In Walter Johnson’s Soul by Soul, the discussion of slave narratives and the inner workings of the slave market underwrite the tense dynamic between freedom and “unfreedom” and the ways that white slaveholders gained status in the antebellum South. The construction of freedom and unfreedom did not just occur simultaneously, but rather, freedom for whites was dependent upon the unfreedom of blacks. Because of the enslavement of African Americans in the South, white landowning males had the freedom to do what they wanted without the burden of working in their fields from dawn until dusk. With their slaves supporting them economically and elevating them socially, white slaveholders were able to create not only a powerful Southern economy, but also a distinct class hierarchy based on the number of slaves working for them.
For white slaveholders in the South, owning and buying slaves were important ways to participate in a society that intertwined status with slavery. Thus, going to the slave market afforded white males an opportunity to see themselves elevated to a position of prestige through their slaves. According to Johnson,
“Before they entered the slave market or inspected a slave, many slaveholders had well-developed ideas about what they would find there. These ideas had less to do with the real people they would meet in the market, however, than they did with the slaveholders themselves, about the type of people they could become by buying slaves.” (78)
This idea of attaining status through owning slaves was tied to a fantasy shared by many slaveholders: that the more slaves working on the plantation, the simpler life would be not just for them, but also for their families. Slaveholding ladies in the South also used their slaves as a form of status and a way to maintain their “feminine delicacy.” With white aristocratic families buying slaves for social as well as economic needs, slaveholders felt the need to assert their dominance over their slaves and their fellow slaveholders.
One of the main reasons that white families in the South were able to participate in society and make a sizable income was because they restricted freedom for blacks and thus maintained their racial dominance. Continuing to support the institution of slavery and the unfreedom of blacks was in their best interest. For example, voting restrictions for blacks increased in the North in an effort to prevent African Americans from putting unwanted candidates in office. This gave whites the freedom to vote for whomever they wanted, without the fear that their slaves would try to usurp their ideals. In addition, physicians, insurance companies, traders, and many other professionals profited from slaveholders’ desires to protect their investment in slavery. Keeping African Americans oppressed and enslaved allowed whites to insure their place in society by preventing blacks from taking their jobs and incomes.
With the dependence of freedom for whites on the unfreedom of blacks, slaveholders were able to gain power and status that shaped the antebellum South. Yet this power struggle raises some interesting questions about the relationships between slaveholders. For example, how did slaveholders view rebellions and slave resistance when it happened to their neighbors as opposed to when it happened to them personally? Was their desire to impress their colleagues so great that they were happy when a neighbor’s slave ran away and exposed the master as “bad” or did it instill a general fear among slaveholders when slaves tried to gain their freedom? Which was more important—status over their fellow slaveholders or status over their slaves?