An interview with Joshua D Rothman

Read more about Flush Times and Fever Dreams

Q: Your book takes place during the speculative financial boom of the 1830s, and ends around the time of the Panic of 1837. Were you already working on the book when the financial collapse of 2008 occurred? If so, did that change the way you thought about your subject matter?

Rothman: I started work on this book in earnest around 2004, so the project was fairly far along by the time of the financial collapse. And to a certain extent the meltdown of the economy altered how I thought about the book. In its wake, for example, I realized that the book, which I had originally structured somewhat differently than it now appears, had to end with the Panic of 1837 and with the exploding of the speculative bubbles in land, cotton, and slaves that are so reminiscent of the financial follies of our own times. In large measure, though, the story and themes at the heart of the book remained very much the same, because I found what happened to the economy beginning in 2008 to be unpredictable only in its scale and its details. I recall vividly driving through south Florida in 2006 and 2007, seeing the explosion of real estate development there, and reading stories about people flipping properties in the region and elsewhere in the country, and thinking to myself that it was all completely unsustainable. Having spent several years by that point thinking about what happened in the United States in the early 1830s and other similar moments where Americans get carried away and come to believe the normal laws of economics have somehow ceased to apply, it seemed self-evident to me that a collapse of some kind was just a matter of time. Believe me, I wish I had been wrong.

Q: Flush Times and Fever Dreams is also about individual people—notably Virgil Stewart and John Murrell. How did they meet?

Rothman: Virgil Stewart and John Murrell met when Stewart agreed to track Murrell for a friend in Tennessee who believed Murrell had stolen a couple of slaves with the intent of selling them out of state. Stewart found Murrell on the road, pretended to be a fellow criminal, traveled with him for two weeks, collected what he claimed was evidence of Murrell’s guilt, and then turned him in. Murrell ended up being sentenced to ten years hard labor in the Tennessee state penitentiary.

Q: You argue that Virgil Stewart set in motion a chain of events that culminated in two outbreaks of violence on the southwestern frontier. One was aimed at people suspected of fomenting a slave insurrection, and the other targeted gamblers. How do you explain the relationship between the two?

Rothman: While the story Virgil Stewart told about his travels with John Murrell sparked what happened in the Southwest in 1835, in some ways the slave insurrection scare and the gambling riot he helped trigger were merely coincidental. They took place in Mississippi within fifty miles of one another and broke out just days apart, but a direct causal relationship between them was something people only started imparting to them after they were over. What I argue in the book, however, is that while their breaking out in such proximate fashion was a coincidence, they each reflected American anxieties peculiar to the speculative economy that had become quite overheated by the middle of the 1830s. Thanks to escalating cotton prices, Mississippi at that time was the most exciting place for investors to put their money and for white settlers to try and make their fortunes by buying cheap land and enslaved laborers. But slave stealers like John Murrell reminded settlers that slaves were not nearly so sturdy a place to put capital as they appeared, and professional gamblers reminded settlers that their supposedly legitimate frontier ventures were not so different from the dubious commerce of men widely considered bloodsuckers and pariahs. National concerns about the practical economic prospects for slave-based prosperity rooted in cotton production and about the cultural implications of becoming a country of gamblers thus converged to produce the tremendously nasty violence one saw in Mississippi before the Panic of 1837.

Q: Sven Beckert and Seth Rockman recently caused a stir with their blog post for Bloomberg media called “How Slavery Led to Modern Capitalism.” Can you say a little about how your book joins that conversation?

Rothman: While my book tries to tell what I think is a really thrilling story about the dark side of the American frontier, it also tries to situate slavery and the South at the center of our understanding of how American capitalism developed in the decades before the Civil War. Too often in our histories and especially in our popular imagination, slavery and the South are seen as fundamentally different from the rest of the nation, peripheral to what it would become, and relatively backward, particularly economically. From a modern perspective, of course, it makes sense that we would see things that way. Our moral sensibilities are such that slavery is anathema and the Civil War itself seems to have confirmed that a free labor system grounded in manufacturing, industry, and urbanization is not only more just but also economically superior to and incompatible with one rooted in slavery. But in truth, slavery and slave labor were absolutely central to the rise of market capitalism in nineteenth-century America. Cotton produced by American slaves was the most important commodity in the world before the Civil War and the most valuable export the United States produced, and slaves themselves were seen as incredibly good investments and capital repositories. We both misread the American past and put on dangerous blinders in the present to think that slavery and modern capitalism cannot coexist.

Q: Do you think race continues to play a significant role in American capitalism?

Rothman: I think it’s fairly obvious that it does. Look closely at who performs a disproportionate number of the difficult and dirty jobs at the bottom of our domestic economic ladder. Ask who produces the vast quantities of imported cheap goods that we take for granted. Race cannot be separated from the story of capitalism in the modern world. Sadly, the persistence of human trafficking and other forms of coerced labor remind us that slavery cannot be either.