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Published by EH.Net (April 2024).

Patrick Luck. Replanting a Slave Society: The Sugar and Cotton Revolutions in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Charlottesville: The University of Virginia Press, 2022. 256 pp. $49.50 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0813947815.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Samuel C. Hyde, Southeastern Louisiana University.

 

Delineating the limits of the slave system in many senses defined nineteenth century American politics and social development. Initially debate centered on how far slavery should be allowed to expand territorially. Later scholars argued over how long it would last and what would lead to bonded labor’s eventual, and inevitable, demise. A part of this debate has always included acknowledging the transformation of North American slavery as cotton and sugar farming came to replace the original labor-intensive cash crops, tobacco and indigo.

In this new volume from the University of Virginia Press, historian Patrick Luck considers the limits of the slave system from a different angle. Luck begins his story by presenting American slavery in decline and the enslavers on the threshold of panic. Many among the slaveholding elite of the late eighteenth century openly feared that slavery may soon be rendered obsolete if not outright abolished. International economic malaise amid a world in the Age of Revolution seemed to compromise the profitability of bound labor, just as growing fear of the enslaved suggested the need to limit the slave system’s growth. Then, remarkably, between 1796 when slaveholders sought to close the slave trade, and 1804, when they insisted it must remain open, a dramatic transformation occurred.

In less than a decade the slaveholding elite of the lower Mississippi valley advanced from a state of fear and apprehension to heights of power and prosperity beyond anything they had previously imagined. According to Luck, this transformation paralleled the arrival in the region of cotton and sugar, a perspective that is far from new. Readers familiar with the work of Lewis C. Gray, Gavin Wright, and John Hebron Moore, whom the author seems to dismiss or overlook, are well familiar with the argument. Luck nonetheless considers the process of change from another perspective.

In his version of events the cotton and sugar “revolutions” reflect the hemispheric process of transitioning from “first” slavery to “second” slavery, or from colonial slavery to the revitalization of the system that occurred with the arrival of the mass production of cotton and to a lesser degree sugar. Luck reveals his purpose to explain, “how regional elites made these intertwined cotton and sugar revolutions that would transform slavery in the lower Mississippi valley as part of the larger story of the transformation of American slavery.” (7) To do this, according to Luck, the regional elites relied on a variety of “technologies.”

Specifically, the author identifies cotton cultivation, sugar production, and the international and internal slave trades as the primary vehicles of the transformation. They are technologies in the sense of the arrival of the cotton gin, the granulation of sugar, and the revitalized slave trade. By embracing these technologies, the slaveholding elite, and their allies, went beyond merely saving slavery and making it profitable; they transformed a colonial region in crisis into one that was economically stable and working for their benefit. Their efforts were intentional but the dramatic results were unplanned. According to Luck, the lower Mississippi valley was reconfigured to benefit the slaveholding elite, a transformation that carried profound national and international implications.

Not everyone will find Luck’s argument groundbreaking. But serious readers will have to appreciate that he is succinctly stating what many have long taken for granted, and most readers will appreciate the nomenclature. Skeptical scholars who demand “fat” endnotes rich in multiple sources to convince them of the veracity of an argument will often be disappointed with this book. With the exception of notes heavily burdened with discursive material, the sources are frequently limited and at times reliant on secondary works that are peripheral to the subject being discussed. But overall the book offers a concise, well-written look at a critical period in the evolution of slavery and the cotton/sugar economy in the lower Mississippi valley. It demands a look from scholars of the era, and they are certain to recognize its usefulness.

 

Samuel C. Hyde is Leon Ford Endowed Chair, Professor of History, and Director of the Center for Southeast Louisiana Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. He is the author of multiple books including the award winning Pistols and Politics: Feuds, Factions, and the Struggle for Order in Louisiana’s Florida Parishes, 1810-1935 (LSU Press, 2018).

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