SLAVERY STILL MAKES NEWS in the United States. In a recent public scandal, the president of a well-endowed private research university in the Deep South compared the Three-Fifths Compromise in the US Constitution to a “new idea [that] points the way toward a higher shared ideal, namely truth.” Explaining the famous debate over how much congressional representation should be afforded states on the basis of their population of non-voting enslaved people of African descent, President James Wagner of Emory University (where I myself teach) decided that “[b]oth sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspirations they both shared.” This statement was quickly followed by student and faculty protests, votes of censure, and the rigging to hold a possible vote of no-confidence. An African American psychology professor at Emory — ironically enough, a direct descendant of slaves owned by the Emory family after whom the university was named, and therefore bearing the name himself — wrote in response:
I think there is a history of responses to politically incorrect statements and behavior that borders on hypocrisy. While we rally against public statements and administrative decisions that are clearly repugnant and in poor taste as they may adversely affect the reputation of the university or reduce resources to our department, we in this and most other departments do very little to actually change the landscape of opinion that would deflect and offset inappropriate and untimely comments by our administrative leadership. I think we have that responsibility just as the university leadership has the responsibility to lead by example and not “put its foot in its mouth.” [Neither] I nor any other member of this community should condone or implicitly excuse Jim Wagner for his comments. But would this not be a good time to put these comments in their proper historical perspective, to make this a teachable moment instead of a public lynching? I think we could do far more good as a faculty to issue our own public apology while condemning the president’s remarks. And I think instead of just criticizing the toxic nature of the comments, offer some constructive actions that can be taken. Do we really think that Jim Wagner leaving Emory is going to change, in any material way, the culture that exist here with regard to understanding diversity, and the legacy of the Peculiar Institution?
Professor Eugene Emory’s point was that the white liberal position toward Wagner’s remarks — the outrage and so forth — is insincere. The disbelief and shock generated by putative gaffes display an ongoing ability to ignore the uncomfortable reality of slavery and segregation — that they made people rich. These postures can also be opportunistic and cynical, ways to shamelessly take advantage of regular features of American public life for individual gain.
The steady stream of cynical liberal outrage is an important context to two recent books about slavery by white men: Henry Wiencek’s Master of the Mountain and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams. Both books are, in their own ways, commanding studies of a central area of American history, and pioneering works in an ongoing battle for justice. Wiencek provides more detail about Thomas Jefferson’s history of slaveholding than has ever existed in one place before, making an important adjustment to a bowdlerized historical record; and Johnson reimagines the era that transformed the geospatial reality of the Mississippi River cotton corridor, in the process providing the fuel for the industrial and financial transformation of the western world. But in both cases, I wonder, to what avail? What does it mean to have an agile, ready intellectual force prepared to do this kind of work, on this kind of subject, at this time? How are the appearances of Wiencek and Johnson’s books connected to the phenomenon of the first black president, on one hand, and the probable end of protective voting rights acts and affirmative action, on the other? In other words — to put it rather bluntly — have we reached a moment when the white liberal’s comfort zone is firmly in the archival dust of the 18th and 19th centuries, while they explicitly avoid the jagged edges of the 21st?
Over the past 30 years, Henry Wiencek has become a kind of gentle thorn in the side of historians of the Cavalier myth. He has demystified slaveholding among the American gentry, and brought enslaved black Americans back into a story from which they had been forcibly removed. Along the way he has amassed a formidable mountain of evidence in books on subjects like George Washington and the superwealthy slaveholding Hairston family in antebellum Virginia and North Carolina. But, of course, this kind of meander through the antebellum history of Virginia is incomplete without a tangle with the formidable figure of Thomas Jefferson.
As a graduate student reading the work of Jefferson, chiefly the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia, I was unaware that the edited materials I had at my disposal in the library contained anything less than the complete historical record. I was still rather naïve, and expected the evidence of brutality to lie easily on the surface; I did not yet have a sophisticated sense of the kind of digging necessary to obtain an alternative perspective on enslavement from the documentary evidence left by slaveholders. This is not to say that my own mother wit had left me. I suspected that any number of accredited history books were based on lies constructed to justify genocide. I simply couldn’t prove it. My professor, a renowned Jefferson scholar who appeared on national news programs during the Fourth of July, emphasized (I assumed for my benefit) that Jefferson was a kind master. Thus, I was quite surprised to learn of the suppression, in Edwin M. Betts’s 1953 edition of Jefferson’s Farm Book, of a line from the president’s correspondence about the routine of brutalization meted out to enslaved children. Jefferson’s overseer regularly whipped “the small ones […] for truancy.” It was partial scholars like Betts, and not merely Jefferson’s own descendants, who created a record of piety and purity for Jefferson that he did not deserve. It’s important to understand this: that the attempt to paint a portrait of Jefferson that tolerant liberals could stomach is what produced the whitewash. The more we seek to make slavery better, the worse we make it.
In fact, Jefferson hoped to retain an overseer named Gabriel Lilly, who was fond of cracking open feverishly ill teenagers. “Certainly I can never get a man who fulfills my purpose better than he does,” Jefferson confessed in a letter. I don’t know how that bit jibes with what contemporary Americans know or think about slavery, and certainly the exhumation of the skeletons of enslaved children reveal a considerable amount of abuse (fused vertebrae from toting that barge and hefting that bale). But the fact of the “small ones” being beaten meant something to me personally, because my own father’s grandfather was not freed until the Civil War ended, when he was 10. I can’t imagine that my ancestor Edward Jackson had any encounters with slaveholders as wise as Thomas Jefferson. The omission of evidence like the Lilly reference, Wiencek points out, was crucial in the historical opinion that Jefferson was a kindly, lenient, even lax plantation owner.
Actually, this turns out to be far from the case. According to Wiencek, Jefferson committed a series of terrible crimes — typically acts of omission as well as a couple of commission — as a slaveowner. It is regularly noted that, upon his death, Jefferson was in such debt that he was unable to hold to his promises to the free people he owned; he barely freed his own sons and daughters with Sally Hemings, who herself was not freed. But Wiencek points out that Jefferson sealed the fate of the bondspeople at Monticello and its out-farm Poplar Forest (where, a contemporary observer wrote, “I fear the poor Negroes fare hard”) well in advance of the dissolution of his estate in 1826. In fact, he financed the design and construction of Monticello, the extraordinary monument to colonial America that remains his shrine today, by speculating and mortgaging the “silent profit,” the “increase” of the people he owned, well into the future. In 1796 Jefferson received $2,000 from Dutch bankers in exchange for “all his right and equity of redemption in the said hundred and fifty negro slaves.” To his neighbors suffering financial reversals, Jefferson proposed investment in “negroes […] which […] bring a silent profit of from 5. to 10. per cent in this country by their increase in value.” As a farmer he would also school his associates that it was “not their labor but their increase which is the first consideration with us,” which is to say that Jefferson farmed people. In this way Jefferson reduced his discussion of universal liberty to prattle, and consigned the descendants of men like John Hemings — a man who had the same father as Jefferson’s wife — to slavery in perpetuity.
Wiencek alerts us to two especially troubling personal failures on Jefferson’s part. Edward Coles, a prominent Virginian who served in James Madison’s White House, regularly wrote to Jefferson, begging him to lend his national stature to the emancipation cause. “Liberate one-half of our fellow beings” from “ignominious bondage,” the young man requested. In response, Jefferson told him that enslaved Africans “are pests in society by their idleness.” In 1819, Coles undertook something he had “long been anxious to do,” and which required courage: he took the people he owned, traveled to Illinois, purchased land, and “made up my mind to restore to them their immediate & unconditional freedom.” The young squire went to his patron for guidance and gave better than he got. A second example proves that Jefferson had opportunities to end the bondage of at least some of the people that he owned, but preferred not to set them free. In 1817, Polish Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko desired to have Jefferson execute a trust of $20,000 and purchase freedom and land for as many black people as the number might have freed. Jefferson decided to ignore his friend’s request.
To cover his tracks, Jefferson sowed a harvest of lingering doubt among even the more principled whites about the incapacity of freedmen for self-government. Most famously, he told Edward Bancroft, a kind of minister-without-portfolio in England during the war era, that the enslaved black Americans were “like Children,” and that, under his observation in Virginia, they “chose to steal from their neighbors rather than work; they became public nuisances.” Over and over again, after Jefferson reached national office as minister to France and then the Presidency, he had the opportunity to put aside this venomous rhetoric of black biological incapacity that, as he well knew, undergirded the institution of slavery. But Wiencek reminds us that, in spite of a great deal of personal experience with several black people that he relied on and knew to be intelligent, industrious, brave, and independent, Jefferson consistently gave voice to the mythology of inferiority. He insisted that blacks were unable to conduct themselves productively outside of enslavement, and yet he purchased food from his own slaves, who grew gardens and cultivated chickens to supplement their scanty allotments. (They had to; Jefferson was a lenient master compared to some, but his rations were meager: 16 herring and two pounds of beef for seven people in a month. Elderly people, “the senile corps” in Jefferson parlance, were allotted half of that.) Perhaps the jibes at black incapacity — the sorriest ones levied at the poet Phillis Wheatley, who Jefferson decided was “beneath criticism” — were necessary because, even on paper, slavery at Monticello looked pretty bad. (As Walter Johnson writes of the eloquent rationalizers of slavery: “They processed starvation into racism.”)
Wiencek doesn’t sensationalize Jefferson’s sexual relationship with Sally Hemings. He doesn’t have to; he simply takes the heart-rending account of Madison Hemings at his word. Madison was the only one of Jefferson and Hemings’s four children (the other three were Harriet, Beverly, and Eston) who lived his life as a black person, and it was he who left the key testimonial evidence of the tie between his father and mother. Toward his mixed-race children Jefferson was “very undemonstrative.” Though he enabled her departure and passage into the white race, Jefferson wrote “run” beside his daughter Harriet’s name in his farm book. The suicidal, race-erasing travails of the children of Eston — a man claimed by his neighbors to look like a mirror image of Thomas Jefferson — gives the modern reader a clue to the powerful clutch of slavery long after that deed had ended. But Wiencek’s discussion of Hemings and her children is only part of a broader claim he makes about the between-the-sheets part of early Federal life at Jefferson’s place; the president’s own white grandson testified that there were multiple families of “children which resembled Mr. Jefferson so closely that it was plain that they had his blood in their veins.” “Rape was common at Monticello,” the reader learns, and “the young white men in the vicinity of Monticello regarded the slave quarter as their bordello.” This kind of thing is an utter overturning of the legendary work of the Jefferson scholar Merrill Peterson who, in his 1960 book The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, discounted Madison Hemings’s narrative with the snide comment that it was inspired by “the Negroe’s pathetic wish for a little pride.” (Again, I completed PhD work in 1997, and I was taught precisely that.)
In one place, at least, Wiencek seems to exaggerate his evidence, which might be considered counterproductive in this sort of book. He suggests that the “Iron Collar” worn by an enslaved young man in the 1740s is the same as a torture device described by a Civil War soldier more than 100 years later. Perhaps, but not necessarily, since such collars were worn well into the colonial era as irrefutable badges of servitude. By the middle of the 19th century, skin color itself had become a far more stable index of bondage-in-perpetuity, and the collars fell into disuse.
Much of Wiencek’s enjoyably written narrative involves a tramp of the grounds of Monticello itself. He takes his reader down the shaded paths and along the groves and, despite the beauty, he remains hardnosed and diligent about excavating the pasts of the enslaved who built the place from the bottom up. But Wiencek’s experience of discovery is also an illusion, or perhaps at least an occlusion — one that sometimes gives us the sense that if we too visited the mountain outside of Charlottesville, we might manage a similarly rich reckoning. We would not. No “ordinary” visitor, black or white, without credentials and invitations and pedigree and all the other things that amount to class privilege, would be allowed such a journey of discovery. The docents, drawn from among Charlottesville’s charming local population, who enjoy hobnobbing on occasion with the First Families of Virginia who use the facilities after hours, would not mention the atrocities Wiencek chronicles, if they knew about them to begin with. (Though it must be said that Monticello, now operated by the private Thomas Jefferson Foundation, has undergone a veritable sea change in terms of its reflections on slavery from my first visit in 1993 to my last visit in 2012.) There is a long process of powerful forgetting associated with this particular national monument, which even a book as impressive and celebrated as Wiencek’s can only partially undo. “Jefferson’s unchangeable symbolic role is to make slavery safe,” Wiencek concludes. So it is powerfully ironic that it takes a “safe” person like himself to unlimber the sad story.
The talented young historian Walter Johnson certainly does not aspire to make slavery safe; he agrees wholeheartedly with Wiencek about the deadly nature of the condition to the enslaved and damage that it did and continues to do to America. In fact, River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom takes up where Wiencek leaves off, and the story it tells is tragic enough that Johnson sometimes has to laugh to keep from crying. (His best joke comes toward the end, when the Yankee imperialist Narciso López eats his horse.) If Wiencek’s Jefferson embodies the moral failure of the early Federal–period nation state and its conception of a democratic experiment that could never quite fully commit itself to democracy, Johnson is more directly concerned to show how democratic practices were steadily undermined by slavery, debt, speculation, and fantasies of imperial expansion. His project engages the antebellum era, taking his cue from what is only an asterisked note in Wiencek’s book, a quote from prominent American slavery historian Edmund Morgan: “To a large degree it may be said that Americans bought their independence with slave labor.” In colonial times, tobacco brought home the bacon for Tidewater planters, the ruling elite. In the industrial era, the tobacco crop was superseded by the cotton crop, and from cotton, cultivated especially in the Mississippi Valley, grew the linked industrial and financial destinies of the modern era’s two superpowers, Great Britain and the United States.
Wiencek whispers to us that it was Jefferson’s “secret note” that “[s]laves shall be admitted into the territory” that inaugurated slavery in Louisiana. Johnson offers a more full-throated condemnation: “The extension of slavery into the Mississippi Valley gave an institution that was in decline at the end of the 18th century new life in the 19th.” As deal-making President Jefferson understood, the Mississippi Valley was a good place to shift the explosive energy of a generation of bondspeople craving their release from thralldom, a possible Arcadia where landless whites could become yeomen instead of labor-guild insurrectionists. But as in Georgia, a colony that attempted to exclude slavery to provide a new chance for English convicts but whose altruistic early constitution was overridden by the interest of South Carolina planters, the slavocracy quickly rigged the distribution of land rights in the Valley and turned the “empire of liberty” into a place dominated by speculators in land and slaves.
Johnson’s gambit is to tilt the axis of American slavery from west to south, reorienting our point of view on this period from the classic antebellum narrative of the Missouri Compromise and westward expansion, of little concern to planters in Louisiana and Mississippi, to the plantocracy’s real regional concern: southward expansion, and southward market saturation. He ponders “what might have been,” the world that the most aggressive of the white supremacist expansionists hoped to create, a Confederacy that would have necessarily included Cuba — the largest and perhaps most productive island in the Caribbean after the revolution in Haiti — and Central America. The book explores the world view of American commercial expansionist cotton planters in the Mississippi River Valley from the time of the Louisiana Purchase up to the eve of secession. What would happen if you asked the slaveholders of that time how they understood global politics in the decades leading up to the Civil War? River of Dark Dreams is Johnson’s attempt at an answer.
But it is also, obviously, an allegory for our own time. Johnson clearly has in mind US-driven multinational corporations and the extension of a dubious “freedom” to Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and possibly Iran when he writes that:
the version of “freedom” advocated by those who claimed to be its most ardent defenders turned out to be not some sort of absolute condition of human emancipation — “Freedom” — but a set of social relations characterized by the continued enslavement of the labor force, accompanied by a reduction of the prices of the things they consumed and produced.
The early founding and expansion of Mississippi and Louisiana were deeply entwined with land grants, credit, inflation, speculation, and the rapid rise and fall of cotton prices, part of a boom and bust cycle of gaudy prosperity and dire poverty which ought to be familiar to contemporary Americans. After the Mississippi lands were swallowed by speculation and exhausted by single crop use in the 1820s and 1830s, American expansionists launched regular and semi-successful efforts to topple sovereignty in Cuba and Nicaragua. (When Narciso López attempted to overthrow Cuba the final time in 1851, he issued bonds.) Though Johnson is, in places, more interested in a kind of modish ecocritical gloss than he is in a plain-spoken financial history of the Mississippi Valley’s slave-based cotton production, he firmly believes that the booms of the early 1830s, followed by the devastating collapse of cotton prices and fortunes in 1837 and then the same cycle again in the 1850s, culminated in the Civil War. For those who have the penetration to see it, the cycles were written on the land, the technology, the crafty new financial instruments, and the bodies of the enslaved. Johnson never misses a chance to remind us of the relevance of all this today: the deregulation, speculation, profit, bubble, bust, misery, and war.
These expansionist moves were typically connected with the dream of reopening the slave trade to Africa, to secure labor for uncultivated land and new zones of possibilities for unpropertied white men. Johnson describes the series of decrees established by William Walker, a southerner who maneuvered himself into the elected presidency of Nicaragua in 1856:
Walker effectively internationalized the land market in Nicaragua by expanding the Liberal policy of breaking up large holdings; the set of policies he instituted were unabashedly designed to transfer property from the inhabitants of Nicaragua to immigrants from the United States […] [Walker] intended to expand the Liberal program of regionally based expropriation and capitalist transformation into a hemispheric (read: U.S.) looting of Nicaragua. Finally, Walker (re)legalized slavery in Nicaragua and reopened the African slave trade, opening an international market in flesh, sinew, and bone to underwrite markets in Nicaraguan lands and exportable commodities (gold, silver, bananas, coffee, indigo, and cochineal) — markets that he hoped to create.
“[T]he general tendency of these several decrees,” as Walker himself wrote, “was the same, they were intended to place a large proportion of the land of the country in the hands of the white race.” The problem for the expansionist was that Walker, like Narciso López or the writer Mathew Maury, was a celebrated man in New Orleans but never gained much traction outside of the Mississippi Valley region. This provincialism ultimately doomed their brand of direct white supremacist expansion.
Johnson’s book attempts something daring and bold. Instead of perpetuating the regularly compartmentalized treatment of American slavery and the global antebellum political economy, he follows the example of Eric Williams’s Capitalism and Slavery (1944) by bringing both together. He does this with an eye toward the enslaved on the ground, observing what they ate and produced, how they lived, how they were brutalized and died. Johnson is brilliantly attuned to the stories of the enslaved whose lives were coexistent with the cycle of production, who planted and harvested cotton but were at the same time commodities themselves, whose every biological function (reproduction, waste elimination) was an economic calculation. He looks through plantation diaries and factory logs to chart the circuit of cotton from the golf-ball-sized fleece that was picked at a rate of one pound in 45 seconds to the 400-pound bales that were torpedoed from muddy levees down gangplanks for steamboats racing to New Orleans.
And he reads closely several slave narratives, chiefly the narrative of Charles Ball, Fifty Years in Chains (1859). Certainly Johnson has few peers at this kind of historical critique, which joins the actual lived experience of the workers to the overall system of production in which they toiled, and he is prideful about his abilities as an academic’s academic and his radical commitment to recovering the lives and misery of the enslaved. One of the key intellectual debates governing his study regards the “agency” of those enslaved in the United States. Did enslaved black people rationally act on their own behalf? Were their own actions complicit with their domination? How complete a system of dominion was enslavement, and how effective was it at disallowing dissent? Johnson addresses this point by noting that slaveholders (like Jefferson) systematically dominated the enslaved population by underrationing. In response, the enslaved stole food, an act they considered perfectly justifiable, for, as Henry Bibb reasoned, “[W]hile the slave is regarded as property, how can he steal from his master?” (Toni Morrison dramatizes precisely this situation with her African hero-character Sixo in the novel Beloved.) “Bibb’s neat solution suggests that we should revisit the dialectics of pig roasting,” Johnson writes:
Domination and resistance, in this case, structured each other. Historians have often termed such actions evidence of slaves’ “agency,” but in so doing the sometimes lost sight of the way that agency and resistance were themselves structured by power and exploitation. […] The starveling character of the Cotton Kingdom channeled slaves’ concerns — their resistance, their collective action, their subjectivity — around the question of food. Indeed, Bibb’s saving argument that the food he “took” was (re)converted to his owner’s service through his labor betrays the extent to which the terms of his resistance reflected the terms of his oppression — the extent to which slaves’ “agency” was structured in dominance. Yet the determining limits of the prevailing order did not exhaust the meaning of enslaved resistance — nor, finally, did they remain its limit.
Here Johnson argues that resistance to domination was indeed possible, even in something that looks, to a slaveowner, like theft or negligence or stupidity, and, to a cunning theorist, like an inescapable bind of dominion, where resistance to starvation by stealing food begets more work. But it’s important that Bibb defies his master’s edicts; he satisfies and physically strengthens himself; he gains confidence in his own abilities; he decreases his master’s stock, perhaps edging him toward ruin. By inference, the work left for the responsible citizen of today’s society is to expand the limits of the “prevailing order” so that it will not have the capacity to “exhaust […] meaning.”
It is thus unsurprising to learn, in River of Dark Dreams, about occasional irruptions in the system, such as the 1811 revolt of Charles Deslondes in Louisiana, which had to be put down by federal troops, or the Panic of 1835, a possible conspiracy for which both blacks and whites were massacred in a prophylactic move by the Mississippi slaveholding class. Johnson’s close attention to such revolts and conspiracies indicates the great volatility of the time and the always-simmering possibility of the violent overthrow of slave society, as well as pointing again to the abundant, endemic brutality required to sustain slavery.
Although the chapters engaging the role and lives of the enslaved occupy a great deal of space in the middle of the book, black life still only appears on the periphery of Johnson’s account of the Mississippi Valley in the antebellum era. Undoubtedly, this is a problem of scarcity of evidence, but I wondered how black Reconstruction-era Mississippi congressmen like Blanche Bruce, Hiram Revels or John R. Lynch, or the briefly seated postbellum Louisiana governor P.B.S. Pinchback, would have described the same Southern expansionist currents, thriving when these black intellectuals were young men in the 1850s and 1860s. As Johnson well knows, the black surgeon, explorer, writer and Union Army officer Martin R. Delany wrote a novel in the 1860s called Blake about a slave conspiracy that spread from the Mississippi River Valley to the Dismal Swamp of Virginia to Cuba and West Africa. The inclusion of black voices addressing the problem of expansion would be especially helpful in establishing the American identity that is possible outside of dreams of mastery, ownership, and gross material accumulation. (Another minor quibble, since I would like the book to be read by more than just field specialists: it would have been helpful to have had, throughout the 400 plus page book, a better roadmap of the general US economy in the first half of the 19th century, with such information as the overall gross domestic product, staple commodities of export, the population and numbers of immigrants, the sale of Virginia and Maryland and North Carolina’s bondspeople “down the river,” and so on.)
Last year I published a book called My Father’s Name, about my own family’s lineage from the mountain or river of dark dreams or whatever flowery figurative language you’d care to apply. I did not complete my journey into that era with the assurance or asseveration that I find in Wiencek and Johnson, and this is partly due to the mendicant role I needed to play in order to get information, a necessity of which white scholars are blessedly ignorant. The magisterial confidence behind these books is impressive, but it is also a little infuriating. In places, Johnson can hector his reader, like the pedantic pedagogue who finishes each sentence of the lecture with the smug comment, “Right?” Wiencek righteously claims to prove that Jefferson personally piloted the raft of slavery, repudiating the perennial caveat that has always allowed that “slavery [is] somehow afloat in a world in which nobody is responsible.” But slavery and its effects are still afloat — at the very least they are in the minds of many black people — and the self-confidence with which we can hector the public about it has not changed or ameliorated this.
Recently, I had a conversation with a student who believed that she had experienced direct racial discrimination in a class over the course of a long semester. The professor had drawn similar complaints from other students. I was tongue-tied; all I could manage to tell her was that she could pursue the limits of justice as another job, as part of her own life’s work, in addition to her own scholarly interests. Once I had absorbed the story of slavery and the aftermath, all my academic and professional experiences, all my relations with the police, were colored by precisely the same dynamic. But what could you do? Fire all the police? Fire all the teachers? Burn out the bias? That was the challenge I was left with after digesting the works of these uncompromising writers who have dedicated themselves to excavating and theorizing the relations of my relatives, the damned. Their convicted sincerity seems irrevocable, their passionate rhetoric unmatched; why then is the work left to do so high, the row so hard to hoe?
Lawrence P. Jackson is professor of English and African American Studies at Emory University. He is the author of The Indignant Generation: A Narrative History of African American Writers and Critics and My Father’s Name: A Black Virginia Family after the Civil War.