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River of Dark Dreams: Slavery, Capitalism,…
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River of Dark Dreams: Slavery, Capitalism, and Imperialism in the…

by Walter Johnson

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Wow what a book. I actually skimmed this once for a class and then went back to try to read it more carefully--and while it took me a really long time, it was so worth it. Johnson (as I'm sure many other people will tell you) is an amazing writer, while also being so intellectually rigorous in his work and with his argument. And that argument is so important--drawing together imperialism and its connections in the US to slaveholding culture, to the absolute necessity of expansion that I think really still is glossed over in teaching US history. I will say, if read in as many disjointed ways as I did, it can feel a little disconnected (especially the last three chapters from the initial readings) but each piece is so beautiful and really does connect. It's long but boy is it really, deeply worth it if you're at all interested in slavery studies and connection to empire. ( )
  aijmiller | Mar 1, 2018 |
Good description of slavery in the steamboat economy ( )
  TheGoldyns | Sep 16, 2015 |
Showing 2 of 2
According to Johnson, however, the Mississippi River Valley represented something more than an imperial will to power. It became, rather, the great laboratory of American capitalism, and the site where an emergent international capitalist system mingled effortlessly with the imperial dreams of its first planters. There, international capital flooded the region, creating a cosmopolitan master class who imagined the Mississippi River as an economic umbilical cord which would connect the region to the markets of the world. To make the dream real, Americans perfected innovations in cotton planting and harvesting and built steamboats which defied gravity: all to collapse time and space, to bring goods closer to markets and to maximise profits. The combination of imperial ambition, capitalist drive and technological innovation represents one of the great strengths of this book. Seen through the prism Johnson constructs, it would be hard to imagine America’s early national history in quite the same way.
 
River of Dark Dreams has much to offer the legal historian. I do not mean in
the detail of its deployment of legal materials, although that deployment is as
careful and as revealing as Johnson's research in general. What it has to offer,
simply, is itself It is a book of enormous learning and, no less, of sustained
moral passion. It is unrelenting in its demands for the reader's attention, and it
is profoundly worthy of that attention. It is an extraordinary work of history;
one of the finest I have ever encountered. It is a book any historian would be
proud to have written, and that all of us who wish to consider ourselves conversant
with American history, however we define it, should feel obliged to read.
 
River of Dark Dreams" is an important, arguably seminal, book. If sometimes dense, it is always trenchant and learned. And in highly compelling fashion, it helps us more fully appreciate how thoroughly the slaveholding South was part of the capitalist transatlantic world of the first half of the 19th century.
 
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Epigraph
He was wounded for our transgressions; he was bruised for our iniquities;
the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
----Isaiah 53:5
Dedication
For Alison,
my morning star
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On December 14, 1850, the Anglo-Norman backed from the levee at New Orleans and headed up the Mississippi River on what was supposed to be a short, celebratory maiden voyage.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674045556, Hardcover)

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.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:08:09 -0400)

Looks at the history of the Mississippi River Valley in the nineteenth century and the economy that developed there, powered by steam engines and slave labor.

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