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Posts Tagged ‘Slavery’

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.  Read the rest of this entry »


Law Professors and Laws of Slavery

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Nineteenth-Century America, Politics, Slavery, The Literary Table, Western Civilization on April 4, 2011 at 3:44 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post was first published over at The Literary Table.  I have reposted here because the content of the post relates to many recent posts on this site.

Kenneth Stamp published his landmark study The Peculiar Institution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf) in 1956, thus inaugurating the institutionalized and concerted efforts of scholars to examine the history of slavery in America with greater detail.  Research and study of the history of slavery then gained momentum in the 1960s.  One of the seminal texts from this period was David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Cornell University Press, 1966), winner of the 1967 Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction.  An ambitious undertaking, this book seeks to demonstrate the continuity of slavery through various times and places in Western Civilization.  A legitimizing narrative or logic always accompanies the institution of slavery, Davis suggests, but such narrative or logic—or narrative logic—is fraught with paradoxes threatening to undermine the institution altogether.  How, for instance, does one reconcile the ideals of freedom and equality, so celebrated by American Revolutionaries, with the pervasive reality of human bondage?  How does one make sense of a Christianity that both condemns and justifies slavery?  How can slaves be humans—rational agents with free will—and chattel property at once?  How does ending the slave trade worsen conditions for the enslaved?  If enslaving infidels, and only infidels, is valid by law and church teaching, then how do European colonists validate the enslavement of converted Africans?  How can colonists rely heavily upon an institution that they fear?  How can one of the earliest American colonies to oppose slavery (Georgia) become a hotbed for slavery?  If, according to law and church teaching, only pagans can be enslaved, why are not Natives enslaved as frequently or as much as Africans?  For that matter, why do early objections to slavery focus on Natives, who are less likely to become slaves than blacks?  Why do colonists insist on Christianizing slaves yet fear converted slaves?  How does the antislavery movement develop out of the very ideology sustaining slavery?  How do notions of sin both justify and subvert the institution of slavery?  Why does the Age of Enlightenment, with its celebration of reason, humanism, and liberation, intensify rather than disparage slavery?  And how can the New World, a putatively progressive landscape, rely on and perpetuate an ancient institution?  These and other questions permeate Davis’s provocative text.  Davis does not try to resolve these apparent contradictions so much as he explores them through various persons, places, and patterns; in so doing, he describes how human bondage gets revised and extended from one age to the next, and how justifications for slavery in one era inaugurate justifications for slavery in later eras.  Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of Diana Ramey Berry’s Swing the Sickle for the Harvest is Ripe: Gender and Slavery in Antebellum Georgia (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007)

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Georgia, Nineteenth-Century America, Slavery on March 28, 2011 at 8:17 am

Allen Mendenhall

Book Theses

Quotation: Swing the Sickle seeks to break down binary opposites such as house labor equals skilled work and field labor equals unskilled work to explore more subtle dynamics that involve skill, talent, seniority, experience, personal relationships, and circumstance.  Building on recent scholarship on various aspects of slave labor from organizational structures to occupational hierarchies, this book examines the intricacies of enslaved labor, family, community, and economy.” (2)

Quotation: Swing the Sickle explores the ways different crops created a social hierarchy among the enslaved and the effect of such power dynamics within the quarters.” (3)


Southern planters generally divided labor by skill, not by sex.  Specialized labor crossed gender lines.  This book explores this fact while paying attention to the quotidian operations of enslaved persons and slaveholders in Georgia.  What constituted skilled labor differed from plantation to plantation and crop to crop.  Labor itself defined slave life and community.  For that reason, the author uses the term “working social” to refer to “public work environments where bondpeople labored to complete a task and used the balance of the evening for socializing” (3).  Examining working socials gives us insights into the private lives of slaves.  Slavery was not just about producing for masters; it was also a way of life.  Although labor was always connected to the public world of commerce, agriculture, and politics, it was first a private, family, familial, and familiar institution in which slaves were subject to exploitation.  This book focuses on two regions of Georgia: the upcountry and piedmont county of Wilkes, and the lowcountry and tidewater county of Glynn.  These counties are representative of the general development of open and closed systems of slavery.  Glynn County was marked by large plantation settings, and Wilkes County by farms and smaller slave-holding units. 

Quotation: “[S]tudying gender allows us to identify the numerous ways bondspeople experienced slavery in addition to regional variance. […] We cannot understand slavery until we know more about the work that men and women performed.” (8)       Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of Sylvia R. Frey’s Water from the Rock

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Politics, Slavery on February 20, 2011 at 3:03 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Sylvia R. Frey, Water from the Rock: Black Resistance in a Revolutionary Age (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1991) 


The Prerevolutionary South: Foundations of Culture and Community

This chapter describes the landscape and characteristics of the South before the Revolution.  The Chesapeake was much different from the lower South, which depended on the production of rice for economic competition.  Rice cultivation was common in states like South Carolina and Georgia, but less common in states like North Carolina.  Virginia and North Carolina grew tobacco.  In some places in Virginia, the slave population equaled the white population; in some places in South Carolina, slaves outnumbered whites.  Whites and blacks worked together and lived in close proximity, but they developed different cultural norms.  Big homes, churches, and courthouses served to unify the white community.  Symbols of power like plantation homes served to unite whites.  The bigger the plantations, the greater the separation between masters and slaves.  Criminal codes for slaves expanded in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as the slave population increased.  The Stono Rebellion of 1735 led Southern states to pass laws to deter slave insurrection.  County courts retained ultimate punishment power over slaves.  The most common religion in the South at this time was Anglicanism, although religion generally was spread out and not institutionalized.  The gentry tended to be Anglican.  The first effort to Christianize slaves in the South came from a missionary sect of Anglicans called the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel.  This sect evangelized to blacks from roughly 1705-1760, at which point other denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists took up that role.  As whites gradually sought to ensure their dominance through institutions, laws, and architecture, they also allowed slaves to cultivate a unique culture.  The emerging black culture fused West African traditions with various, competing African American practices and with a new religious culture centering on the church.  By the late eighteenth century, most slaves in America had been born in America.  Slaves in the lowcountry, especially in the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, were able to nourish and sustain an African-influenced culture.  Family became the site of cultural cohesiveness for slaves and even helped to determine which African customs to retain and which to discard.  By the eve of the Revolution, the monogamous slave family was not an established model partially because slaves lacked the legal and religious protocols for marriage.  Polygyny was common among slaves and in keeping with West African traditions.  Many slaves sought to preserve West African religious traditions.  Gradually slaves adopted a Christian religion alongside but not within white Christianity.  The growth of organized religion among slaves was a product of the Revolutionary era and was spearheaded by slaves themselves.  The synthesis of republican ideals and religious sentiment emanating from the Great Awakening made for the budding antislavery movement.   Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, Dred Scott, History, Slavery on February 9, 2011 at 2:45 pm

Allen Mendenhall

Ira Berlin, Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998).


Race is a historical construction.  It is continually redefined by various parties and for various reasons.  The experiences that defined race in North America were volatile; they changed over the course of two centuries.  The definition of race—and of slave—transformed alongside and because of human interaction.  Slaves defined their history as much as masters did.  Slavery was a “negotiated relationship.”  Even though masters maintained a position of dominance over slaves, slave agency constantly forced masters to revise their relationship to slaves.  Masters and slaves had to concede power to one another.  As the master-slave relationship changed, so did the dynamics of the slave system.  The master-slave relationship was always renegotiated and remade, and the power of the master or the slave was always contingent.  Therefore, the reality of a slave’s life was different depending upon time and place.  No slave experience was the same.  Rather than examining the commonalities and continuities of slavery across time and space, this work seeks to emphasize differences and contingencies.  Discussions of paternalism in the master-slave relationship have dominated slave studies and reinforced the idea that slave conditions were static and fixed in time.  As a result, historians have established misleading tropes.  The author seeks to challenge and undo some of those tropes.  He seeks to unsettle the master/slave binary opposition by emphasizing the messiness in between.  Slavery made class more than it made race.  Nevertheless, slave history is irreducible to labor, even if labor is indispensable to slavery.  Focusing on the workplace, as this author does, provides insights into the quotidian operations of slave life from place to place and time to time.  It reveals, for instance, how slaves resisted their masters through dance and song (among other things).  The author separates North American slavery into distinct regions and experiences to suggest the variety of slave experience from locale to locale.  A society with slaves is different from a slave society because the former does not depend upon slavery in the economic realm, does not produce as many slaves, and does not press the master-slave dichotomy.  The way that societies with slaves transformed into slave societies differed from society to society, but each such society had brutality in common.  Labor and the struggle of master and slave over labor are instructive starting points from which to examine slavery in general.  The ideals of the Enlightenment, as well as democratic movements in America and elsewhere, gave slaves leverage to challenge their bondage on colonials’ own philosophical terms.

Quote:  “Locating the seat of social change in the workplace, rooting those changes in the material circumstances of African-American life, and connecting such material changes to the development of African-American institutions and beliefs offer a structure for historicizing the study of slavery.  The struggle over labor informed all other conflicts between master and slave, and understanding it opens the way to a full comprehension of slave society and the integration of the slave experience into the history of the American workingclass.  It also provides the material basis for an appreciation of agency within the confines of slavery and how resistance that fell short of revolution could be effective.” (11)

This book strives to avoid a totalizing or essentializing narrative of slavery.  It treats slavery on a case-by-case, place-by-place basis. Read the rest of this entry »

Outline and Summary of David Brion Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture

In American History, Arts & Letters, Book Reviews, History, Slavery, Thomas Jefferson, Western Civilization on January 27, 2011 at 7:42 pm

Allen Mendenhall

This post inaugurates what I hope will become a trend on this blog, and that’s to outline and summarize various books that I’m reading.  This project should benefit students and scholars alike, as it will make information more accessible, comprehensible, and compact.  Let’s hope I don’t run up against copyright restrictions.  I should note from the outset that these posts are not meant as exhaustive explanations–exhaustive explanations aren’t possible, and anyway outlines and summaries are by definition not exhaustive–but they will condense authors’ arguments into easily digestible portions.  With that, then, let us consider this, the first of these endeavors.  

David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966).


1.       The Historical Problem: Slavery and the Meaning of America

This chapter opens by pointing out a fundamental contradiction in early American values that prized liberty yet perpetuated slavery.  This contradiction is, Davis says, a paradox.  American society rested on the irresolvable contradiction between celebrating freedom and denying freedom.   This contradiction might reflect the difference between ideal and reality. Read the rest of this entry »

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