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Soul by Soul

Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market

Walter Johnson

ISBN 9780674039155

Publication date: 07/01/2009

Soul by Soul tells the story of slavery in antebellum America by moving away from the cotton plantations and into the slave market itself, the heart of the domestic slave trade. Taking us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced, and sold, Walter Johnson transforms the statistics of this chilling trade into the human drama of traders, buyers, and slaves, negotiating sales that would alter the life of each. What emerges is not only the brutal economics of trading but the vast and surprising interdependencies among the actors involved.

Using recently discovered court records, slaveholders’ letters, nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves, and the financial documentation of the trade itself, Johnson reveals the tenuous shifts of power that occurred in the market’s slave coffles and showrooms. Traders packaged their slaves by “feeding them up,” dressing them well, and oiling their bodies, but they ultimately relied on the slaves to play their part as valuable commodities. Slave buyers stripped the slaves and questioned their pasts, seeking more honest answers than they could get from the traders. In turn, these examinations provided information that the slaves could utilize, sometimes even shaping a sale to their own advantage.

Johnson depicts the subtle interrelation of capitalism, paternalism, class consciousness, racism, and resistance in the slave market, to help us understand the centrality of the “peculiar institution” in the lives of slaves and slaveholders alike. His pioneering history is in no small measure the story of antebellum slavery.

Praise

  • Johnson takes us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest and busiest in the South, and discovers that the buyers and sellers of slaves could easily mix the language and values associated with paternalism and commercialism. Unlike later historians, they saw no conflict between their needs for status and sound business practice… [Johnson] advances the original and potentially controversial argument that to be truly ‘white’ in the Old South one had to own slaves.

    —George M. Fredrickson, New York Review of Books

Awards

  • 2001, Joint winner of the Francis B. Simkins Award
  • 2000, Joint winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Award

Author

  • Walter Johnson is Winthrop Professor of History and Professor of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. He is the author of River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom and, most recently, The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States.

Book Details

  • Harvard University Press

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