A had assumed that the note he was signing in exchange for the cotton seeds he got from Rich Planter B was, like all the notes he had received from his good friend down the road in the past, going to be rolled over to the following year if the crop failed and he had no money to pay the note when, legally speaking, it came due? And what if, when Big-City Note Broker C (or his local agent, D) turned up on his doorstep, claiming that Rich Planter B had sold the note to him and demanding Poor Farmer A’s mule and his plow in lieu of the cash he knew that the farmer did not have, Poor Farmer A was instead able to present him with a decision from a sympathetic judge who had ruled in an earlier case that notes like the one he had given to Rich Planter B were not negotiable in the first place?

These recombinant spirals of exchange, credit, and speculation had their material correlate in the physical transformation of the Mississippi Valley. What had been, at the end of the eighteenth century, a woodland characterized by a decentralized frontier exchange economy—Indian venison and deerskins for European metal goods, alcohol, and firearms—was, by the second quarter of the nineteenth century, emerging as one of the greatest staple-crop exporting regions in the world.

From the perspective of Thomas Jefferson, life along the cotton frontier must have seemed to possess a certain clarity. There was first the idea of national sovereignty—the idea that this was an American space and would thus be governed by the culturally dominant norms of the American nation-space, most notably by the laws and practices governing slavery, the land market, and the money market. Those laws and practices were reflected in another set of abstractions: the division of the land into forty-acre plots, which abstracted it from its own physical properties by turning it into a set of fungible commodities. Then there was the compression of the infinite variety of human types into a handy set of categories by which the slave traders did their business. Lastly, there was the imaginative transformation of metal and paper into the physical vehicles of a scale of values which could be used to compare the plats of land and the bodies of slaves to all manner of other goods. If you took them at face value, this nested set of abstractions provided a pretty good guide to getting along in the Mississippi Valley. But if you looked more closely, you would see that each abstraction stood at odds with the physical properties of the object it sought to represent. Fissioning the fictions that held them together could be explosive.

Walter Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. (Photo from Harvard University Faculty).