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Walter Johnson (b. in Columbia, Missouri) is an American historian, who teaches history and directs the Charles Warren Center at Harvard University.

Walter Johnson discussing the slave trade in New Orleans, 2000.



Walter Johnson was born in Columbia, Missouri in 1967. His father, Walter Johnson, was a professor of Economics at the University of Missouri,[1] where the auditorium in which he taught is now named in his honor. His mother, Mary-Angela Johnson,[2] was director of the Children's House Montessori School, and a member of the boards of both the Columbia Housing Authority and the Boone County Public Library. His brother, Willoughby Johnson, is the president of TimberKing, Inc., a Kansas City-based manufacturer of portable sawmills. Johnson is married to the historian Alison Frank Johnson. He has three children and two step children.


Johnson was educated at the University of Missouri Laboratory School, West Junior High School, and Rock Bridge High School, all in Columbia, Missouri. In 2006 he was inducted into the Rock Bridge High School Hall of Fame, along with NASCAR Superstar Carl Edwards.[3] Johnson holds degrees from Amherst College,[4] the University of Cambridge, and Princeton University, where he received a Ph.D. in History under the direction of Professor Nell Irvin Painter in 1995.


Johnson began his teaching career in the History Department at New York University in 1995, and taught there until 2006. In 2000, he accepted a joint appointment in NYU's American Studies program, which he directed during the academic year 2005-2006.[5] In 2006, Johnson accepted an appointment as Professor of History and African and African American Studies at Harvard University. In 2008, he became the Winthrop Professor of History, and in 2012 he assumed the directorship of the Charles Warren Center for the Study of American History.[6]


Johnson's work focuses on the history of slavery, capitalism, white supremacy, Black resistance, and US imperialism.

Soul by Soul

Based upon his 1995 Princeton Ph.D. dissertation, which was in turn based upon a seminar paper written in a class on Southern History taught by Nell Irvin Painter, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market was published by Harvard University Press in 1999. The book won several prizes: the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Prize; the Organization of American HistoriansFrederick Jackson Turner and Avery O. Craven Prizes; the Southern Historical Association’s Francis B. Simkins Prize; the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic’s SHEAR Book Prize; and the Thomas J. Wilson Prize from Harvard University Press. It was also a selection of the History Book Club.

Soul by Soul was based upon the records of the Louisiana Supreme Court, the nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves, slaveholders’ personal records, and the economic documentation produced by the trade itself.

The book took up and reworked many of the themes which occupied historians of slavery in the thirty years before it was published. The book was among the first in the historiography of slavery in the United States to place the question of capitalism and the market at the heart of its investigation of slavery. By demonstrating the extent to which slaveholders’ own identities were embodied in their slaves, it explored the master-slave dialectic and the relationship between slaveholding households and the slave market. By following slaves’ efforts to get their bearing and forge human connections amidst the violent dislocation of the slave trade, it provided an account of the ability of “the slave community” to reproduce itself over time and space. By exploring slaveholders’ gendered fantasies about the slave market and describing the questions they asked and the examinations they made in the slave market, it investigated the daily reproduction of racist ideas about medicine, management, and sexuality in the institution that was at the heart of the slaveholding economy. By recovering the traces of slaves’ efforts to shape their own sale, it embedded the central symbol of slavery's brutality in a history of opposition and manipulation. And by noting the vulnerability of slaveholding identities dependent upon slaves for their performance, it sought to explain the extraordinary violence that characterized all of antebellum slavery.

“On Agency”

Published in the Journal of Social History in 2003, “On Agency” is a historiographical and theoretical consideration of the notion of “agency” central to a large body of scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences. It is not, as it is sometimes understood to be, a blanket condemnation of the writing of “history from the bottom up,” but rather a call for a more critical attention to the terms in which that history is written. “Agency,” Johnson argues, has come to aggregate too many different sorts of actions under one heading, thus losing the ability to distinguish between different sorts of material contexts, cultural framings, and political purposes. “On Agency,” is a critique of the crypto-liberal philosophical premises of progressive historiography, and a call for what the historian Richard White termed a more “radical” approach to the writing of history.

“The Pedestal and the Veil”

“The Pedestal and the Veil” was published in the Journal of the Early Republic in 2004. The piece develops a consideration of Marx's treatment of cotton and slavery in the first volume of Capital into a critique of the orthodox analytical separation of “slavery” and “capitalism” into separate stages of economic development. The piece suggests that, while the nineteenth century developed a hard-and-fast ideological distinction between the two which has made its way into the work of many subsequent historians, in historical fact slavery and industry were so deeply intertwined that they should be considered as differentiated aspects of a single economic system.

River of Dark Dreams

River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom was published by Harvard University Press in 2013. In it, Johnson seeks to empirically substantiate some of the conceptual arguments made in his articles from the preceding decade, as well as to resituate the historiography of nineteenth-century slavery in the history of the global economy of the nineteenth century. Where much of Johnson's earlier work had been framed around the consideration of various notions of historical time, River of Dark Dreams is a book about space: the material space of the landscape of the cotton South, the economic space of the Atlantic World, and the imagined space of white supremacy and pro-slavery imperialism. River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom (2013) won the 2013 SHEAR Book Prize and received an Honorable Mention for the 2014 Avery O. Craven Prize from the Organization of American Historians. It was also a Choice Outstanding Academic Title for 2013.

“The New History of Capitalism” and “Racial Capitalism”

While Johnson's work is often described as an example of the “New History of Capitalism,” Johnson himself rejects that label. He emphasizes his indebtedness to a historiographical tradition dating back to W. E. B. DuBois's 1899 The Suppression of the African Slavery Trade to the United States of America and, especially, DuBois's 1935 Black Reconstruction, and especially to DuBois's emphasis on the ineluctably racial character of capitalism, and on the experience and historical action of working people, especially African American working people. Among his principal scholarly influences, Johnson cites DuBois, Cedric Robinson, Nell Irvin Painter, Robin D. G. Kelley, David Roediger, George Lipsitz, Daniel Rodgers, Richard White, Lisa Lowe, Adam Green, and Stephanie Smallwood. Writing at length in the Boston Review, Johnson has recently invoked the models of DuBois and Cedric Robinson in proposing that the historiography of slavery be reframed around the idea of “racial capitalism.”


Johnson's River of Dark Dreams has recently drawn critical attention from economic historians who grouped his study alongside several other scholars' books. Empirical errors found in these books suggest that the “New History of Capitalism” has paid insufficient attention to neo-classical economics.[7] While acknowledging that River of Dark Dreams misstates the Latin name of Upland Cotton and, for certain scholars, may provide a mathematically incorrect account of the way that slaveholders calculated the productivity of their land and their slaves, Johnson has nevertheless maintained that errors in applying an empirical framework do not substantially or even meaningfully alter the book's interpretation of the social and economic history of cotton and slavery.


Professor Johnson has received numerous awards and honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, the Radcliffe Institute, and the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, an ACLS-Burkhardt Fellowship, and a Mellon Fellowship in Cultural Studies at Wesleyan University.


  • Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Harvard University Press. 1999. ISBN 978-0-674-00539-6.
  • Walter Johnson, ed. (2004). The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-10355-7.
  • River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom. Harvard University Press. 2013.
  • "State of the Field: Slavery" (2004), Organization of American Historians


  • John Lauritz Larson, Michael A. Morrison, eds. (2005). Whither the Early Republic: A Forum on the Future of the Field. University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 978-0-8122-1932-6.CS1 maint: Uses editors parameter (link)


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