Between movies like Gone With the Wind and Sweet Home Alabama, and antebellum-themed weddings, vacations, and weekend lunches for the rich and famous, the notion of plantation life as idyllic remains ingrained in the American imagination, especially for white Americans. More than 300 plantations in the United States (US) remain intact, dozens of them set up as museums.
They serve to remind Americans of a time of obscene individual wealth gained from humans, an absolute power over human beings unrivalled in all of history. For so many even in this age, the awe of amassing so much money and power far outweighs the horrors of enslaving people generation after generation.
Make no mistake, the first American Dream was plantation slavery, or wealth American style. It included taking the land and the lives of Indigenous Americans, kidnapping and enslaving Africans, codifying African women's wombs into property, and growing tobacco, cotton, indigo, and sugarcane as cash crops.
It contained all the racist, misogynistic, classist, and narcissistic elements synonymous with American dreaming. Plantation slavery was a system of policing Black bodies and movements, of rape and torture, for profit and perverse pleasure. Between white vigilantism, law enforcement, and unbridled capitalism, the violence of this first American Dream is very much embedded in everything the US is in 2021.
Americans wilfully forget that millions of white men lustfully stalked this first American Dream before, during, and after the US became a nation-state. As the new US murdered its way to more land, these men repeated the patterns that grew cash-crop plantation life into the America's economic engine. First in Kentucky and Tennessee, then, after the Louisiana Purchase and the War of 1812, in Alabama and Mississippi.
Soon after, in Missouri and Florida, with the support of the US Army and killers of Indigenous people like eventual seventh US president, Andrew Jackson. Then, in annexing Texas, and eventually, taking all of the Southwestern US from Mexico. By the 1850s, plantation slavery existed in Kansas and threatened to exist in New Mexico and Arizona.
Plantation slavery was truly an American ideal, and not just a Southern one. There was the capital generated from owning land and slaves. Add to this the wealth and power produced from land speculation and the buying and selling of humans from Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia to Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama. Add to that the many accounts that bankers in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston held, assets that enabled loans for more whites to buy more land and more enslaved Black people.
And add to that the venture capital necessary to build textile mills in New England, for shipping ventures to sell and trade tobacco, rice, and cotton to mill owners in Britain. As historian Edward B Baptist noted in a Vox interview in 2019, the 19th century was the period "when you see the US go from being a colonial, primarily agricultural economy to being the second biggest industrial power in the world".
Many US historians would point to President Thomas Jefferson's agrarian democracy ideal as a counter-narrative. "Those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God, if ever He had a chosen people, whose breasts He has made his peculiar deposit for substantial and genuine virtue," Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia in 1785. According to historian Lisi Krall, "[h]istorians generally agree that [Jefferson] offers a vision of a nation of independent farmers who would provide the bedrock on which to build our … sound democracy."
But if Jefferson had a democratic vision, it was pure fantasy, akin to Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's 1982 hit Ebony and Ivory, where folks living with rank inequality would live together in "perfect harmony". At best, Jefferson's vision was an Eden full of small family farms and plantations, where white people could play democracy, freedom and prosperity. At its worst, it was about preserving the socioeconomic status quo of a small white minority owning all the arable land and the people they kidnapped, raped, and forced to birth more enslaved people to work their land for free.
Jefferson was a Virginia planter whose hypocrisy knew no bounds. He claimed more than 600 human beings as property over the course of his life. He owned Monticello, a 5,000-acre (2025 hectares) plantation that is now the University of Virginia. Jefferson also fathered all six of Sally Hemings's children, one of his slaves and the half-sister of Jefferson's white wife Martha, who died in 1782, when Jefferson was 39 years old.
He made Hemings his "concubine" between 1787 and 1789 while serving in Paris as a US diplomatic minister to France. He was between 44 and 46 years old then. Hemings was between 14 and 16 at the time, 30 years younger than Jefferson.
"White males … exercised inordinate power over black women during slavery. Rape and the threat of it blighted the lives of countless enslaved women," historian and Hemings family chronicler Annette Gordon-Reed wrote regarding the prospect of romantic love between Jefferson and Hemings. Gordon-Reed added, "Being a man's wife was not the same thing as being a man's slave, even if Sally and Thomas's relationship had begun under unusual circumstances."
Those "unusual circumstances" were rape, statutory, lawful rape, because Jefferson owned Hemings and the babies she birthed. As Tina Turner used to sing, "What's love got to do with it", especially if rape and generational enslavement was what Jefferson meant by farmers possessing the best of America's "substantial and genuine virtue". Rape and the whip were the ways in which slavery became reproducible, with beloved Founding Fathers like Jefferson very much in and of this world of reprehensive contradictions.
As WEB Du Bois wrote in his book Black Reconstruction: "The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings…tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, quarrelsome kinglets; they issued commands; they made laws; they shouted their orders; they expected deference and self-abasement; they were choleric and easily insulted."
"As the world had long learned, nothing is so calculated to ruin human nature as absolute power over human beings," Du Bois concluded. The lust for this kind of power is why even whites living in poverty have always found enjoyment in Black suffering.
First dreams often die hard. It took the Civil War to destroy the orgasmic fantasy of white men becoming choleric mini-tyrants through the American Dream of plantation slavery. But this version of the American Dream morphed and lives on in the laws, the hearts, and the minds of millions of American men.
This Dream is what explains the popularity of rich white men in the US. White evangelists like Joel Osteen and Kenneth Copeland, robber barons like JD Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, nouveau billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, and grifters and paedophiles like Donald Trump and Jeffrey Epstein.
The lack of such status adds anti-Black and misogynistic hatred and resentment to white men's sense of entitlement and little fear of consequences as ingredients, because they will always have an army of supporters in their pursuit of this toxic American Dream. They will continue to turn this country and world into a nightmare for us all.
The writer is Lecturer of History at American University in Washington, DC.
The piece is excerpted from