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.