www.common-place.org · vol. 1 · no. 4 · July 2001
Sally Hadden is assistant professor of history and law at Florida State University. She is the author of Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, Mass., 2001) and is at work on a study of legal cultures in colonial American cities.
"The evocative writing style pulls the reader into the book, creating word-pictures about the wharves of New Orleans, the slave pens where deals were struck, or the desperation of slave families confronted with the loss of loved ones, often forever."
Searching for Identities in the New Orleans Slave Market
Review by Sally Hadden
Walter Johnson's cultural history, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market, paints perspective-shifting portraits of the buyers and sellers active in the trading of humans, without neglecting the persons sold as its central commodity. Throughout his text, Johnson emphasizes the remoteness of paternalism from this aspect of slavery, which turned on the central proposition that a person could always be bought or sold if the price was right. The evocative writing style pulls the reader into the book, creating word-pictures about the wharves of New Orleans, the slave pens where deals were struck, or the desperation of slave families confronted with the loss of loved ones, often forever. This forms a notable contrast to the work of Michael Tadman, whose Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison, Wisc., 1989) is filled with graphs and charts to provide full statistics on the chattel trade of the Old South, but which ultimately does not read in as compelling fashion as Johnson's work does. That is not to say that Johnson has given us the last word on the subject of the slave trade, however; while his book breaks new ground by examining closely the New Orleans slave market and considering the cultural ramifications of the purchase and sale of persons within the institution of slavery, Soul by Soul may leave some readers with more questions than answers when they reach its conclusion.
The reader might wonder whether the tone of New Orleans slave markets altered with the fluctuations of cotton prices or with the looming prospect of civil war, but these are contingencies Johnson mentions at the outset (5-7) and then does not return to. Apparently, a slave bought and sold in 1859 experienced much the same treatment and buyers approached the market with the same expectations as they would have in 1829. Rather than focus on separate periods or specific events, Johnson uses chapter 1 to remind the reader how quickly a slave could be converted from person to property--in the time it took to make a deal or exchange a piece of paper. At all times, slaves were used as living collateral for financial transactions, and owners calculated and recalculated their own wealth by mentally transforming bodies into dollars whenever they wished. As such, the divide between slavery and the market, Johnson argues, was artificial at best and a rationalization at worst (25). How long traders worked in the market for human flesh also passes with little explanation. Although some men worked as dabblers while others' firms were well-established and traded in slaves for years, the longevity and methods of small-timers versus the Donald Trumps of that world appear to have varied only as a function of capital and manpower (46-48). Did these small-time traders wish to become stationary auctioneers or factors, or did they dream of an agrarian retreat from the world of flesh dealing? The reader must presume that the records do not answer this question.
Where the notion that identities could be shaped through slave purchase weakens, however, is when corporate entities and managers enter the picture. While the individual white male who bought female slaves might fantasize that he was Don Juan, what image, if any, did the church, the town, or the company seek to create when buying slaves? All of these groups owned slaves in the antebellum South, but we are left to wonder what perception they might have wanted to create in the minds of other Southerners when slaves were purchased. To suggest that these groups, disembodied as they were, uniformly sought to manufacture a particular opinion among others seems bizarre, for at best, it might be the perception that selected leaders (like modern-day corporate trustees) wanted to project about the company image. And what of absentee owners, whose holdings in land and slaves were vast? Did they approach the market with the same expectations as other slaveowners, or did they expect a factor or overseer to purchase and sell on their behalf? If so, did managers or overseers have the same ability to or desire to craft their identities through the purchase of slaves? Not all buyers acted alike. As for the slaves being sold, while traders might clothe their wares in uniform outfits to project erasable pasts, this ruse would fall apart when the slaves were purchased in lots from state penitentiaries (another corporation) for well-documented and very public crimes. Phil Schwarz described these individuals in Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865 (Baton Rouge, 1988): slaves convicted of murder and other felonies by law were exported for sale beyond the boundaries of Virginia. While Johnson might argue that such slaves could still escape their past lives and fashion new identities (with the witting help of traders who might then gain a higher market price), the repeated practice of selling upper-South slaves with criminal backgrounds to the lower South was well known among white antebellum Southerners, and certainly would have affected the fantasies and choices of possible purchasers in New Orleans--an element not discussed in Soul by Soul.
Having noted these limitations, Soul by Soul remains a well-crafted story, compelling the reader to keep turning the pages. A winner of two prizes from the OAH, Johnson's book tells a good story that will give interested persons an introduction to the workings of New Orleans's slave market. It remains for other scholars to flesh out Johnson's lively cultural history with a fuller description of the workings of the slave trade throughout the antebellum South.
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