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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 248

Johnson begins Soul by Soul by discussing the chattel principle, which based a slave's identity on their market value. He claims that the slave market would not have existed if it did not have roots within American culture.

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The second chapter examines the life of a slave trader, such as their roles and responsibilities. Johnson also tells of the bond among slaves brought to the market.

Chapter 3 focuses on the culture that created slave markets, especially the fact that slave trading was an economic staple in the South. This allowed slave owners and traders to justify the act, as the financial success of the region depended on human trafficking.

Chapter 4 examines how enslaved people were dehumanized and viewed as property. Johnson argues that this rhetoric created a slave-trading culture that allowed brutal mistreatment.

Chapter 5 explores the influence of race in the creation of slave-trading culture. To do this, Johnson again refers to rhetoric, as well as the belief by many in slave states that physical features determined character and personal value. The key argument in this chapter is that biological racism aided in the creation and success of slave markets.

Chapter 6 discusses the logistics of a slave market, claiming that each slave up for sale was given a role to play, as if it were a performance. The book ends by explaining life after an enslaved person was sold at a market, such as the need to adapt to a new master, meager or no pay, and violence.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1859

Soul by Soul is an impressive work of scholarship, winner of Harvard University Press’s Thomas J. Wilson Prize, awarded to the best first book accepted by the press each year. Even though it is his first book, it is surprising to see that Walter Johnson, an assistant professor of history at New York University, wrote it while in only his early thirties. His research for the work is so voluminous and authoritative that one might imagine him as a senior scholar at the top of his field, but obviously he has many years as a leading scholar ahead of him.

Soul by Soul is not a chronological history full of big-name personalities; rather, it is an analytical history of everyday life in the slave trade, featuring nameless people, people with only one name, or people who have full names only because they were listed in court records or left written documents. Basing his work on extensive reading of nineteenth century slave narratives, Louisiana Supreme Court records, letters of slaveholders, and sales papers (“notarized Acts of Sale” and “traders’ slave record books, price lists, and advertisements”), Johnson documents and interprets the domestic slave trade that reached its peak in the first half of the nineteenth century. The slave trade was spurred by two circumstances: The United States Constitution (1789) ended the importing of slaves after 1808, and the tobacco-growing areas around Chesapeake Bay declined while the cotton-growing areas of the Southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana) prospered. By shuffling coffles, oceangoing vessels, and Mississippi River craft, hundreds of thousands of slaves moved from the older and upper parts of the South to the Southwest territory, served most prominently by the slave markets of New Orleans. These are the markets upon whichSoul by Soul focuses.

Through the New Orleans markets, Johnson takes a close look at the commercial side of slave trading. For those in it, trading slaves was only a business, a capitalist venture, just another way to make a dollar. Nor was it exactly an easy way: There were many risks and problems, with the merchandise getting sick, dying, running away, or in general not cooperating. For both sellers and buyers, the merchandise was considered chattel. After a long overland drive, the slaves were “fed up” and allowed to heal so they would look like prime stock. At the market they were kept in “pens” and given the run of the “yard” for exercise. They were graded and priced according to such qualities as age, sex, size, and skin color. The blackest were considered the strongest for work in the fields, while lighter-skinned slaves were thought more suited for house duty. Slaves with special skills, such as cooking or carpentry, brought premium prices, and some women were sold as “breeders.” Men were sometimes dressed in suits and top hats and women in calico dresses, and until 1852 in New Orleans it was legal to display them on the street outside the market. However, buyers were allowed to question and feel the merchandise, and there were undressing rooms where the product could be examined more intimately. In Louisiana there were also redhibition laws (lemon laws) that allowed returns for up to a year, and sometimes slaves were sold on a trial basis.

Even so, the rule of the slave market was “Buyer beware!” As Johnson points out, slick merchandising came into play: By and large, the traders were selling fantasies, and the buyers were shopping for fantasies. Besides feeding and dressing up the slaves, the traders sometimes doctored them up (with the help of physicians), invented nice-sounding life stories for them, and prompted the slaves to play the roles. Sometimes the slaves were made to dance and act happy, but warned not to say they had serious medical problems or had ever run away. Since the buyers were usually ignorant of the slaves’ backgrounds, they were easily duped, so they might take along an experienced friend to help them make a purchase. However, they also contributed to their own fleecing by harboring fantasies of wealth, power, sex, and importance. The idea of ruling over their own little world of slavery was too much for some men to resist.

Johnson tells the story of one such man, John Knight, who dreamed of establishing a plantation utopia. Perhaps seeing himself as another Thomas Jefferson, he bought a Louisiana plantation and sent a shopping list for about sixty slaves to his father-in-law in Maryland. He also announced his plans to provide model housing, give the slaves a siesta during the hot part of the day, and hire a benevolent overseer. However, nothing turned out as he had planned. Upon inspection, the shipment of slaves from Maryland included one free man, two with phony names, and others who were sick; they could not stand the working conditions in humid, mosquito-infested Louisiana; and the overseer drove them unmercifully. Soon the slaves were dying in the fields or running away. Within a year, Knight’s dream had turned into a nightmare, and he was desperately trying to cut his losses by selling the plantation and remaining slaves.

Still, spectacular failures such as Knight’s did little to shake the overall social order of the antebellum South, where, as Johnson points out, slaves made (or unmade) the man. If a man had money to invest, slaves were the way to go. Besides anchoring the economy, slaves were status symbols, and the more one owned, the more status one had in the society. A man with many slaves could cut a fine paternalistic figure (after all, he took care of them all). However, acquiring even one slave made a man more imposing, and acquiring one for his wife made her a lady. Meanwhile, the poor man who had no slaves, who did the same work that slaves did, was hardly better than a slave himself. For these and other reasons, white Southerners wrapped their fantasies up in slaveholding and treated slaves as a form of property that one could do with almost as one pleased (including whipping and such bizarre gestures as giving a slave for a Christmas present).

In the final analysis, though, white Southerners could not deny the slaves’ humanity without denying their own, and this impasse led to other rationalizations and contradictions at the heart of Southern slaveholding existence. A prime example is the slave market itself, which was not a respectable place. White people walking by were subject to offensive remarks by slaves on display outside (until the 1852 law put a stop to sidewalk vending). Word got around about white men seen in the slave market shopping for female flesh. Like other places of sin, the slave market was a man’s world that no white woman would enter (although some white women bought and even trafficked in slaves by using their husbands as fronts), and it was walled off from sight in a neighborhood that would permit it, hiding the South’s dirty little secret. Slave traders were stigmatized as lowlife shylocks: No good person would associate with such despicable riffraff. As for slavery itself, white Southerners rationalized it by developing theories of racism and paternalism that saw blacks as inferior creatures who needed a caring master. These theories had hard going, however, in the face of reality.

Reality included a third party to any slave deal: the slave. One might associate slavery with abject powerlessness, but Johnson shows convincingly that such was far from the case. There was always the possibility of a slave rebellion, especially when slaves were being transported on ships or in overland coffles and vastly outnumbered their captors. For example, Johnson tells about an 1841 rebellion aboard the Creole in which the slaves took over, imprisoned their captors, and sailed to freedom in Nassau—where their released former masters met them in the streets and begged them to reconsider! Johnson also cites examples of individual rebellion: Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped into slavery who flogged his cruel master with a whip; and an unnamed woman with such a sharp tongue that her master and mistress returned her to the dealer. Sometimes rebellion took the form of self-mutilation (such as cutting off a finger or two) or suicide, but most often it consisted of running away. Many slaves ran away when driven to desperation by harsh working conditions or separation from spouse and family. For others, running away was a temporary expedient: Johnson tells about a woman who took her children and hid in the woods every time a slave trader appeared in the vicinity, and about a man for sale who hid in the woods until his master agreed to sell him to a neighbor.

These and other examples that Johnson gives show that the slaves sometimes had working interpersonal relationships with their masters and formed intricate networks of communication among themselves. His examples also show that slaves had the ability to influence, to some extent, their own sale. When families were being broken up for sale, they would cry heart-rendingly and occasionally affect the hearts of their masters or mistresses. In the slave markets the slaves would size up the buyers much as they were being sized up and behave accordingly (occasionally they even had intelligence from outside about certain buyers, especially those with a reputation for cruelty). The slaves had the advantage of being in control of information about themselves while sellers and buyers remained relatively ignorant: Although they had to be careful to avoid a whipping, the slaves could put on an act or conceal, reveal, and manufacture information about themselves at will. After the sale, if their buyer proved unworthy, they could also do things to bring about their return to the seller.

Johnson’s constant awareness of slaves, sellers, and buyers interacting as people is possibly the strongest feature of Soul by Soul. However, nothing Johnson says lessens the inhumanity of slavery; on the contrary, his extensive documentation and sometimes lurid details bring home slavery’s enormity. He thereby helps prevent slavery from becoming a mere historical abstraction, a forgotten American holocaust. In Johnson’s hands slavery becomes part of living history whose influence continues into the present and even defines some national characteristics. Readers might consider him revisionist, a spawn of political correctness—a tendency seen in his language, which mixes diction from current commerce and performance theory with terms from slavery days. However, such language, aside from being used with literary subtlety, puts his subject into context and perspective: The greatest difficulty in reading Soul by Soul is imagining people as chattel, yet at one time this assumption was commonplace. Perhaps the shift in thinking is a measure of how far humans have come, yet one wonders what unexamined assumptions of today are likewise waiting to explode. In any event, Johnson is an excellent writer at the same time that he is a careful researcher. His fifty pages of documentation conveniently come as endnotes. The endnotes also contain a few choice items of information, but mostly they provide a rich bibliography for anyone investigating the “peculiar institution” of slavery.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (February 15, 2000): 1077.

Library Journal 124 (November 15, 1999): 80.

The New Yorker 76 (March 13, 2000): 93.

Publishers Weekly 246 (December 20, 1999): 64.

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