An Analysis of the Book Soul by Soul Written by Walter Johnson

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Soul by Soul Book Review


Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul: Life Inside Antebellum Slave Market takes the concept of slavery that many learn at young age and splits it in into two more specific yet baffling concepts. Johnson illuminates the true life of a slave and from feeling to lifestyle; he is able to portray an understanding of what a slave's life was like between the 1820's and the 1860's. Johnson also effectively shows how the slave trade was able to form a booming market during the same period. This book looks at slavery from almost every aspect imaginable, to shape a shrewd and actual history of this time. Incorporating points of views from the slave traders, owners, and the slaves themselves, Johnson gives plentiful insight into what life for these people was like during the colonial era of America and examines how a massive slave market was created in our developing country.

Johnson focuses mainly on developing the general mindset and lifestyle of a slave throughout chapter one.

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Johnson expands on relatively common knowledge of slaves, and illuminates that they were encouraged to live two separate lifestyles. According to Johnson, slaves "learned to view their own bodies through two lenses, one belonging to their masters, the other belonging to themselves" (Johnson 21). Slaves always had a priority to their masters, however, when not performing laborious work, slaves were able to form their own "slave community". Whether it was on the plantations or in the slave pens, slaves exchanged experiences and stories about their lives and their involvements in the slave trade.

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The community that slaves formed not only allowed them learn about each other personally, but it allowed them to learn more about the slave trade and what to expect when they are in the market (which becomes important as Johnson explains in later chapters). In the end, however, this community could never take precedence as the slaves had to remember that they were not just people, but they were the property of their masters as well. 

The concept of trading slaves as a profession is introduced in chapter two. In essence, slave traders made a living buying and selling slaves for profit. Throughout the chapter, Johnson does a fine job describing the steps of how slave traders operated. Many of the best traders had two or more pens for all their slaves to held and distributed throughout parts of the south. These pens served as the holding grounds for slaves until they were sold or ready to be shipped to the auction pens. To transfer slaves around the south, traders either shipped them via boat or by marching them in organized lines of chained slaves called coffles. Because these slave traders had the ability to possess and trade mass amounts of slaves, many of them hired employees. The advantage that a trader received from hiring employees was that "these employees [...] spread their buying and selling widely”(Johnson 48). Johnson references traders such as Franklin and Armfield, and John White, who bought slaves in places such as Virginia and Missouri, and through the use of employees in their firms, distributed them all over the south to places like Texas and Alabama (Johnson 48). Overall, slave traders were extremely organized, such as many of the wealthiest businesses men today, with the opportunity to become rich of an expanding market. In the end, slave merchants all over capitalized on the growing demand for slaves by building vast firms of slave trading and allowed them to enjoy the great wealth that came along with it.

Chapter four relates directly to chapter two because the most important feature of chapter four is the auction pen, a tool most utilized by slave traders. Actions at the auction pen are prime examples of slaves being treated like property. The auction pen, where slave masters from far and near came to bid on slaves, was the final stop in the process of selling a slave. There were a few different people that were needed to make an auction work, including auctioneers, evaluators, and of course, traders and buyers. Out of all of these people, the actions the traders took at the auction pens stand out the most. Traders took precautions to make sure their slaves fetched the highest price. In some cases, as Johnson portrays on page 120, doctors did their best to temporarily fix up injured or sick slaves, making "tactical commitments to slaves' bodies that were underwritten by the hope of their sale” (Johnson 120). Other traders purposely covered up scars and signs up aging with clothes to hide imperfections on their product." In one drastic scenario, John White dressed all of his slaves in identical suits, in hopes of making all of his slaves look the same for potential buyers. Strategic moves made by these slave traders eventually tipped the battle in the favor of the traders when it came down to them making the most profit or buyers receiving the most value.

Johnson develops the concept of a slave community well within chapters one, two and four, shedding light on how this community formed and how it benefitted the slaves. It is human nature to communicate and relate to others, and over time slaves had plenty of opportunities to do so. Journeys on boats and time spent in pens were perfect opportunities for slaves to communicate and share experiences, as well as prepare each other for what to expect in their futures. "In the coffles," Johnson explains, “...slaves [made social connections that could help sustain them [selves]," which demonstrates how slaves came together as the underdogs of society and attempted to give each other some leverage over their masters, which is not something many would have expected (Johnson 65). The best example Johnson gives of slaves using their community to their advantage is when he describes that if a slave found out that they may be traded (through the talk of other slaves), they could at least manipulate their masters to get traded with better accommodations. When this occurred, traders realized the humanness in the slaves and “made promises to the slaves about future benefits if they did not resist the trade” (Johnson 59). Johnsons continues with an example of a slave, Henry Bibb, who got promised to not get chained up or sold to a New Orleans trader on the conditions that he cooperated with his current trader (Johnson 59). Ultimately, these three chapters give great insight into the fact that slaves were able to form a society, which enabled them to gain minimal influence over traders and ultimately give them a little say in their own lives.

The role of sexuality in the slave market is introduced in chapter 3. Interestingly, the market for slaves did not just limit itself to slaves for the purpose of labor, but instead, included slaves for the purpose of reputation and sexual desires. Fancies, as they were called, were purchased at auctions for the pleasure of the extremely wealthy slave masters. If one was lucky enough to own a fancy, it was apparent to everyone in society that this person was wealthy and had great power, because fancies were usually priced at least three times the average slave. To dispose such great amounts of money for a simple desire showed the community at large that the slave master must have a great amount of money. Owning a fancy could be considered the modern day equivalent of owning an extremely large house or owning an expensive car. However, although society viewed owning a fancy as a sign of dominance, it was something to not be spoken of amongst each other as it also showed "sexual and social disorder” (Johnson 90). This was even true for the slave masters themselves, as they often referred to them "not as "mistresses" or "fancies" but as "cooks" or "domestics”” when purchasing these fancies (Johnson 114). Even though fancies were not something to be talked about, they demonstrated that even in the antebellum slave market, market trends could be set by non-economical factors.

The evaluations of slaves done at the auction pens are looked at more in depth as Johnson moves into chapter five. Slaves had no set prices; instead they were each appraised at the auction by evaluators to determine their ultimate value. These evaluators looked at many physical factors to determine the value of a slave, including height, weight, hand size and hip width. According to evaluators, these factors were all determinants in production capacity; meaning the better the physical attributes, the more a trader could sell for. Other factors such as age and health were important as well because oftentimes slaves were long-term investments if purchased at a young age. The most interesting of these factors were the scars on slaves' backs. If a slave had scars on their back from being whipped, it showed potential buyers that these slaves may be rebellious and that they should not pay too much for them (Johnson 145). Furthermore, slaves with too many scars were considered to be a bad investment and usually did not get sold at all because they were too rebellious. In the end, evaluations came down to putting a value on a person by making them into products for sale.

The sale of a slave ultimately relied on three parties: the seller, the buyer, and the slave. Common sense would say that the seller did what he could to get the most money, while the buy did what he could to get the most value. This has been one of the themes of the past few chapters. However, chapter six reveals that it eventually was in the hands of the slave to determine both his price and his value. The slave had to make the seller look good by making himself look as presentable and healthy, all the while intriguing the buyer to want the skills the slave had to offer. If the slave was capable of pleasing both parties, both the buyer and seller left the sale happy and obtained what they wished. Surprisingly, in rare cases, slaves could manipulate both the buyer and seller and “at enormous risk, they shaped a sale to suit themselves” too (Johnson 177). This is more evidence that the slave, who is property, had responsibilities like a normal human to please both parties and sometimes even accommodate his own preferences.

Another one of Johnson's strengths throughout the book is how he could relate numerous actions to a slave being treated in altered ways. Over and over again, Johnson uses different events in slaves' lifetimes to indirectly show that slaves often were treated like property. Even more importantly, he illustrates that, although rarely, a slave could be treated more like a human. As an example, Johnson does an excellent job to show that a slave was property at the auction pens, as they were made into products and valued based off of qualitative attributes. What is more astounding is that Johnson is able to capture small instances that slaves are treated in a more human-like nature. Johnsons makes a major case to this element of a slave's life when he expresses that slaves have the capability to reason like a human, and therefore, during the trading process slaves and traders occasionally cooperated so that they both were able to benefit in the end. This concept that Johnson is able to display is even more exceptional because grade schools and high schools teach that slaves were property, and there is rarely ever a mention of slaves being treated at like regular people.

One critique of Soul by Soul, as mentioned by Gavin Wright in his Stanford University book review, is that there is a lack of quantifiable information throughout the book. Johnson does a great job answering questions such as who, what, when, where and why, but as far as crunching numbers, the only real details he gets into are the relative prices for individual sales of slaves. It becomes hard to grasp the magnitude of the slave market when Johnson leaves out information such as the value of the market as a whole, as well as the value of specific slave markets by not including details such as how many total slaves were being traded at any given time in this period. Johnson would be better off if he included more quantifiable information such as Regina Blaszczyk and Philip Scranton do in Major Problems in American Business History. One instance where Blaszczyk and Scranton rationalize the use of quantifiable information is in the article "Senator James Henry Hammond Declares "Cotton is King," 1858." Although the numbers are not exact, there are plenty of quantifying facts such as in 1857, the south could have used slaves to produce around $220,000,000 worth of untaxed exports and could have recorded around $40,000,000 worth of revenue (Blaszczyk and Scranton 149-55). It would serve a great purpose if Johnson included one extra chapter full of facts like these, to give the reader a final understanding of everything that he incorporates into the first seven chapters.

Johnson does a tremendous job at revealing information about the slave market that is unheard of to many people. Despite not being able to make his information come full circle with quantifiable information, he still is able to break down how the slave market grew into an immense market with details of the auction pens, fancies and the trading processes. Johnson also provides insight into the everyday lives of the slaves and shows how a community formed amongst themselves. Using the accounts of former slaves, slave owners, and slave traders, Johnson develops the actuality of how slaves affected the South during a time when their economy was expanding drastically. 


Works Cited

  1. Blaszczyk, Regina Lee., and Philip Scranton. Major Problems in American Business History: Documents and Essays. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2006. Print.
  2. Johnson, Walter. Sould By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1999. Print.
  3. Wright, Gavin. "Project MUSE - Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (review)." Project MUSE - Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (review). The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, n.d. Web. 13 Oct. 2013.


Updated: Oct 07, 2021
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An Analysis of the Book Soul by Soul Written by Walter Johnson. (2021, Oct 07). Retrieved from

An Analysis of the Book Soul by Soul Written by Walter Johnson essay
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