Adam Rothman: Django Unchained’s Bloody Real History in Mississippi

tags: Django Unchained, Mississippi, Adam Rothman, Daily Beast



Adam Rothman is an Associate Professor of History and the Director of Doctoral Studies at Georgetown University. He is the author of Slave Country: American Expansion and the Origins of the Deep South.

Yet to describe the plot of Django as absurd and outlandish, as many reviewers have done, misses a crucial point. The true history of the Cotton Kingdom before the Civil War was no less bizarre and bloody than anything the movie has to offer. Two new books by excellent historians, Joshua Rothman’s Flush Times & Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom, reveal that slave owners’ own wild fantasies had deadly practical consequences. (Note: Joshua Rothman is not related to me.)

Mississippi was riding high in 1835. Cotton prices were rising, migrants were flocking in, and the government was selling fertile lands wrested from the Indians to slave-owning planters at exorbitant prices. The slave population was growing, too; soon the state would have a black majority, many of them “sold down the river” from Virginia and Kentucky or forced to march overland from Georgia and the Carolinas to work the new plantations’ vast fields of white gold. Tarantino gets that right, even if the blood he spatters across the bolls comes from the wrong veins.

The cotton boom brought anxieties over social disorder embodied by a man named John Murrell, “the great Western land pirate.” Murrell was a horse thief and slave stealer who swindled his way through the Deep South in the early 1830s. He became a household name after the publication of a sensational pamphlet that placed him at the head of a secret conspiracy to incite a massive slave insurrection across the South on Christmas Day in 1835 and rob all the banks as the country went up in flames. Tarantino’s plot seems tame in comparison to the pulp fiction of Jacksonian America....




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