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Outline and Summary of Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: Harvard University Press, 1999)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Rhetoric, Slavery on April 9, 2011 at 4:01 pm

Allen Mendenhall


The focus of this book is on nineteenth-century New Orleans and the slave market that emerged then and there.  More than other workings of slavery, slave markets reduced humans to commodities with prices.  In particular, this book is interested in the story of slave showrooms, which held up to 100 slaves and where appraisals, accountings, back-room dealings, and other activities took place.  The book attributes the slave trade to mercantilism whereby colonial imports serviced and stocked metropolitan centers and generated profits secured for both state-sponsored companies and the monopoly-granting state itself.  Companies with well-connected leaders and government ties could gain state privileges and favors and receive special monopoly licenses to dominate trade, first in goods such as tobacco, indigo, rice, cotton, coffee, and so on, and later in human beings.  The ban of the international slave trade in 1808 did not lead to the reduction or softening of slavery, but rather to new shapes and manifestations of slavery, especially as slave populations moved increasingly from the upper to the lower South.  The ban led, more importantly for the purposes of this book, to the domestic slave trade.  The domestic slave trade intensified during the rise of the cotton kingdom.  The price of slaves changed with the price of cotton until the 1850s. 

The state itself sponsored slave auctions and monitored the slave trade.  Thousands of slaves passed through the New Orleans slave market, which went great lengths toward building the Southern slave economy.  A major argument of this book is that “slaveholders represented themselves to one another by reference to their slaves” (13). 


“This project takes the form of a thrice-told tale: the story of a single moment—a slave sale—told from three different perspectives.  Following from a tradition of work in African American history stretching back at least to W. E. B. Du Bois’s Black Reconstruction, this book began with the idea that the history of any struggle, no matter how one-sided its initial appearance, is incomplete until told from the perspectives of all of those whose agency shaped the outcome.  The systemic brutality apparent from the perspective of the demographic map needs to be punctuated by the episodes of resistance that occurred on dusty roads; the counting up and parsing out of sales must be complicated with an account of the intricate bargaining that preceded the final deal; the central symbol of a property regime that treated people as possessions must be fleshed out with the power, desire, and dissimulation that gave it daily shape.  Rather than charting a map of foreordained conclusions, I have tried to understand a slave sale from the contingent perspective of each of its participants—to assess their asymmetric information, expectations, and power, to search out their mutual misunderstandings and calculated misrepresentations, to investigate what each had at stake and how each tried to shape the outcome.” (9)

Note on sources:      

Because slave narratives “remain our best source for the history of enslaved people in the slave trade” (10), Walter Johnson has read them (a) “in tandem with sources produced by slaveholders and visitors to the South,” (b) “for traces of the experience of slavery antecedent to the ideology of antislavery,” and (c) “for symbolic truths that stretch beyond the facticity of specific events” (11).  Johnson also relies on a docket of records of roughly 200 Louisiana Supreme Court cases on slave sales during the nineteenth-century.  Finally, Johnson relies heavily on letters written by slaveholders as well as economical descriptions in various documents pertaining to slave sales (acts of sales, traders’ record books, etc.).   

Note on organization:

“The early chapters explore the radically incommensurable views taken by slaves and slaveholders of the relation of the slave trade to the broader system of slavery and follow this philosophical difference through the practical contests that defined the history of the slave trade: the efforts of slaveholders to coax or coerce their resistant slaves into the trade, the strategies the traders used to get their slaves to market, the slaves’ efforts to make common cause with their fellow slaves and to resist the traders.  The subsequent chapters of the book treat the contested bargains made by traders, buyers, and slaves in the showrooms and auction houses.” (16)

Chapter One: The Chattel Principle        

The chattel principle is the idea that a slave’s identity could change as easily as his or her price on the market.  Slaves’ bodies were shaped to their slavery in that slaves were trained to view their body as property with a particular value.  The slave market, for the slaveholders, was not an ever-present phenomenon but a carefully supervised activity reserved for restricted areas.  Slave traders were stigmatized in order to validate the system of slavery.  “In the figure of the slave trader were condensed the anxieties of slaveholding society in the age of capitalist transformation: paternalism overthrown by commodification, honor corrupted by interest, and dominance infected with disorder” (25).  A slave’s existence was so bound up with price and worth that the system of slavery could not have existed apart from commercial culture.  To absolve themselves of personal responsibility, slave owners found excuses and justifications for selling slaves.  Slaves often resisted their sale, either by running away or by other means.  Slave owners had to negotiate slave sales not only with buyers, but also, in order to maintain honor and keep with the ideology of paternalism, with the slaves to be sold.            

Chapter Two: Between the Prices

Slave traders were usually speculators who held other jobs in addition to slave trading.  Slaves shaped their identities against and despite of slave traders.  The connections slaves made during slave trading engendered a sense of community.  All parties involved in slave trading held different stakes and liabilities per sale.  Auctioneers, who were more or less licensed brokers, made a living by selling slaves.  A trader had to know the highest price he would pay for a slave as well as the lowest price for which he would sell a slave.  Traders priced slaves according to criteria such as age, weight, gender, skin pigment, and so forth.  Traders had to protect the livelihood of their “property,” i.e., slaves.  They did so by living in close proximity to slaves.  While kept in coffles, slaves formed relationships with each other to their mutual benefit and avoided relationships that might worsen their prospects, all the while developing a common culture, as exemplified by the songs they sang together and the stories they passed down.  Slave relationships depended in part upon the ways in which traders segregated slaves by sex.  In short, the slave trade allowed slaves to form networks of resistance and support, and these networks resulted from everyday activities and encounters between slaves.

Chapter Three: Making a World Out of Slaves

The slave market was omnipresent in the South.  It was present as much in the fields, farms, and auctioneer blocks as in white households, and it shaped the rhetoric with which slave owners spoke about slaves.  For instance, whites’ rhetoric began to conform to a paternalistic ideology that held that masters were watching over slaves, buying or selling slaves for reasons that would benefit slaves, who could not, or would not, care for themselves.  The slave market therefore influenced the way that slave owners viewed themselves—the way, that is, that they internalized their cultural surroundings.  It also played into notions of chivalry, gentility, patriarchy, and honor: concepts that were at stake with each sale of a slave on the market.  For this reason, the slave body became a site for cultural understanding as buyers and sellers learned and recited social values based on slave sales, advertisements for slave sales, and the general commodification of slave life.  The rhetoric and cultural meanings created by slaveholders allowed those slaveholders to disguise or downplay their dependence upon slaves for economic wellbeing.  Slaveholders used rhetoric and social coding to engender the idea that freedom itself depended on slavery.  All of this meant that day-to-day life itself “banked on” the black slave body.

Chapter Four: Turning People into Products

Slave pens were places where traders evaluated slaves, and assigned slaves’ value, according to criteria otherwise reserved for goods, property, and things.  They were places where traders marketed, bought, and sold human beings.  To market slaves, traders created exaggerated and fanciful descriptions and depictions of slaves.  Traders actually made slaves by defining the standards for slave work and slave life and by creating ideals by which slaves must live and from which buyers and sellers determined slave supply and demand.  In short, traders had to turn real people into an abstract market.

Chapter Five: Reading Bodies and Marking Race

The slave market revealed much about the relation of slavery and race—a relation that traders and others exploited for economic advantage.  Looking at everyday life in the public sphere helps us to sharpen our understanding of such economic exploitation and its relation to race and racial domination.  Sites of the public sphere included church pulpits, medical journals, courtrooms, and general discourse as circulated in newspapers—but all of these sites are less telling than the slave market, which broke down slave bodies into commoditized units explained by practical worth.  Slave inspections made for elaborate understandings of the value of slave bodies according to specified distinctions and categorizations.  Traders and others associated slaves’ physical features with mental capacities and character qualities.  Slaves with markings or scars were considered unruly.  Whites learned to read black bodies for meaning and for suitability in the market or fields.  “The purposes that slaveholders projected for slaves’ bodies were thus translated into natural properties of those bodies” (149).  Blacks’ physical features helped to explain, for traders, what tasks or work a slave was good for—but really these explanations merely serviced the ideological needs of the traders.  Slave pens depended upon biological racism for their survival and flourishing. 

Chapter Six: Acts of Sale

Slaves were also involved in their sale.  A slave sale was a performance by all involved, and the whole routine was heavily choreographed.  Slaves displayed themselves as commodities, all the while having their best interests in mind, especially with regard to potential buyers.  Slaves acted the part that needed to be acted—including enacting assigned roles—in order that they secure for themselves the best possible future.  Slave buyers also acted roles.  Buyers had to rely upon the word of sellers because the slave market was impersonal, and the trading of slaves involved much deception and manipulation.  Slaves often tried to shape their sale.  Slave sales could be contested in court.  Abstract theories about power and dominance are incomplete without an understanding of the individuals whose lives influenced the culture itself.

Chapter Seven: Life in the Shadow of the Slave Market

Life after a slave sale marked a new beginning for slaves, who now were subject to the control of new masters.  Prices for slaves tended to correspond with masters’ expectations for slaves.  New slaves judged owners by the way the owners’ slaves looked and acted.  Masters often would not work a new slave too hard.  White men were evaluated—by blacks and whites alike—for the way they judged black slaves.  Many slaveholders went to the market with fantasies of prestige, power, and riches, and were later troubled and disappointed by the results after their slave purchase.  Slaveholders often got violent when they were disappointed, and this violence shows the extent of their dependence upon slaves.  Some disappointed buyers took their case to court under Louisiana’s redhibition laws.  Slaves and free blacks were often permitted to testify against the system of slavery during these suits.


This book focuses on the domestic slave trade in New Orleans and on the slave market as a site of representation and coded meanings constructed around the commoditization of slave bodies.  A major interest of this book is the slave pen, where the body as a commodity shaped identities both black and white.  Slave sales were always about performance and shot through with meaning-making, which itself was marked by price and value.  The ideology of paternalism used the black body and slave sales to suggest that, in the slave markets, whites were helping helpless blacks and not, say, breaking up slave families.  The history of the slave market is the history of the antebellum South; slavery was fundamentally about buying and selling.  Slaveowners were consumers in the marketplace.  Consumer culture shaped personal identities.  The slave body was treated as a thing to be graded and evaluated and made the subject of stories.  Each slave was given a fabricated or embellished history.  The market culture was based in fantasy—like paternalism itself.  The slave market motivated the self-definition of Southern whites.

  1. Reblogged this on Acorns and Leaves and commented:
    I just had to take a moment and share the statistics from Chapter 1 of this book located on page 1. Johnson gives statistics describing the impact of the interstate slave trade and they are disturbing because numbers are cold in their finality. Of the 750,000 people who were sold through interstate slave trade, 25% involved the destruction of a first marriage; 50% destroyed a nuclear family-many of these sales involved children younger than 13 being sold away from their parents. Nearly all of them destroyed a previously existing community. These number only account for the interstate sales.

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