Posted in African Americans, marginalization, material culture, paternalism, resistance, slavery

Soul by Soul

Johnson, Walter. Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

In Soul by Soul, Walter Johnson explores the inner workings of the Southern slave market through the divergent viewpoints of slaves, traders, and buyers in order to unearth the complex human dimensions of slavery. He illuminates the importance of seeing sales transactions through the eyes of the people who were sold and not just through the eyes of slaveholders and traders. Johnson declares that the history presented in the book is not organized around “change over time,” nor does it offer a theory or formal definition of the institution of slavery.[1] Rather, he takes a single moment, a slave sale, and tells the story from the three different perspectives, claiming that “the history of any struggle, no matter how one-sided its initial appearance, is incomplete until told from the perspectives of all those whose agency shaped the outcome.”[2] His story shows how the actions of each of these agents influenced the actions and decisions of the others.

Translating facts amassed from court records, financial documentation (such as notarized Acts of Sale, slave traders’ record books, price lists, etc.), and letters written by slaveholders, Johnson reveals the process of turning human beings into commodities.[3] Yet, most of book relies on nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves.[4] Johnson does not present these first-hand accounts of slavery as “transparent accounts of history,” but instead acknowledges that both southern slavery and organized antislavery conditions influenced their outcomes.[5]

The book is organized into two general sections that encompass seven chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. The first three chapters explore the disparate views of the slaves and the slaveholders, and the ways slaveholders coaxed or coerced resistant slaves to the market. Subsequent chapters examine the contested bargains made by the traders, slaveholders, and slaves in the showrooms and auction houses.[6] Each chapter of this book drives home the ingenuity, callousness, and pure violence with which slaveholders and traders manipulated human beings for capital gain, while also shedding light on the agency which enabled slaves to form communities and resist their enslaved conditions. Johnson astutely points out that “many slaveholders were forced to consider their slaves a party to their own sale.”[7] He also illustrates ways in which slaves worked together to prevent or postpone their sale. For example, Moses Grandy’s mother hid her children in the woods. They lived on berries, potatoes, and raw corn that must have been left by other slaves who lived nearby.[8]

In addition, Johnson shows how “[s]laves were the information brokers of the slave market.”[9] Slaves often stood by as traders and buyers argued back and forth about the sale. Many slaves learned how to gather important information from potential buyers as they were questioned in the course of a sale. William Wells Brown, for example, was not able to prevent his sister’s sale, but he was able to help prepare her for it.[10]

In contrast, Johnson also claims that white slaveholder identity was constructed out of relationships with slaves and other slaveowners. He writes, “They bought slaves to make themselves frugal, independent, socially acceptable, or even fully white.”[11] Through purchasing slaves who could free their wives from manual labor and provide financial security for their families, white slaveholders were viewed as good providers by other members of southern society.[12]

Scholarship on the subject of America’s domestic slave trade has been on the rise for the past twenty-five years; however, much of this previous work has focused on demographic and economic aspects of the business.[13] Yet, two previous works provided a foundation for Johnson to build upon: Frederic Bancroft’s Slave Trading in the Old South (1931) and Michael Tadman’s Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (1989).[14]

The book does have a couple of problems. Most of the book’s examples came from large New Orleans slave traders, rather than from diverse markets across the South. Considering the size and importance of Charleston’s slave market, it seems like an oversight for Johnson to have focused so heavily on just New Orleans, especially with the book’s subtitle “Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.” The other issue may be just a personal peeve. I found Solomon Northrup’s narrative to be overused and a bit of a distraction. There is no way to know how many free black men and women were captured and sold into slavery, but certainly Northrup’s experience is an anomaly compared to most of the other stories presented in Soul by Soul. Even so, Northrup’s highly articulate narrative offers valuable first person contributions to the story.

[1] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 15.

[2] Ibid., 8.

[3] Ibid., 12-14.

[4] Ibid., 9.

[5] Ibid., 10.

[6] Ibid., 16.

[7] Ibid., 30.

[8] Ibid., 32.

[9] Ibid., 176.

[10] Ibid., 167.

[11] Ibid., 116.

[12] Ibid., 110.

[13] Richard Bell, “The Great Jugular Vein of Slavery: New Histories of the Domestic Slave Trade,” History Compass 11, no. 12 (2013): 1150,; Steven Deyle, “Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson Review,” Journal of the Early Republic 21, no. 1 (Spring, 2001): 184.

[14] Caryn Cosse Bell, “Soul by Soul (Book Review),” Journal of Southern History 67, no. 3 (2001): 650; Deyle,  184; John David Smith, “Soul by Soul (Book Review),” Business History Review 74, no. 3 (2000): 492.

Posted in African Americans, civil religion, commemoration, material culture, paternalism, racism, religion, rituals, slavery

In the Name of the Father

Furstenberg, François. In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation. New York: Penguin Press, 2006.

In In the Name of the Father, Francois Furstenberg argues that American nationalism was created in the aftermath of George Washington’s death through public engagement with material culture, especially civic texts. To a large degree, Washington was deified and his 1796 Farewell Address was canonized, along with The Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. A prominent feature of evangelical Protestantism was the action of “engraving” key words on the heart.[1] Furstenberg asserts that Americans were taught to “take Washington into their hearts just as they took Jesus into their hearts.”[2] The Constitution was to be read in the same manner as citizens read the Ten Commandments. Furstenberg notes that American nationalism developed like other cultural systems, such as religion.[3] Furstenberg’s arguments build from Benedict Anderson’s work that stresses the power of print and education to construct national bonds.

Washington’s legacy was manipulated through popular civic texts. Furstenberg argues that through reading civic texts, such as Washington’s Farewell Address, Mason Locke Weems’s Life of Washington, and schoolbooks like the Columbian Orator and English Reader, Americans “learned the meaning of citizenship, and future generations learned to subscribe to the values of their fathers.”[4] Furstenberg shows how nationalism was promoted through “affective, emotive, even patriarchal appeals.”[5] Washington was to be venerated as the father of a new nation.

National identity was generated through two concepts that were diametrically opposed: “consent” and “slavery.” Even as the Founding Fathers articulated their vision of government grounded in consent, slavery was woven into the fabric of everyday life. “The presence of slavery, in short, undermined both the meaning of consent in the republic, and the very unity post-Revolutionary nationalism sought to enact.”[6]

Washington’s last will and testament, which legally freed some of his slaves, was added to the canon of nationalist texts. His will was “widely republished and quickly became a celebrated document.”[7]  Eulogies that followed Washington’s death focused on the threat slavery and slave insurrections posed to the nation’s future.[8]  Furstenberg also notes that slave insurrection were real fears of this time. News of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804), Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831), and Gabriel’s slave conspiracy (1800) traveled far. Even Martha Washington, wife of the “father of the nation,” lived her last days among “hundreds of enslaved people she called family, people she believed would try to kill her.”[9] In addition, Jefferson’s grandchild-in-law feared that her black “family” would murder her.[10]

Furstenberg identifies two distinct narratives of Washington and slavery that emerged after his death. The first was an abolitionist interpretation that dwelled on Washington’s decision to free his slaves. It helped to mute fears of slave insurrection and threats to national unity by advancing a teleological understanding that all slaves would eventually be emancipated. The second narrative promoted the myth of plantation benevolence and slavery as a benign institution based on paternal affection. Furstenberg points out that both narratives promoted a “paternalist ideology of early American nationalism” which placed slavery at the center of Washington’s life.[11]

The particular challenge for those building American nationalism was to reconcile the consent of the governed with the enslaved, who could not give their consent. In a painting, “Death of Washington Dec. 14 AD 1799,” crying slaves and stoic white people surround Washington on his deathbed.[12] Furstenberg claims, “the Washington mythology opened a space for the incorporation of slaves into this national family, with slaves, like white Americans, united in bonds of affection and gratitude to Washington.”[13] Furstenberg claims that the enslaved’s bonds of affection (e.g., tears at Washington’s death) signaled a tacit consent to their enslavement, which allowed for a reconciliation between slavery and the new U.S. nationalism.[14]

The autonomous American identity was constructed against the idea of “the slave.” Schoolbooks taught free, white American children how to be “industrious, virtuous, thrifty, and religious” autonomous individuals.[15] However, white people imagined slaves to be “lazy, immoral, dissolute, and heathen.”[16] Different texts instilled an ethic of self-control, subordination, and obedience in enslaved black children, which helped to abate concerns about slave unrest. But, as Furstenberg shows through Frederick Douglass and his story “The Heroic Slave,” slaves also valued and fought for autonomy. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the conception of the autonomous individual was extended to slaves. Citizenship began with an individual choice.[17] Yet, this allowed white people to blame slaves for their enslavement. Furstenberg claims that this valorization of individual autonomy grounded citizenship and slavery in tacit consent.

[1] François Furstenberg, In the Name of the Father: Washington’s Legacy, Slavery, and the Making of a Nation (New York: Penguin Books, 2007), 58.

[2] Ibid., 59.

[3] Ibid., 63.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 17.

[7] Ibid., 84.

[8] Ibid., 82-83.

[9] Ibid., 74.

[10] Ibid., 81.

[11] Ibid., 83.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Ibid., 21.

[14] Ibid., 103.

[15] Ibid., 150.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 220.