FW: Foley on Rothman, _Slave Country_ [includes Alabama]
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H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Published by H-South@... (November, 2005)
Adam Rothman. _Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the
Deep South_. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005. xi + 296 pp.
Illustrations, maps, notes, index. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 0-6740-1674-2.
Reviewed for H-South by James C. Foley, Department of
History, St. Andrew's Episcopal School, Ridgeland, Mississippi.
A Model for the Deep South
Adam Rothman's ambitious first book, _Slave Country_, provides an
analytical narrative of how the three states associated with the Deep
South--Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi--developed into plantation
societies. Rothman weaves together political, economic, social, and
military history to construct a much-needed study of this
often-overlooked region's beginnings. This task is an ambitious one for
a first book, and Rothman, by and large, proves himself up to the task
of writing this history.
A review of his methodology reveals the time and effort that went into
the crafting of this book. The sources for this study are varied and
numerous. Rothman mines congressional debates, government records at the
federal and local levels, records from the British Public Records
Office, diaries, memoirs, travel accounts, personal correspondence,
newspapers, census figures, and even information on the number of ships
passing through the port of New Orleans for selected years. One of the
more fruitful sources employed by Rothman comes from Kenneth Stampp's
project involving plantation records. These papers reveal the
thoughts, hopes, and fears of the planters who settled the Deep South,
and thus add a human dimension to the heart of this study, which relies
on showing how economic growth influenced the development of slavery and
the plantation society that characterized this region.
Marxian analysis informs Rothman's study of the Deep South. He owes
prominent intellectual debts to the work of Barbara Jeanne Fields, his
dissertation adviser at Columbia, Ira Berlin, and Eugene Genovese.
This Marxian framework is most evident in his interpretation of slavery.
"Chattel slavery was at bottom a class relationship enforced by physical
coercion in which some people lived off the labor of others" (p. 207).
Rothman perceives the master-slave relationship as being patriarchal and
coercive. Furthermore, he links the rapid growth of American slavery in
the Deep South with the spread of capitalism, particularly with the
development of the textile industry in Great Britain and the
northeastern United States and the increase in demand for sugar. He
notes how planters flocked to the fresh, fertile lands of the Deep South
and began to grow staple crops. He also discusses how planters in the
early nineteenth century moved away from crops such as indigo and
ch had been popular in the Deep South, in order to make more money
growing cotton and sugar. The increased production of these staple crops
led to increased demand for slaves and the rapid growth of the Deep
South's economy and population. Rothman's evidence supports his thesis
about this development. He cites correspondence from merchants and
planters, as well as statistics about ship traffic and crop production,
to illustrate this rapid economic growth.
Rothman also pays close attention to the human dimension of this
economic development. He includes case studies of individuals who lived
and worked in the Deep South, and these people reappear throughout the
book. He writes about men such as Edward Livingston, a New York merchant
who moved to New Orleans to restore his fortune and good name; Isaac
Briggs, a Quaker who was chief surveyor of the land in the Louisiana
Purchase south of Tennessee beginning in 1803; and Benjamin Hawkins, the
agent to the Creek Indians. He also adds African, African-American, and
Indian voices to balance those of the white settlers. Rothman focuses
attention on how people reacted to the land, the disease environment,
and their encounters with Indians, African and African-American slaves,
and whites of various ethnicities. By focusing on the stories of
individuals, their successes and failures, Rothman is able to reveal the
human costs men and women suffered as they carved out an existence,
es quite prosperous, sometimes not, on the new frontier. It was rare
for families to escape diseases, such as fevers, without losing at least
one family member. Rothman also points out the human cost for slaves, in
terms of death and forced separation from loved ones, and reminds
readers that slaves were forced migrants to the Deep South. The fate of
the Indians is also discussed in depth, and is one of the strong points
of this study. Indian voices are interwoven with those of whites
throughout several chapters. The study of the Red Sticks and the Creek
War is well done and brings to light an important incident that could
have changed the course of American history had the Indians prevailed.
Instead of victory, the Indians lost the war and much of their land,
thus paving the way for greater white American control over it.
This emphasis on contingency is one of the strong points of Rothman's
analysis. He understands that American dominance over the Deep South was
not foreordained, despite the Louisiana Purchase. White Americans faced
Spanish forces in Texas and Florida, Indian tribes throughout the Deep
South, slaves who expressed their discontent through flight and
rebellion, most notably the January 1811 slave revolt along the German
Coast of Louisiana, and British forces during the War of 1812. As
Rothman asserts, had two or three of these events occurred at the same
time, American history might well be different.
Readers will note, in particular, the problems Andrew Jackson faced
during the war against the Creeks, particularly the unwillingness of men
to stay past their terms of service. Had the Red Sticks attacked
Jackson's force at this vulnerable moment they may have carried the day
on the battlefield. This story reveals the frustrations endured by
Jackson as he battled the persistent self-interest exhibited by these
What ultimately ensured American dominance over the region was the
victory over the British and the Indians in the War of 1812, and the
ensuing burst of nationalism in the "Era of Good Feelings." Having
defeated the British at New Orleans and forced their retreat from
Louisiana, and having also defeated the Creeks, the United States was
able to turn its attention to other Indian tribes and the Spanish. The
Spanish agreed to part with Florida in the Transcontinental Treaty of
1819, after American raids led by Andrew Jackson had exposed the fragile
hold the Spanish had on Florida. The United States thus secured its
southern border by removing a foreign power that had provided a
sanctuary to Indians and runaway slaves. It is interesting to contrast
this burst of nationalism with the pronounced localism of just a few
years earlier during the Creek war.
Rothman rightly credits the important role the United States government
played in these events. American soldiers and sailors helped suppress
the slave revolt in 1811, defeat the British in 1815, and defeat the
Indians in the Southeast. Deep South planters thus gained physical
security from internal and external threats to their economic and
political strength. Tariff policies that favored Louisiana sugar
planters encouraged the growth of that staple crop. Government surveyors
and land offices laid out the boundaries of settlement and brought order
to the sale of valuable land in the Deep South. The additional slave
states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama also offered political
strength to the South in Congress, especially during the Missouri Crisis
of 1819-1821 when the evenly balanced Senate defeated the Tallmadge
Amendment. The six senators from the Deep South clearly made a
significant impact in that crisis.
What ultimately makes this study successful is not just keen analysis,
but also Rothman's sprightly writing style, his eye for both the telling
detail, and his understanding that a good anecdote enlivens history. He
captures the rhythms of life in the early Deep South, such as the
schedule of work involved in the growing of major crops and the process
of cultivating them, helping the reader understand what growing sugar or
cotton entailed. He also brings to life not only people, but events such
as the Battle of New Orleans, the 1811 slave revolt, and the Red Sticks
and the Creek War. Finally, Rothman exhibits a sense of humor and is a
master of the well-turned phrase. One example of these qualities will
suffice. While discussing growing white fears of free blacks, which led
to passage of an ordinance banning free blacks from fencing and teaching
martial arts to their fellow free blacks, Rothman wryly notes that in
"New Orleans, it seems, good fencers did not make good neighb!
ors" (p. 104).
This last remark, though humorous, makes an important point. Rothman
addresses issues of race as well as economics throughout this book.
There were many tensions that existed in the Deep South prior to 1812.
Race helped create this tension, but so too did religion, and economic
Religion, much like migrants to the region, had to adapt to the new
territory. Whites rejected the anti-slavery strictures of Baptists and
Methodists, and these sects changed their message in order to survive
and prosper. Some slaves embraced evangelical Protestantism and thus
laid the basis for Afro-American Christianity. Some Indians even
embraced evangelical Christianity, though doing so would ultimately not
help them hold onto their land.
Slave importation presented a major problem because the national
government sought to limit, and then end, this trade after January 1,
1808. Government officials faced local planters who wanted and needed
slaves as the cultivation of sugar in Louisiana exploded following the
slave rebellion on St. Domingue. This rapid growth in sugar production
led to greater demand for slave labor, and New Orleans soon became a
major market for the importation of slaves. Rothman uses data from
Gwendolyn Midlo Hall and SPSS software to correlate the rise and fall of
slave prices in New Orleans with the price of sugar. Slaveholders
preferred Africans to Caribbean slaves, fearing they had been tainted
with the virus of rebellion. Despite the 1808 ban, Louisiana
slaveholders attempted to import slaves through Cuba, Texas, and Florida
and then ship them to New Orleans. A brisk interstate slave trade also
developed, shipping slaves from the Upper South to New Orleans. The
growth of this flouri!
shing interstate slave trade put the lie to the patriarchal
relationship as masters bought, sold, and transported slaves southward
against their will.
This growing slave population in turn led to growing white uneasiness
and resulted in calls for closer slave management. The New Orleans city
government passed legislation that created slave patrols to keep slaves
on their plantations at night, and also forbade slaves from buying and
selling goods on their own with river traders. Slaves did not simply
accept their fate. Many of them attempted to run away, often by stowing
away on board a ship departing New Orleans. Again, the city government
played a role in regulating black life. The New Orleans government
forbade ship captains from hiring slaves without their owners'
permission. This government also closely regulated free black life,
believing free blacks often helped slaves to run away. This step was
part of a pattern of limiting free black freedoms by both the Spanish
and American authorities. There were restrictions on marriage with
whites, sumptuary laws, and restrictions on carrying firearms that the
Spanish had insti!
tuted. Under American rule, free blacks lost the right of self-purchase
and could not participate in the creation of the new state government in
1811. Declension in the condition of free blacks was clearly evident in
New Orleans and mirrored the tightening of regulations that governed
Overall, this study does a fine job of discussing the economic and
population growth of an important region of the South, the important
roles played by capitalism and the national government in "civilizing"
this frontier, all without losing sight of the human dimension in this
struggle. _Slave Country_ represents the thoughtful effort of an
historian to address the growth of slave society in the Deep South. As
stated earlier, Adam Rothman has a first-rate writing style, a sure
command of the sources, especially primary source materials, and this
book fills a real need in the historical literature for a modern
analysis of the growth of slavery in the Deep South.
Having praised this book, this reviewer does have two minor points where
he demurs with Rothman's analysis. One of them is the absence of any
discussion of the Burr Conspiracy of 1806. Aaron Burr's flight down the
Mississippi River caused much concern in the nation's capital and
elsewhere because people were not sure of Burr's goals. Did he want to
separate the Louisiana Purchase from the United States? Was he in league
with a foreign power, such as Spain? Given Rothman's argument, which
stresses the concern attached by the national government and local
planters to the actions of foreign powers in and around the Louisiana
Purchase, this omission seems surprising. Did planters in the Deep South
discuss Burr's Conspiracy? Or if they were silent about this matter,
does that mean that the Burr Conspiracy was more important to people
living in the East?
This reviewer also has a quibble about Rothman's discussion of the
Missouri Crisis. Rothman correctly notes that there was little debate
over the admission of Alabama to the Union in 1819. He cites James
Tallmadge's acceptance of Alabama's admission as a slave state because
of geography and not wishing to mix slaves and free blacks. There was
little discussion about Alabama primarily because it was located south
of the Ohio River, and thus fell under the control of the Southwest
Ordinance of 1790, which was almost identical to the Northwest Ordinance
of 1787, except that the national government could not ban slavery in
these territories. The states of Alabama and Mississippi had been carved
out of land ceded by the state of Georgia to the national government.
Since Georgia was a slaveholding state, both Alabama and Mississippi
were allowed to have slavery without any interference from the national
government. This is a minor point, but it does bear mentioning.
These criticisms are minor and do not impair the quality of the work as
a whole. This book is first-rate and should be read by historians and
laypeople that have an interest in the development of a slaveholding
society in the Deep South.
. Kenneth M. Stampp, ed. _Records of Ante-Bellum Southern Plantations
from the Revolution through the Civil War_ (Frederick: University
Publications of America, 1985).
. Barbara Jeanne Fields, "Slavery, Race and Ideology in the United
States of America," _New Left Review_ 181 (1990): pp. 95-118; Ira
Berlin, _Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in
North America_ (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University
Press, 1998); Eugene D. Genovese, _Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the
Slaves Made_ (New York: Random House, 1972).
. Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, ed. _Louisiana Slave Database, 1719-1820_
(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000). SPSS is the
acronym for Statistical Package for the Social Sciences. Rothman uses
the version SPSS 11.0.1.
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