The central argument of Walter Johnson’s Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999) can be summarized in a single sentence: “The history of the antebellum South was made....in the slave pens” (p. 214). The slave pens, located in slave markets, were where African-Americans were stored and exhibited to buyers. The domestic slave trade was a significant portion of the South’s economy from the early nineteenth century to the Civil War; a total of two million slaves were traded locally and between states. Johnson’s book is a social history of the trade from the perspective of each of the four categories of participants: the seller, the buyer, the trader who served as middleman and brought slaves -- sometimes hundreds of miles -- to the market, and the slave himself (or herself). Johnson analyzes the experiences of everyone involved to understand the essence of the South’s social system, to penetrate the cant of ‘paternalist’ rhetoric and slaveholders’ self-understandings.
For example, slaveholders liked to think of their system as, so to speak, pre-capitalist: they saw themselves as having human relations with their slaves, as being benevolent protectors rather than callous buyers-and-sellers of labor-power as in the North. But this ideology depended on the slave-regime’s supposed isolation from the market -- an isolation that did not in fact exist. Hence slaveowners’ hatred and contempt for the “coarse, ill-bred” slave-trader (as they characterized him), “provincial in speech and manners....with cold hard-looking eyes and shabby dress” (p. 24). His existence belied their ideological self-justifications. “In the figure of the slave trader,” Johnson writes, “were condensed the anxieties of slaveholding society in the age of capitalist transformation: paternalism overthrown by commodification, honor corrupted by interest, and dominance infected with disorder” (p. 25). Thus, when slaveholders did sell slaves, they invented elaborate excuses to justify their ‘capitalist’ act and deny a pecuniary motive for having cruelly separated slave families and friends.
Not surprisingly, blacks resisted this separation; that is, they resisted having what Johnson calls the ‘chattel principle’ forced brutally into their relationships and sense of self. Every slave, of course, was subject to the chattel principle: his identity “might be disrupted as easily as a price could be set and a piece of paper passed from one hand to another” (p. 19). Communities were destroyed, identities wrecked -- and paternalism was proven a slaveowner’s fantasy. Or, more accurately, as a white man’s self-conception it was something that could be bought in the slave market -- the very place, however, whose existence refuted the paternalist ideology.
Johnson describes in detail the operation of the market, the nature of the transactions occurring in the slave pens, the tactics of negotiation and evasion that slaves used so as to be bought together with their loved ones (if indeed they were being sold in the same market), the tricks that traders used to package their commodities -- slaves -- in appealing and deceptive ways that would fetch a high price. The book’s most interesting discussions, however, are of the systemic implications of the slave market and its paradoxical importance to the slaveowner’s identity. Everything definitive of Southern society could effectively be bought in the slave market: the white man’s racist pride, his luxurious living, his potentially indolent lifestyle, his benevolent and chivalric self-conception, even the myth that the landed aristocracy lived in splendid isolation from the capitalist market. As Johnson states, slaveholders were “men made out of slaves,” men who “lived through the stolen body of a slave” (p. 214). It is appropriate, therefore, that in the mid-nineteenth century the abolitionist movement came to see the slave market, not the plantation or paternalism or Southern political structures, as the essence of slavery. Southerners, secretly ashamed of slave-trading, fought this abolitionist campaign, but they lost. “The crude spectacle that was daily on view in the slave pen -- a human being publicly stripped, examined, priced, and sold -- thus became an image that stood for the whole of slavery” (p. 219). There is poetic justice in the fact that the slave market, perhaps the central institution binding together a society of slaveholders, would, through abolitionism, end up contributing to the downfall of slavery.