In Soul by Soul, what is Walter Johnson's thesis?

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Soul by Soul is a very sophisticated work, with a multifaceted thesis that is difficult to understand without familiarity with the historiography of slavery. The book focuses on the New Orleans slave markets, where thousands of people were bought and sold. Johnson uses the slave market to illustrate the nature...

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Soul by Soul is a very sophisticated work, with a multifaceted thesis that is difficult to understand without familiarity with the historiography of slavery. The book focuses on the New Orleans slave markets, where thousands of people were bought and sold. Johnson uses the slave market to illustrate the nature of the institution of slavery itself: the story of the slave market is, he writes, "in no small measure, the story of antebellum slavery." New Orleans was the terminus of the internal slave trade that saw around one million people ripped from their families in the Upper South and sold southward to places like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas.

Essentially, Johnson argues that slavery was a capitalistic enterprise whose nature was crystallized in the buying and selling of people in the markets. Some historians in the past (Eugene Genovese, in particular) had argued that the institution of slavery was softened somewhat by the paternalism of masters, which slaves could cleverly use to somewhat improve their lives. Johnson argues that paternalism had little to do with what was going on in the slave markets. Rather, he emphasizes the "chattel principle," the idea that slaves were property, human capital to be exploited to gain wealth. He thoroughly demolishes the idea of the "old South" of magnolias and genteel plantations, framing the South instead as a grasping, money-grubbing, capitalist society exploiting the bodies of enslaved people to get rich. Slavery as a capitalist institution, and the enslaved as property are two of his most important themes, and they were nowhere more evident than in the New Orleans slave markets.

At the same time, Johnson emphasizes the human interactions between buyer, seller, and especially the enslaved in the markets. He emphasizes that both buyers and sellers commodified people as they imposed their racial attitudes on them. He shows that the enslaved could use their positions to try to "negotiate" their sale to an owner who appeared more agreeable than another. Women cleverly worked to keep families together in many cases. So in the ultimate dehumanizing moment, the enslaved could act to make the best of a horrible situation. In other words, they had agency. This was basically what other historians had argued, but Johnson shows that the enslaved understood their value and attempted to exploit it within the hellish environs of the slave market. These interactions, Johnson shows, are slavery in its essence.

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Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul is a well-researched and well-documented history of slaves encumbered within the "peculiar institution" of slavery in the South in Louisiana. His thesis shows the human face of slaves and thoroughly discounts the South's rationalizing theories of African slaves as inferior creatures incapable of fending for themselves and therefore needing looking after. Johnson chronicles the daily experiences and the extensive effective communication networks of the people who were sold into slavery as recorded in legal papers, diaries, letters and bills of sale, and other documents.

As well as showing the detailed daily operation of slave trade and slave life, Johnson shows that slaves had interpersonal relationships with their owners--and even to some extent with the slave traders who would coach the slaves on how to present themselves--and could at times influence to whom they were sold or resold, their return to the salve trader under redhibition laws ("picked a lemon" laws), and sometimes even forestall the break up of their families. In this way Johnson presents and proves a thesis that debunks the theories of slaves as non-human or sub-human creatures, and therewith raises American slavery up from being a meaningless abstraction that is irrelevant today by showing the contrary: slavery defines national characteristics and has an influence even today.

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