Tag Archives: Walter Johnson

Slavery Was Money

OK, so I decided to take the plunge and read the first chapter of Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. It’s incredibly dense and I will likely have to read it again to more fully grasp the argument. What I do understand is quite fascinating. In the process of showing how future slaveholders gradually supplanted Jefferson’s idea of a west that would guarantee a republican vision of small and independent landowners, Johnson emphasizes the connectedness of the new slave economy to international market forces. For Johnson, slavery must be understood as helping to forge a vibrant capitalist economy.

What held these regional, national, and international economies together over space and time 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. (pp. 42-43)

There is quite a bit to unpack in this short passage and the rest of the chapter, which I am not going to do. I suspect that Johnson is not the first historian to emphasize the international economic context in which American slavery existed and thrived. The passage beautifully captures the interconnectedness of it all over time and space. It also leaves you appreciating the extent to which the value of even the most mundane material items was somehow connected to the value of cotton and slaves. More importantly, Johnson is forcing me to reconsider my tendency to think of slavery as somehow backwards or pre-modern. Far from it. Johnson paints a picture of slaveholders engaged in creative speculation in numerous domestic and overseas markets. Yep, sounds pretty modern to me.

Perhaps in a nation that fully embraces capitalism as a moral system we resist the idea that it was responsible for generating an exorbitant amount of wealth and suffering. In other words, there was nothing incompatible between capitalism and slavery.