Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Paperback)
  • Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Paperback)

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Paperback)

Paperback 320 Pages
Published: 02/03/2001
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Winner of the Frederick Jackson Turner Award
Winner of the John Hope Franklin Prize
Winner of the Avery O. Craven Award

Soul by Soul 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 us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest in the nation, where 100,000 men, women, and children were packaged, priced, and sold, Walter Johnson 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 and surprising interdependencies among the actors involved.

Using recently discovered court records, slaveholders’ letters, nineteenth-century narratives of former slaves, and the financial documentation of the trade itself, 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, but they ultimately relied on the slaves to play their part as valuable commodities. Slave buyers stripped the slaves and questioned their pasts, seeking more honest answers than they could get from the traders. In turn, these examinations provided information that the slaves could utilize, sometimes even shaping a sale to their own advantage.

Johnson depicts the subtle interrelation of capitalism, paternalism, class consciousness, racism, and resistance in the slave market, to help us understand the centrality of the “peculiar institution” in the lives of slaves and slaveholders alike. His pioneering history is in no small measure the story of antebellum slavery.

Publisher: Harvard University Press
ISBN: 9780674005396
Number of pages: 320
Weight: 358 g
Dimensions: 235 x 156 mm


The focus of this fine book, which is at once doggedly scrupulous and quietly passionate, is the slave market that operated in New Orleans in the years before the Civil War… An area of recent and still tentative study has to do with the effect the slaves had on the people who bought and sold them; to this Johnson makes important and original contributions… In what it tells us about the slaves, Soul by Soul adds more detail to what is by now a staggering body of information. It is in telling us more about what slavery did to the men and women who stood on the privileged side of the divide that Johnson performs his most useful service. Slavery brutalized its victims, but it also corrupted its masters. It was, in every single regard, unspeakable. - Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

A forceful reminder that life in the Crescent City after the battle wasn't all toleration… [This is an] elegant and intelligent book. - Nicholas Lemann, New Yorker

Just when readers might have thought nothing new could be written about slavery, Walter Johnson's behind-the-scenes look at the New Orleans slave market unmasks the brutalities of trafficking in human flesh in a terrifying, unforgettable manner. Mr. Johnson's carefully researched saga picks up after the 1808 U.S. ban on trans-Atlantic slave trading. Far from shutting down slavery, the prohibition simply boosted domestic slave trafficking… Soul by Soul gives context to its content, making it a fascinating 'insider's' view of a world created by slavery. - Meta G. Carstarphen, Dallas Morning News

[Soul by Soul has] an interesting and compelling argument… Where Johnson succeeds…[is in] using the New Orleans slave market, its contents and its customers as a way to understand a culture that no longer exists. - Matthew DeBord, Salon

Johnson's extremely rich and subtle work, the first in-depth look at the slave markets, never lets the reader forget the reality that this was a trade in human beings… Among the most striking and important aspects of the book is the way Johnson makes clear the resistance of enslaved African-Americans to becoming mere items of property… Johnson teaches us that, despite the insistence of white slaveholders that slaves were simply possessions, enslaved African-Americans routinely asserted their humanity and forced slaveholders to take this into account when bringing people to market. At the same time that Johnson keeps the spotlight squarely on the humanity of enslaved African-Americans, he also presents a complicated account of those who went to the markets to buy… Anyone interested in American history must strive to understand something about slavery, and as Johnson shows us, the event of the sale of one human being to another is at the center of the story of slavery. The horror of that transaction remains so powerful that even today descendants of its victims, as well as of its perpetrators, are still trying to comprehend it. Walter Johnson's important book makes a valuable contribution to that endeavor. - Judith Weisenfeld, Newsday

Walter Johnson has gone where no historian has gone before: inside the slave markets of the antebellum South… Johnson, through his book, has spoken for the unknown thousands who couldn't speak for themselves… Johnson has given a voice to those voiceless slaves whose descendants owe it to their ancestors to read this book. - Gregory Kane, Baltimore Sun

A challenging, eye-opening study that deserves a wide audience… Johnson delves into the contradictions and complexities that arise when human beings are treated as commodities… He gets inside the heads of slaves, traders and buyers in order to explore the desires, fears and strategies they brought to this inhuman transaction… Soul by Soul shines a penetrating light on the brutal heart of the South's peculiar institution. - Fritz Lanham, Houston Chronicle

Soul by Soul is a stunning excavation of the past, a book that is sure to be read and debated for years to come. Walter Johnson creates a common identity for the slaves by letting their voices give shape to the narrative. In an age such as ours, so premised on individual liberty, the author performs a kind of moral autopsy on the mindset of slave owning. - Jason Berry, Gambit Weekly

Johnson tells us many things about [the] commodification of human beings, some of which you probably know and others that are more surprising… Johnson's book covers wide territory, from the petty encounters of small slave traders to the extraordinary power of slavery in the southern economy. - Peter Walker, Financial Times

Johnson 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. - Randall M. Miller, Library Journal

This extraordinary study is a flesh-and-blood daily history of the slave market. Johnson takes readers inside the Dixie slave pens and traders' coffles (long rows of slaves manacled and chained to one another)… Using former slave survivors' narratives, letters written by slaveholders, docket records of cases of disputed slave slaves and Southern medical and agricultural journals, Johnson interweaves the voices of traders, buyers, auctioneers and the slaves themselves… 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. - Publishers Weekly

Johnson selected 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, Booklist

[Johnson] shows that the slaves were able to shape, albeit in small measure, the outcomes of sales… [He] illuminates not just the slaves, but the white Southerners who bought and sold then, offering particular insight into the ways white people constructed their own identities by dreaming of the slaves they would one day buy… A refreshing, elegantly written angle on antebellum slavery. - Kirkus Reviews

The slave pen lay at the depths of slavery's hell, and no one has explored that abyss better than Walter Johnson. Soul by Soul brilliantly bares the base meaning of chattel bondage—and by extension antebellum Southern society—by inspecting the mechanism that produced and reproduced slavery in the nineteenth-century United States and in the process defined slave, slave trader, and slaveholder. - Ira Berlin, author of Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America

Walter Johnson's lucid and breathtaking book uses the spectacle of the slave market to open new windows onto the history and peculiarities of American capitalist culture. He persuasively shows that masters were not simply buying labor but fantasies—fantasies of power, control, pleasure, even their own perceived benevolence. This is why the slave market was like no other market in the history of modern capitalism, and why Soul by Soul is like no other book. - Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class

Soul by Soul mercilessly demonstrates why the slave South built high walls around its auction blocks. It then tears down those walls. In insisting on the centrality of slave sales in antebellum Southern life, Johnson precisely captures the logic, complexity, brutality, falsity and, above all, the drama of a world built around a market in human beings. - David Roediger, editor of Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means To Be White

As central as the slave trade was to the experience of slavery, there has been no in-depth study of the daily life of the trade. Walter Johnson fills the conspicuous void. With this original and innovative book, Johnson skillfully unveils the manipulations and the negotiations of the slave market. Soul by Soul tells a unique and compelling story. - Deborah Gray White, author of Ar'n't I a Woman?: Female Slaves in the Plantation South

Johnson takes us inside the New Orleans slave market, the largest and busiest in the South, and discovers that the buyers and sellers of slaves could easily mix the language and values associated with paternalism and commercialism. Unlike later historians, they saw no conflict between their needs for status and sound business practice… [Johnson] advances the original and potentially controversial argument that to be truly 'white' in the Old South one had to own slaves. - George M. Fredrickson, New York Review of Books

It is not often that we get an academic monograph as smart and well-written as this one. On almost every page Johnson has something fresh and original to say about the old chestnuts of historical debate: paternalism, honor, miscegenation, slave culture. Soul by Soul reaffirms the importance of making sure our graduate programs remain open to even the most outlandish intellectual fads, which very often are honest efforts to see the world in new ways. - Lawrence N. Powell, Times-Picayune

What distinguishes Soul by Soul from other recent works on the experience of slavery, and, indeed, the history of the antebellum South, is the innovative use of court records. Johnson…begins by asserting the importance of seeing the moment of sale through the eyes of the people who were sold and not just through the eyes of slaveowners and traders. A careful reading of the voluminous quantity of published slave narratives forms the foundation of the volume but much of the insight comes from an exploration of roughly two hundred disputed slave transactions that were brought before the Louisiana Supreme Court… No research is without flaws, and no scholar impervious to the claim that something should have been done differently. Johnson carefully crafts his narrative to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of his evidence… By focusing on the moment of sale, and analyzing what it meant to both slaveowner and slave, Soul by Soul establishes itself as perhaps the most innovative work on slavery published in the last twenty-five years. - Robert Wolff, H-Net Reviews

Soul by Soul is the first modern study to deal specifically with the workings of the American slave market. This is the subject that the defenders of slavery preferred not to discuss. Instead, they liked to emphasize the paternalistic aspects of slavery—the natural bonds linking master and servant and the cradle-to-grave care that distinguished the lot of the Southern bondsman from that of the Northern 'wage slave'… This is an important book, well researched and clearly written. It describes how slaves were bought and sold, and what these transactions meant for the parties involved. It shows that, even at the best of times, slaves lived in the shadow of the slave market. - Howard Temperley, Times Literary Supplement

Soul by Soul is an important contribution to the historiography of slavery. - Adam Linker,

This book should not be read in part or assigned as a casual reference. It stands as a whole, an effort to reconstruct a sense of an entire way of life by focusing on one scene in detail. Meticulously researched and copiously annotated, Soul by Soul is at once well written and accessible to any serious minded YA reader. - Kliatt

A richly textured history of human trade in the antebellum South, covering a period during which some two million slave sales were meticulously recorded. Johnson's haunting study centers on New Orleans, the site of North America's largest slave market… Johnson looks at the roles played by slaves, traders, and slaveholders in the nasty enterprise of selling life… The title of Johnson's book is not casually chosen, for he seeks to grasp the impact of slavery on the very souls of everyone it touched. This ambition takes his work beyond that of historians who have traced the trajectory of the slave trade through commercial records only. - Randal M. Jelks, Books & Culture

This excellent book provides a wealth of new details about the buying and selling of black people in the antebellum South and remarkable insights into the minds of both the seller and the sold. - Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Johnson examines the economics of the internal slave trade as well as the interdependencies among the actors involved. Focusing on New Orleans, which had the largest trade in the country, he analyzes the philosophies and nuances of the trade as well as the centrality of the trade in the lives of slaves and slaveholders alike. - Law and Social Inquiry

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