Cover image for Soul by soul : life inside the antebellum slave market
Soul by soul : life inside the antebellum slave market
Johnson, Walter, 1967-
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Cambridge, Mass. : Harvard University Press, 1999.
Physical Description:
283 pages, 20 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations ; 25 cm
Chattel principle -- Between the prices -- Making a world out of slaves -- Turning people into products -- Reading bodies and marking race -- Acts of sale -- Life in the shadow of the slave market.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
F379.N59 N38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
F379.N59 N38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
F379.N59 N38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ
F379.N59 N38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf
F379.N59 N38 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Open Shelf

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This work 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 the reader inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced and sold, the author 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 interdependencies among those involved. Using recently discovered material, 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. Johnson depicts the subtle interrelation of capitalism, paternalism, class consciousness, racism and resistance in the slave market.

Author Notes

Walter Johnson is Assistant Professor of History at New York University.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

The rejuvenation of U.S. slavery from the 1820s onward due to the South's cotton boom is Johnson's starting point for this pellucid study of people, shackles, prices, and society. Cotton induced a mass forced migration of owned people from the tobacco-exhausted Tidewater lands to the fertile Mississippi Valley, about one million of them between the 1820s and 1850s, according to Johnson, an academic historian. A grim sight was common in this period--coffles of slaves walking to the Deep South destined for market, mainly the one at New Orleans. Johnson selects the operations of the market to depict the variegated processes that turned a person into a commodity. Sales could be complicated transactions. Their objects, the enslaved persons, could always ruin value by escape or suicide, and consequently traders and purchasers of people sometimes conceded minimal humanity to placate those in their thrall. Organized with a blessed eschewal of academese, Johnson's work is a superior examination of the speculation in slaves as individuals conducted it. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Instead of focusing on cotton plantations or broad historical patterns, this extraordinary study is a flesh-and-blood daily history of the slave market. NYU history professor Johnson takes readers inside the Dixie slave pens and traders' coffles (long rows of slaves manacled and chained to one another). His focus is New Orleans, North America's largest slave market, hub of a trade that decimated African-American slave communities by tearing families asunder--destroying marriages and separating children from parents. Using former slave survivors' narratives, letters written by slaveholders, docket records of cases of disputed slave sales and Southern medical and agricultural journals, Johnson interweaves the voices of traders, buyers, auctioneers and the slaves themselves. He shows that, for white Southern slaveholders, buying slaves buoyed a fantasy of manly bourgeois self-control, speculative savvy and economic independence. Slaves, meanwhile, assessed the character of particular buyers and sometimes, at enormous risk, manipulated a sale to their own advantage. The evil business of slavery has seldom been exposed with so much humanity and insight as in this eloquent study, scholarly yet wholly accessible, a compelling cross-sectional microcosm of millions of human tragedies. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

In his first book, Johnson (history, New York Univ.) provides the fullest, most penetrating examination of the antebellum slave market to date. Using slave narratives, court records, planters' letters, and more, Johnson enters the slave pens and showrooms of the New Orleans slave market to observe how slavery turned men and women into merchandise and how slaves resisted such efforts to steal their humanity. He tracks the slaves from their march to the market to the terrifying moments of sale and adaptation to new masters, places, and work. Johnson's original, important, and brilliantly presented book makes a case for the slave market as "best place to see slavery." It was there that self-interest, concepts of race, and the slave "community" came together to reveal how white men traded their own souls for a stake in human property. An essential book for anyone who wants to understand why slavery matters.ÄRandall M. Miller, St. Joseph's Univ., Philadelphia (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

It has often been written that slavery lay at the heart of the antebellum South. Johnson argues that what lay at the heart of slavery was the slave market. The market's growth mirrored and made possible the expansion of slavery from the upper to the lower South. Within its confines, the reality of the trade in human flesh also fueled all the fantasies, hopes, and futures of southerners, black and white. By skillfully using 19th-century slave narratives, court records, and account books, Johnson creates a picture of the slave market that is both enlightening and repugnant. One can recognize in the actions of slave buyers and traders the antebellum equivalents of used car salesmen, venture capitalists, and CEOs with trophy wives. All came to the market with different goals, but all had to trade in black bodies to accomplish them. For slaves the market was a traumatic and degrading experience, but one that offered a glimmer of hope, for by their actions they could sometimes shape the sales that altered their lives. This is an important book that requires the reader to confront the central horror of slavery, i.e., that a slave was a person with a price. Recommended for all levels. D. Butts; Gordon College (GA)

Table of Contents

Introduction: A Person with a Pricep. 1
1 The Chattel Principlep. 19
2 Between the Pricesp. 45
3 Making a World Out of Slavesp. 78
4 Turning People into Productsp. 117
5 Reading Bodies and Marking Racep. 135
6 Acts of Salep. 162
7 Life in the Shadow of the Slave Marketp. 189
Epilogue: Southern History and the Slave Tradep. 214
Abbreviationsp. 222
Notesp. 223
Acknowledgmentsp. 275
Indexp. 277