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Cotton Pressing in Louisiana; wood engraving from Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, 1856.

Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South. By Adam Rothman. (Cambridge, Mass and London: Harvard University Press, 2005). pp. ix-296.

In Slave Country, Adam Rothman tries to answer why the revolutionary generation did not abolish slavery during the formation of the United States and why slavery thrived and expanded in the Early National era. He also examines the contradictory relationship the founders had with slavery: the ban on slave importation from the foreign slave trade, the creation of regulations on the internal domestic slave trade, and their (somewhat feeble) attempts at limiting the spread of slavery into new territories. He focuses his attention on the deep southern region that encompasses Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. Rothman maintains that the rise of the plantation system coincided with the “transatlantic system of commodity exchange” and was supported by favorable national and local policies designed to spread slavery into the newly acquired southwest territories.

The plantation system gained a big boost from two new crops not cultivated widely in the colonial period. Sugar and cotton virtually replaced indigo and tobacco as southern cash crops and required extensive labor to produce. The sugar industry expanded in Louisiana in large part to the successful slave revolt in Saint-Domingue in 1791, which redistributed sugar production knowledge and technology throughout the Americas. Cotton also became important due to international influences. The technological advances in the textile industry in England (and later domestically in New England) spurred the demand for large quantities of hardy cotton.

Rothman, however, knows just enough Louisiana history to be dangerous. When he sticks to verifiable facts, his book is an enjoyable read but his interpretation of said facts is exceedingly irksome. He claims to explain the origins of slavery in what he terms the “Deep South” but he clearly ignores (except for a few highly cherry-picked examples) the entire history of slavery in the French and Spanish Colonial periods. What Rothman actually presents in this book without ever explicitly saying was the “Americanization” of slavery in the “Deep South,” especially in Louisiana.

If Rothman had included the sizable historiography of creolization and Americanization, he would have found an explanation of the German Coast slave riot (January 8, 1811) and for the diminishing population of free people of color. During the time period described in Slave Society, Louisiana was experiencing an abrupt transition between slavery systems: from the harsh and exploitative but still the most lenient form (i.e. the Spanish) to the harshest (i.e. the Anglo-American) in terms of legal rights, privileges, and treatment. There was also a switch from a precarious subsistence, colonial trade economy to a more stable and lucrative plantation economy. Rothman attributes the revolt to the switch in production from indigo and tobacco to sugar and cotton and in part, he is correct. However, without examining the origins of the planters themselves, whether they were Creole Louisianans or transplanted Americans, one can only tell the partial story. When the Americans came to Louisiana, they brought with them their own system of slavery and racial prejudices. By omitting an explanation of slavery under the Spanish rule, Rothman presents a skewed interpretation. His description of slavery in this book, while technically correct from an American point of view, ignores the Creole resistance to and the steady pressure of Americanization.

Under the French and Spanish rules, Louisiana gained a large, prosperous, and growing population of free people of color. Louisiana was, in fact, a tertiary society: white, mulatto, and black. During the American colonial period, that tertiary society was squashed into a binary one: white and black. The Americans systematically scaled back the rights and privileges enjoyed by New Orleans free people of color (gens de couleur libres). This had a devastating effect on that population, libres either assimilated to pass as “white” or they emigrated to France. If Rothman had included any history before 1804, he could have told a more compelling story about the darker side of Americanization. He also would not have been so shocked by the New Orleans Mulatto Militia’s contribution to the Battle of New Orleans as they had a long and distinguished service under Spanish rule.

Rothman repeatedly refers to New Orleans/Louisiana public officials in his book. But this terminology lacks precision. When he refers to public officials, he means American officials or the few Creoles who supported American expansion. The American presence in Louisiana at this time was a thin but growing veneer. In fact, the native Creole population was struggling to retain political control but found themselves increasingly accommodating the Americans or they risked being pushed out of politics altogether. The Americans do not achieve full dominance until the 1830s. Rothman ignores the Creole perspective and sources in favor of their American (and prevailing) counterpoint. This is especially evident when he discusses the public reaction to Saint-Domingue refugees entering Louisiana. The larger Francophone population welcomed the refugees with open arms as fellow countrymen. Louisiana had more socio-economic and political ties with the circum-Caribbean world than it did to the mainland. The Americans wanted to reverse this trend and to avoid the slave insurrections and political instability that the French revolution had caused in the Caribbean.

slavery3

Rothman’s analysis of Louisiana slavery is another good example of favoritism for American sources. He insists that, “the broader patterns of transatlantic and intra-Caribbean slave trade, not the preferences of local planters, dictated which Africans would end up in the lower Mississippi Valley.”[1] He is correct. The Americans in Louisiana had no preference for location, but the Creoles did. Again, Rothman lacks precision. To support his statement, he quotes William Dunbar, but Dunbar himself refutes Rothman’s claim when he writes, “The Iboe nation lies under a prejudice here & may be excluded.”[2] Creoles, when possible, avoided making slaves of the Iboe people because they were warlike, aggressive, and tended to incite slave rebellions. This is one of the reasons that the British employed Iboe warriors during the Battle of New Orleans.

His use and interpretation of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall’s Louisiana Slave Database is spotty at best. Rothman uses the database to show that because the buyers did not pay more for slaves of any particular region that they did not care where they were from. Hall’s Africans in Colonial Louisiana: The Development of Afro-Creole Culture in the Eighteenth Century, provides a better understanding of the nature of slavery in Louisiana as a whole. She did a detailed analysis of slaves’ origins and found a marked (Creole) preference for slaves from the Senegambia region of North Africa. Rothman misses a golden opportunity to compare and contrast American versus Creole slave preferences by not utilizing his Creole sources.

Rothman lumps Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama together as the “Deep South” and analyzes the effects of plantation slavery and American expansion had on each region. He also relies heavily on Thomas Jefferson’s civilizing mission of the agrarian frontier as a lens to view the results. The trouble Rothman encounters is that Jefferson’s vision was only possible if the wilderness was empty, which it was not. Rothman claims that Alabama most realized Jefferson’s vision and created the most republican society of the three in part because the planter class had less of a stranglehold on its formation. While that may have been true, Alabama territory was also the least touched by European influences having nearly always been controlled by Native Americans. Once Andrew Jackson defeated the Creek Indians during the War of 1812, the area was ripe for whatever system the Americans wished to implement and there was no need for accommodating the native population. That was not the case in Louisiana and the Mississippi Territory.

A major problem arises when a new colonizing force enters into a region with significant internal improvements, especially if the new force recognizes the prior claims of the indigenous population, as was the case in Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi for the people of European descent. The difficulties surveying Federal lands and the opposition of squatters are two prime examples. Jefferson’s administration had a constant, nightmare struggle to survey, delineate, and bring these rectangular plots of land to sale. The Federal Land administration also spent years verifying Louisianans’ Royal charters and land grants from both France and Spain to weed out fraudulent claims. Because the inhabitants had recognized protections under international treaties and were of European descent, the Americans were initially forced into accommodation and thus were less successful in achieving the ideal republican society in their newly acquired territories.

The Early Republic Congressional debate about whether to allow slavery to exist in Louisiana and Mississippi Territory was exceedingly silly. They assumed that the region was a tabula rasa where slavery could either be imposed or banned while ignoring that slavery had existed in some form (first Indian enslavement, then African) since colonialization began in 1699. However, Rothman did an excellent job in demonstrating the effects that chattel slavery had on Native American peoples. He demonstrated through various examples how the Indian backcountry was not a haven for escaped slaves: many slaves nearly perished from hunger and exposure; slaves were carried off by Indians as war prizes; and slaves were targeted as reprisals against white transgressions. Another thing Rothman could have explored was the taking of Indians by whites as slaves. Because the Indians themselves had been targeted as slaves, it goes a long way in explaining their denigration of African slaves.

[1] Pp 89.

[2] Pp 88.

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