In Soul by Soul, what does Walter Johnson say determined the market value of the slaves?

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The most important factor in determining the value of slaves was how much work could be got out of them. All slaves, whatever the precise function they performed, were expected to work hard, and their capacity for carrying out such work determined their relative value on the market. Young, strong...

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The most important factor in determining the value of slaves was how much work could be got out of them. All slaves, whatever the precise function they performed, were expected to work hard, and their capacity for carrying out such work determined their relative value on the market. Young, strong slaves were therefore favored over older, weaker ones.

As Johnson points out, this was based on a long-standing principle of English law—subsequently transplanted to the United States—called the chattel principle. This ascribed value to property solely on the basis of its market value. Although the principle was never explicitly designed to apply to human beings, it nonetheless proved sufficiently adaptable to be applied to slaves. Their legal status as chattel allowed their owners to treat them pretty much as they pleased. Just as the owners of real estate enjoyed extensive power over their property, so too did slaveowners over theirs.

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In the market for human beings who were legally classified as property, people were considered “merchandise” or “chattel.” Numerous factors were important in the price that would be agreed upon by buyers and sellers. The appearance of health was one primary consideration. The sellers tried to provide adequate food and conditions to make the potential slaves appear healthy and well-fed. There were categories or “grades” that corresponded to age, sex, size, and skin color. Darker skin color was associated with strength and capacity for field labor. The owners preferred lighter-skinned people to work inside their houses. Skills were also included in the evaluation; cooks and carpenters commanded very high prices. Women were often classified as “breeders” whose primary function would be to reproduce the maximum number of babies, all of whom would be born into slavery.

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