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Walter Johnson
New York University

The Chattel Principle: Southern History and the Slave Trade

Paper to be delivered at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition

Yale University, October 1999


As slaveholders bound the South together with a criss-crossed pattern of trade and regional interdependence, as they made their way through market cycles and depressions, and as they expanded the boundaries of the slaveholding South to the point of Civil War, they charted their progress by buying and selling slaves. This version of the history of the slave trade has often been represented graphically as an outline of prices and the volume of trade — rising into spiky peaks through the 1830s and then plunging into sharp decline, only to rise again in the 1850s — or cartographically as a series of migrating dots on a map — a black bulge being gradually forced southwest. The shapes on the graphs and the maps are chastening: they outline the time-and-space history of one of the largest forced migrations in world history.

And yet the time-and-space outline of that trade does not fully describe it. Indeed, it could be said that the history of the slave trade, of the daily process by which two million people were bought and sold over the course of the antebellum period, has been hidden from view by the very aggregations which have been used to represent it. This paper takes the shape of a twice-told tale: the story of a single moment — a slave sale — told from two different perspectives. Following from a tradition of work in African American history stretching back at least to W. E. B. Du Bois's Black Reconstruction, the paper begins with with the idea that the history of any struggle, no matter how one-sided its initial appearance, is incomplete until told from the perspectives of all of those whose agency shaped the outcome.

Taken from a larger study of the domestic slave trade, this paper treats contrasting efforts of slaves and slaveholders to imagine and describe the the slave trade and its relations to the system of slavery. Slaves' accounts of the relation of the trade to the wider system of slavery, it argues, were structural — they emphasized the integral role of the slave trade in the system of slavery. Slaveholders' accounts, by contrast, were often circumstantial — in explaining why they sold slaves, they emphasized the immediate context of a specific sale rather than drawing any broader conclusions about the system of slavery. Rather than seeking to establish which view was the correct one, the paper analyzes the process through which they were contested. Slaveholders, it argues, often had to enforce their account of reality through deceit or violence, and by so doing they created public evidence about their own implication in the worst of slavery's abuses. By remembering those who had been sold and telling their own stories of sale and separation, on the other hand, slaves built the disparate experiences of two million individual sales into an indigenous antislavery ideology, an account of what slavery was and what was wrong with it. Carried North with fugitive slaves, the paper's conclusion argues, this strand of antislavery became a crucial element of Northern abolitionism.

Historians have generally followed the traders in defining the boundaries of the slave trade around the commercial record it produced — a sale in the upper South to a slave trader as a beginning and a sale in the lower South as an end. This definition of "the slave trade," however, cannot withstand the centrifugal pressure of the competing perspectives presented by the narratives, the letters, and the court records. "The slave trade" did not begin or end in the same place for traders, buyers, and slaves. For slaves, the slave trade was often much more than an economic transaction bounded in space and time. A slave traders' short-term speculation might have been a slave's lifelong fear; a one-time economic miscalculation or a fit of pique on the part of an owner might become a life-changing sale for a slave. For buyers, too, the slave market was a place they thought about and talked about long before they entered the confines of the pens and long after they left with a slave. Comparing the sources produced by those on different sides of the bargain makes it clear that "a slave sale" was not a single thing which could be viewed from three different sides and summed into a whole — the way one might walk all the way around a physical object, measure every face, and then create a three-dimensional diagram. Rather, like a web of unforeseen connections, the morphology of a sale depended upon the point of departure: time ran differently depending upon where you started the clock.