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.
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The South "ante bellum," that is "before the war," was a place of great prosperity and grandeur, along with great suffering for the slaves working in the fields. New Orleans, near the mouth of the Mississippi, was the principal city in French America and became the capital of the state of Louisiana. Political thinkers in the South developed reasons for believing that slavery was not just an economic necessity but a moral virtue.