Review: Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South

Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. By Adam Rothman (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009. Pp. 312).

slavecountryAdam Rothman’s Slave Country sharply presents the making of the Deep South, i.e., what we now know as Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. He argues, in agreement with David Brion Davis and Robin Blackburn, that the structure of politics in the United States amplified the Southern planters’ power, and in so doing, augmented the influence of slavery over national politics. Rothman provides a careful description of both the cotton and sugar plantation economies in the region and their intersection with territorial expansion in the early nineteenth century. He shows how “Old Hickory,” Andrew Jackson, proved to be a determinate force in territorial growth; more than 23 millions acres of were wrested from Creek country and absorbed into federal territory under his command. Jackson’s military gains are a key part of the prehistory of mid-nineteenth century conflicts over territorial expansion that were gaining momentum by 1819, at the outbreak of the Mississippi crisis.

Rothman, like Blackburn, presents the changing world of the Atlantic region and its impact on “Slave Country.” The successful revolt in Saint Domingue opened the doors to sugar cultivation in Louisiana (and elsewhere, like Brazil and Cuba), thus presenting opportunities for economic growth for American Southern planters. Key to Rothman’s book — and missing from Blackburn’s otherwise excellent study — is the development of an inter-state slave trade as key to the development of American “slave power.” Paired with territorial expansion, the post-war boom in the early 19th century called for an increase of labor force in the South, i.e., slave labor. This inter-state slave trade was bolstered by smuggling, kidnapping, and outright political manipulation by the Southern planter class. Once the Northern officials were able to cut off outside supply of slaves, planters were able to meet their labor needs by the “self-sustaining” slave production within national boundaries. Rothman successfully shows how this variable sustained slave power in the U.S. in the first half of the nineteenth century, fulfilling the “potential” of the Deep South.

1. What did others make of the military history (i.e., between Creek country and Jackson’s armies, etc.)? Does Rothman successfully integrate this into his larger narrative of Southern development? I would tend to say yes, although at times he lost me in the details — but this may be because I am not too familiar with this history.

2. On page 132, Rothman makes a statement about how chattel slavery had “turned Indians into racists.” This seems like throw-away line, but it made me pause. Is such simplistic characterization a part of racecraft in the field? What are the assumptions that are part of this statement?

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