Title: Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market
Author: Walter Johnson
Categories: Slavery, Race, Slaveholding, The South, Cultural History, Paternalism, Capitalism
Place: New Orleans
Time Period: 1820-1860
Walter Johnson takes a cultural history approach to studying antebellum slavery (in contrast to aggregating social histories) by arguing that the slave market, rather than the household or the plantation, was the defining feature of the slave South. It was here that the central contradiction in slavery, the chattel principle, crystallized: that the bodies and body parts of enslaved people could be assigned a value and commodified, but that those same bodies were living, breathing whole people. To do so slave-sellers used a system of categorization based on physical attributes (skin color, gender, size, etc.) in a process that paradoxically necessitated acknowledging their particularities as people that they had to know about in detail in order to commodify them.
More important for Johnson, however, was the purchasing of slaves. For potential buyers, the slaves came to represent far more than just the economic function they would fulfill as laborers or cooks or fieldhands. Slaves were how white slaveowners projected their own desires, fantasies, and hopes: from a first-time slaveowner moving up the social ladder to a buyer wanting to think of himself as a benevolent paternalist. Buying a slave became a way to achieve manhood, social status, independence, intelligence, etc. When buying, they and the slave traders engaged in a process of race-making by trying to grade skin color along with associated attributes - ex. light-skinned slaves being more intelligent and better suited for skilled work but more likely to run away. This allowed them to "read" the bodies of slaves via race and demonstrate their own mastery over the process, and Johnson also argues that this process aided slaveowners in affirming their own whiteness.
On the flip side, Johnson details how the slave sale granted a limited degree of opportunity for slaves to shape their futures. By gleaning information about potential owners and portraying themselves in a certain way (particularly when they were asked questions about their past) they could influence their own lives. Finally, Johnson ends with a sobering reminder that violence stood at the heart of this system. He argues that, far from violence being a sad deviation from a paternalist system, it was highly linked to the mutual dependence of slaveowners with their slaves. Because they projected so many deep aspirations and dreams onto a slave, and thought so much about how buying a slave would transform their own lives, slaves almost always failed to live up to these idealized aspirations. It was the disappointment and realization of dependence that resulted in such brutality.
Key Themes and Concepts
- Purchasing paternalism
- Cultural history of everyday life rather than quantitative social history
- The many uses of slaves beyond just economic foundation - buying them as a deep part of people's dreams and aspirations
- Simultaneous process of categorizing and differentiating slaves in the market - part of the chattel principle of reconciling slave humanity with commodification
- Limited degree of opportunity for slave agency during point of sale
U.S. History Qualifying Exams: Book Summaries
by Cameron Blevins
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