Review of Soul by Soul by Walter Johnson

WALTER JOHNSON. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999. Pp. 283. $25.50.

Soul by Soul is the award-winning first book written by Walter Johnson, an American historian specializing in capitalism, imperialism, and nineteenth-century slavery, particularly the internal slave-trade of the American south between 1820 and 1860. In the book, Johnson explores “the making of the antebellum south” through “the daily history of the slave pens” in the largest North American slave market: New Orleans, Louisiana. He approaches the domestic slave trade—which resulted in the relocation of one million enslaved persons from the declining, tobacco fields of the Upper South to the burgeoning, sugar-and-cotton plantations of the Lower South—from the conflicting viewpoints of traders, buyers, and slaves. The slim stature and narrow focus of this book betray its sheer brilliance; Soul by Soul is an outstanding work of history that recaptures the complex psychological processes involved in making the commercial abstractions of the political economy material in the form of human bodies.

As a foil, Johnson cites historiographical preferences for representing the slave trade graphically (e.g., The Transatlantic Slave Trade by James Rawley and The Atlantic Slave Trade by Philip Curtin). He states, “the very aggregations that have been used to represent” the trade—charts, arrows, lines, maps, and tables—have obscured its human history. Borrowing inspiration from W.E.B. Dubois’ Black Reconstruction, Johnson claims that the history of the domestic slave trade will remain incomplete until its story is told “from the perspectives of all of those whose agency shaped the outcome.” For this reason, Johnson devotes himself to articulating “the story of a single moment—a slave sale—from three different perspectives.”

For sources, Johnson relies upon the nineteenth-century narratives of former-slaves, their abolitionist publishers, and their amanuenses. Among these, Johnson emphasizes John Brown, William Wells Brown, Solomon Northrup, Charles Ball, and Moses Grandy. He also features escaped-slave interviews conducted by Benjamin Drew in Ontario, Canada, in the 1840s. Johnson compares these narratives with the docket records of 200 cases of disputed slave sales in the Louisiana Supreme Court, as well as Notarized Acts of Sale, slave advertisements, record books, and price lists. Because Louisiana law designated slaves as real estate, rather than personal property, these court records are extraordinarily comprehensive. Many of them are stored in the archives and special collections of the University of New Orleans, being used here for the first time. Lastly, Johnson relies upon the epistles and diaries of southern slaveholders, like John Knight, and northern tourists, like Frederick Law Olmstead.

While other historians might concentrate on the shocking brutality of the domestic trade, Johnson focuses on its intimate, perverse, and fragile psychology. The antebellum slave world fused people into an “unstable mutuality,” where all parties were constantly evaluating one another through a “visual grammar,” and manipulating each other through careful behaviors. Slaveholders, for instance, “made their selves out of slaves.” Only the market had the power to grant them “full participation in the political economy of slavery and white masculinity.” Ironically, it was through black reproduction that slaveholders passed on the legacy of white patriarchy, and it was through slavery that white families achieved (and constantly battled for) leisure, paternalism, gentility, honor, and status. By alleviating work, black slaves even had the power to make slaveholding women “white” according to prevailing social standards.

Johnson describes the process of “necromancy” by which traders dismantled slaves in the coffles (by exploiting their humanity) and then repackaged their bodies in jails, auction houses, pens, and showrooms. Sometimes, slaves were literally sold on the verge of death from ailments like consumption, scrofula, gonorrhea, and syphilis. Nonetheless, traders dressed them in new clothes, plucked their gray hairs, blackened their skin, oiled their bodies, tallowed their hair, hid their scars, cleaned their teeth, fattened their bodies, coached their speech, forced them to exercise, and, on occasion, even paid them incentives to sell themselves. In short, these slaves “were forced to perform their own commodification.” All the while, naïve buyers and contracted appraisers fondled their breasts, inspected their gums, teeth, and genitals, and asked them probing questions about their health and history; in the parlance of the day, these buyers were looking for the “likely” slaves that would fulfill their fantasies.

In the cotton kingdom, white slaveholders were measured by their ability to judge black slaves in the market, and so they lived in constant fear of being dishonored by an “imprudent” decision. Southern planters dreamed that their neighbors judged their success based upon the quality of their slaves, and so their lives became an ongoing attempt to “live through the stolen bodies of their slaves.” In this paradox, “relations of white slaveholders depended upon the actions and opinions of their black slaves.” For example, when buyers sued traders according to redhibition laws (buyer’s protection rights), doctors carried slave testimony into the courtroom as evidence against bad masters. Slaves that were sick, worked to death, committed suicide, spoke poorly of their owners, or were excessively beaten stood as damning evidence against the quality of a slaveholder. In one encapsulating quote, Johnson concludes that slaveholders “were not masters of the system. The system was the master of them.”

Typical of his three-dimensional approach, Johnson demonstrates that traders, buyers, and slaves all read somatic signs differently. While slaves saw bodily scarring as evidence of mistreatment and violence, buyers saw scars as indicators of recalcitrant behavior, and traders saw scars as an obstacle to salability. Nonetheless, slaves used songs, stories, family names, and religion to create (and constantly recreate) common cultures with complete strangers along the dusty roads, cramped steamboats, enclosed slave pens, and torrid plantations that defined their experience. But they also lived in profound psychological fear about whom they could trust, and so they constantly estimated their peers, often reproducing societal stereotypes. New plantation slaves judged the quality of a master based on the condition of his old slaves. Sometimes slaves even invoked the logic of southern planters, like the paternalist mutuality of a broken promise, in order to manipulate or prevent their sale. Overall, the logic of “the chattel principle,” a phrase coined by the ex-slave J.W.C. Pennington, demanded that slaves do whatever they could in order to avoid both physical deaths in the killing fields of the Lower South, as well as “psychic deaths” in the ideology of racial domination.

Overall, traders exploited the humanity of their slaves in order to get them to cooperate; buyers fantasized about erasing the humanity of their slaves, reducing them to smiling faces on a field and improving numbers on a ledger column; finally, slaves cherished their humanity, guarding it closely, but sharing it when their circumstances demanded. Most importantly, each of these parties gave concrete cultural meaning to an economy of people that defined the antebellum south. In Soul by Soul, Johnson has traced the physical and psychological journey of slaves, traders, and buyers throughout the annual season of the interstate slave trade, occurring after harvests in the late summer and fall. In doing so, he has masterfully revealed the tangled web of perspectives through which “the history of the slave trade was daily made.”

* For more work written by this author, please visit his personal blog, The Zamani Reader: A History Blog from a History Student.


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