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Patrick Luck on How the American Slavery Economy Shifted from Tobacco to Cotton and Sugar

Patrick Luck is Assistant Professor of History at Florida Polytechnic University. This interview is based on his new book, Replanting a Slave Society: The Sugar and Cotton Revolutions in the Lower Mississippi Valley (University of Virginia Press, 2022).

JF: What led you to write Replanting a Slave Society?

PL: In graduate school, I came across the letters of a Louisiana enslaver named Julien Poydras. These letters introduced me to a major economic crisis in Louisiana in the 1790s and the fact that planters and farmers overcame that crisis by switching their main cash crops from indigo and tobacco to cotton and sugar over just a few years. This struck me as important considering that the main cash crop grown in a slave society is typically seen as crucial to how that slave society operated, and the cotton revolution is a crucial turning point in the history of slavery in the United States. This story became even more compelling when I learned that sugar production is very technologically sophisticated and particularly challenging in Louisiana, making its rapid adoption striking. 

Later I came to understand that this crop switch was widely accepted as a crucial turning point in the region, both by contemporaries and later historians. However, I also discovered that the actual process of this switch had been largely overlooked. I think much of the explanation for this is that historians of the region have an almost obsessive, if understandable, focus on New Orleans. In practice, this has meant that the rural lower Mississippi valley, especially during the Early Republic period, has been understudied. 

I concluded that figuring out why and how planters undertook these shifts and how these shifts transformed the region were fascinating puzzles and worth studying more closely, ultimately producing this book.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Replanting a Slave Society?

PL: Lower Mississippi valley planters and other elite actors self-consciously and methodically remade their slave society in the face of severe economic and political crises in the 1790s by adopting cotton and sugar. This transformed the region from an anemic slave society to one that was prosperous and expanding by the Louisiana Purchase and laid the foundation for the extraordinarily profitable and brutal slave society that would dominate the lower Mississippi valley until the American Civil War.

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