In January 1834, the slave trader Isaac Franklin wrote from New Orleans to his Richmond partner and slave buyer, Rice Ballard: “The fancy girl, from Charlattsvilla [Charlottesville], will you send her out or shall I charge you $1100 for her. Say quick, I wanted to see her . . . I thought that an old Robber might be satisfied with two or three maids.” Franklin implied that his partner was holding the young woman, one of many “fancy maids” handled by the firm of Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard, for his own sexual use. Unwilling, the jest implied, to share his enslaved sex objects, Ballard was keeping the desirable Charlottesville maid in Richmond instead of passing her on to his partners so that they might take their turn of pleasure. The joke, and the desire it did not seek to disguise, was business as usual. In this case, the business was a slave-trading partnership, and systematic rape and sexual abuse of slave women were part of the normal practice of the men who ran the firm—and the normal practice of many of their planter customers as well. Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard supplied field hands and carpenters to the raw new plantations of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Arkansas in the 1830s, but they also supplied planters with many a “fancy maid.” In fact, the letter quoted went on to suggest, tongue in cheek, that such women were in such heavy demand that the firm might do better selling coerced sex retail rather than wholesale. Referring to two enslaved women, Franklin mused self-indulgently on the conversion of female labor into slavers’ money: “The old Lady and Susan could soon pay for themselves by keeping a whore house.” Yet what did Franklin indulge most? Was sexual or monetary greed the trump suit in his own decision-making? Perhaps, he continued, in the vein of aggressive sexual banter that pervades the traders’ letters, the partners would rather see the house “located and established at your place, Alexandria, or Baltimore for the Exclusive benefit of the consern&[its] agents.”
Franklin and his colleagues passionately wanted “mulatto” women, and black people generally: as bodies to rape and bodies to sell. If these men were more than mere exceptions in the society in which they lived—and I shall argue that they illustrate that society’s half-denied and half-remembered assumptions about commerce and rape—then the stakes of explaining their desires are high. What sort of society did slaveowning white men create in the antebellum U.S. South? What sorts of ideas and psychological forces cemented their devotion to the supposedly pre-modern institution of racial slavery to a deep involvement in the rapid commercial expansion that reached a peak during the 1830s?
The present essay seeks to explain the ideas about slavery, rape, and commerce embedded in and produced by the passionate desires of Franklin and his partners. For some years, historians interpreting the institutions and ideology of nineteenth-century southern slavery have focused their attentions on explaining slaveholders’ paternalist defenses of their planter institution. Like some of their sources, such histories have often explicitly or implicitly portrayed the domestic slave trade as a contradiction within an otherwise stable system. Recent works have returned the issue of that trade to the forefront, arguing that the commerce in human beings was an inescapable and essential feature of the region’s pre–Civil War society and culture. In the drop of water that is the correspondence between Franklin, Ballard, and their associates, one might perceive a need to push historians’ revisions of the slave South’s whole world further still. Indeed, these men reveal themselves as being so devoted to their picture of the slave trade as a fetishized commodification of human beings that we may need to insist on such a mystification as one of the necessary bases of the economic expansion of the pre–Civil War South. They also assert, especially through their frequent discussions of the rape of light-skinned enslaved women, or “fancy maids,” their own relentlessly sexualized vision of the trade. Finally, the traders insist in accidental testimony that sexual fetishes and commodity fetishism intertwined with such intimacy that coerced sex was the secret meaning of the commerce in human beings, while commodification swelled its actors with the power of rape. Such complexities lead one to wonder if historians might do well to reinterpret the antebellum South—a society in which the slave trade was a motor of rapid geographical and economic expansion—as a complex of inseparable fetishisms.
Admittedly, the correspondence of the partners and employees of the slave-trading firm of Franklin, Ballard, and Armfield is a single group of sources from one of the several dozen trading firms operating in the South during the boom years of the 1830s. Thus the question of representativeness inevitably arises. Indeed, the records of Franklin, Ballard, and Armfield are not typical, in part because they are so extensive. But they are also atypical because they are so candid, so powerfully illustrative. These men, to borrow a phrase, “articulated the language that history had put at [their] disposal,” and articulated it with stunning indiscretion. The unrepresentativeness of their apparent honesty exposes representative elements of the world in which they lived. More openly than most, these men described the ways in which the sexual history of slaves and masters fogged their vision of enslaved black women with an erotic haze. And they also depicted the enslaved in mystical terms as standardized objects: units of trade, transparent in history, ready for sale and use.
Of course, African and African-American opposition to such ideas was constant. Women of color, and black communities in general, waged constant rhetorical and physical battles against both the sexual assaults of white men and white ideas about black people. But such efforts were not always successful, and they were particularly likely to fail when waged from the vulnerable height of the auction block. Resistance by enslaved African Americans also undoubtedly made more impact on the day-to-day lives of black folks than on whites’ ideas, popular or erudite, about African-American women. Black resistance, of course, does not need to change whites’ minds—or even register an impact on white culture—for it to matter, and matter beyond easy measure. Resistance is not the subject of this essay. Instead, here I focus on explaining why and how some white men identified rapes and slave sales as conjoined and essential parts of their very selves.
To explain the words left behind by Franklin and Ballard, we must talk about sexual coercion and sexual obsession, and also about the desire for commodities. These disturbing phenomena are not merely products of male biology, transhistorical psychological topology, sui generis individual perversion, or quotidian consumer behaviors. While, like antebellum apologists for slavery, many historians have blamed sexual violence on the allegedly unusually low morals of slave traders, not even the act of rape is a transparent product of an essential male nature. Likewise, the ability to perceive and treat human beings as commodities also grew from and supported social and cultural institutions and ideas that had their own tortured histories. In the case of this group of nineteenth-century slave traders, the concept of the fetish, or “the objectivized form of our desire,” can help us understand the way in which they interpreted their roles and experiences. Admittedly, the senses of this term are many and perhaps, within academic language, form a fetish of their own. But the two most well-known uses of the term—Karl Marx’s definition of the commodity fetish and Sigmund Freud’s argument that forms of sexual fetishism are central to male desires—offer terms that can begin an exploration of the passion for slaves shared by both traders and buyers.
Describing what he termed “commodity fetishism,” Marx argued that, in the process of industrial capitalist production, goods appear as abstractions with their own existence and their own value, independent of the social labor of the actual human beings who created them. To the mind of the consumer and the capitalist apologist alike, such goods have no relationship to the exploitative process of production. Like the wooden god-images called fetiço by early Portuguese voyagers to Africa, commodities appear to believers to have their own life and their own powers. Yet the fetishists themselves are the ones who ascribe such powers. Likewise, capitalists deny their own creation and control of the commodity, explaining it as objective, natural reality. For that very reason, one cannot distinguish in any useful way between “real” and “false” commodities, for each one of these social and cultural “facts,” whether an inanimate object or an enslaved human being, is the product of determined and meaningful self-deception and forgetting.
Marx emphasized a process of half-forgetting, but Freud’s argument on sexual fetishism leaned toward the forms of half-remembering, which he placed at the center of his explanation of male sexuality. Formative castration dramas of infancy and early childhood, he argued, led men to layer meaning onto simultaneously rejected and desired objects such as shoes or parts of women’s bodies (the foot, the breast, the hair). In his classic example, Freud depicted the birth of a shoe fetish in a young boy’s act of peering up a woman’s skirt. The boy’s discovery of the absence of the female penis leads to traumatic fears of his own castration, and to dread of the woman’s genitalia whose discovery occasioned such terrors. The woman’s shoes, which the boy also saw, provide a redirected object for the traumatized boy as he becomes a young man. This choice of the conscious mind seems to forget its own cause. Yet the unconscious remembers the discovery of female difference and returns to it compulsively as an object both titillating and fearful, desired and reviled. The specific example used here may suggest that fetishism explains only a few rare perversions. But Freud sought to find not only keys to unlock individual psychologies but also culture-wide issues of male sexuality. Fetishism, Freud argued, normally proceeded without neurosis. This was the typical course of development of male sexuality. In the early nineteenth-century South, history had structured sexuality by differences of “race” or class, as well as by sex and gender. There, skin color and other racialized characteristics (or still more, the social and cultural myths to which racists wired such characteristics) could serve as signs of displaced castration anxiety and sexual discovery.
Neither Marx nor Freud is the final word on fetishism, and neither explains the sexual and economic obsessions that emerge so disturbingly from the letters of these slave traders. Freud’s understanding of sexuality is completely masculinist and also reifies the culture of bourgeois fin-de-siècle Vienna as the transhistorical model of psychological formation. Yet what Marx and Freud do tell us is that seeming contradictions might not be examples of intellectual bad faith but keys to the not-so-secret, yet disavowed, relationships that have come to structure ways in which we perceive and act upon symbols and things. By looking at sexual and other forms of desire, and their self-deceptions, historians might uncover such acts of simultaneous forgetting and remembering, self-deception and aggressive desire—acts or the historical detritus of acts that displace deeply contradictory issues onto objects or even other persons. Indeed, historically constructed questions of group and individual identity are often charged with fierce, even erotic passions, and surrounded in processes of forgetting and remembering that defy constraint in simplistic paradigms. Having once forgotten his or her creation of the “impassioned object,” the fetishist returns compulsively, often renewing relationships of exploitation in the process. For by doing so, he or she pleasures the self with the unacknowledged remembrance of a transgression without blame, an ambiguity controlled and fixed, a memory displaced onto and encoded in the fetish object. So even in our own day, we see the fetishization of flags, of skin color, battlefields, historic mansions, presidents’ reputations, or black athletes.
The slave traders’ own half-hidden thought about impassioned objects emerges first from their letters as commodity fetishism. Only later, as one learns their private language, does the sexual emerge. Even the forgetting and remembering that made human beings into commodities was complicated. In his brilliant Sweetness and Power, Sidney Mintz argues that the evolution of slave-made sugar into a commodity with malleable meanings influenced the tandem developments of industrialization and imperialism, as well as that of their renounced parent, plantation slavery. Sugar, he argues, even shaped the growth of the modern concept of the commodity itself. Mintz balks, however, at considering the slave as an object of trade subject to all of the forces and distortions of the Atlantic world. “Slaves,” he writes, “were a ‘false commodity’ because a human being is not an object, even when treated as one.” Perhaps we ought to be glad that our initial reaction to analyzing the enslaved human being as an abstracted, fetishized commodity tends to be one of aversion. Mintz is morally right. Human beings should not be treated as objects, and social conventions that claim that certain people have no humanity or independent personhood are false and contradictory. But as a description of historical forces, his flat denial is incomplete. Commodification is a process that takes place in the eye of the commodifier, not the commodified. In the case of slavery in the Atlantic world, the fictions of commodification were powerful enough to ensure that some people were treated as objects. Slave traders and owners were in practice far from reluctant to treat, think of, and talk about humans as commodities.
In fact, the domestic slave trade made the social, cultural, and psychological fiction of the slave-as-commodity—and the white man as slavery‘s fetishist—ubiquitous practice in the antebellum South. Between 1790 and 1860, the trade moved more than half a million enslaved Africans and African Americans from older states to the plantation frontiers of the South. We now tend to imagine slave traders as a group fundamentally different from the planter class. Abolitionists deployed the trade as a rhetorical symbol of the worst aspects of the South’s “peculiar institution.” Slave traders appeared in critiques as generally despicable, déclassé, and callous destroyers of black families. Opponents of slavery made their own fetish of stories about women stripped nude on the auction block and of young mulatto women sold into sexual servitude to depraved masters. Even defenders of slavery were ready by the 1850s to sacrifice the traders, if only in rhetoric, depicting them as a despised and degraded lot in the paternalistic society of the Old South—an unrepresentative bunch, no doubt entirely poor white or Yankee in origin.
Perhaps, then, the slave traders are not typical representatives of the mentalité of most planters and, by inference, of plantation society in the pre–Civil War South. Perhaps, as early as the 1830s, even slave traders perceived themselves as a group distinct from and disagreeable to planters. After all, Isaac Franklin and his nephew certainly called their partners and employees “old robbers” and “pirates,” and Isaac liked to paint himself as the wise elder among a gang of lawless outcasts. “The Old Chief,” he wrote in an 1833 letter, referring to himself in the third person, “has felt [distress over the vagaries of the market] . . . but must endeavour to bear up, knowing his friends are all young men and if they Loose everything they can Robb far more.”
In fact, the symbolic opposition between planter and trader has its roots in the crocodile tears of paternalism publicly shed by slavery’s defenders during the late antebellum period. During the 1830s, the slave trader’s symbolic place in southern culture was more ambivalent. This was a period of exuberant growth in both regional and national economies, and the slave trade was an important engine of capital formation and economic dynamism. While Franklin referred to fellow slave traders as “pirates,” he also called the planters with whom he dealt “robbers.” Bill brokers and merchants were “land pirates” and “shavers.” There may have been little difference, after all. Franklin’s jaundiced description of the world in which he moved admits that virtually every elite or would-be elite white man in the frontier South in this crucial period bent laws and pushed aside conventions to obtain economic and political power. Ex-slave John Brown once saw a Georgia slave trader named Sterling Finney steal a white woman’s slave maid, rape her, and march her south before anyone else could realize what had happened. Finney, also a wealthy planter, later won election to the state legislature. The traders’ willingness to “rob” both slaves and the individuals with whom they traded—the willingness to put profit above all ethical inhibitions—made them neither too distasteful for polite society nor radically different from planters in the 1830s. Indeed, many traders became planters, while planters became traders. All could, quite literally, represent southern society.
Thus, in this context of a rapidly expanding plantation regime, the partners of the Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard slave-trading firm were not so different from most other white masters in their origins, actions, or attitudes. The trajectories of their careers certainly reinforce such a conclusion. The early history of the eldest member of the firm, Franklin, is murky, but by the early 1820s he had teamed up with a man named John Armfield. At that time, the two had begun to ship enslaved African Americans from the Chesapeake to the lower Mississippi Valley. There, they sold the human cargoes to planters relocating year after year from Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas. Small markets organized to supply such migrants’ needs for slave labor sprang up in cities such as Natchez, Mobile, and Tallahassee. But the grandest of all was New Orleans. By 1830, Franklin and Armfield had become perhaps the most prominent slave dealers in the country’s biggest and most notorious market for human flesh.
Around 1831, the two dealers added a partner: Rice Carter Ballard, a man who originally made his home in eastern Virginia. Soon, the three partners were shipping as many as a thousand people per annum from Ballard’s Richmond depot to New Orleans. Ballard paid operatives to scour the interior counties of the Virginia Piedmont, inquiring at run-down tobacco plantations and sheriff’s sales for surplus labor to ship south and west. In June and July of 1834, for instance, James G. Blakey traveled through Orange, Culpeper, Madison, and Albemarle counties. Ballard mailed him multiple bank drafts, each for a thousand dollars, “to be laid out in negroes or returned undiminished.” Blakey found some bargains in Orange, happening upon three apprentice coopers for sale—”very likely indeed; three brothers.” But two weeks later he wrote, “I have just returned from Charlottesville [the county seat of Albemarle] court, great many buyers and negroes was scarce and high.” Whether prices were high or low, Ballard kept Blakey flush with the cash needed to sweep in Virginia’s abundant surplus labor. Ballard counted and valued the slaves sent in by Blakey and other operatives. Then he shipped the unfree migrants in vessels owned or hired by the firm. The ships sailed south around the capes of Florida and on to New Orleans. At that far end of the pipeline, Isaac Franklin also brought his nephew James Franklin on board as the company’s agent in Natchez. The younger Franklin became an important cog in the trading concern, especially after a Louisiana law banning the import of slaves for sale within the state took effect in 1832. In response, the company moved most selling operations up the Mississippi River to Natchez. Even after Louisiana’s legislature repealed its ban on the slave trade in 1834, proximity to customers made the younger Franklin’s location ideal for the task of cashing out over $400,000 in Mississippi and upper Louisiana accounts receivable accumulated by the firm in 1833 alone.
At New Orleans and Natchez, the Franklins sold enslaved African Americans to purchasers who paid in cash, notes (promises to pay in the near future), or drafts on their own “factors.” The latter were merchants who shipped and sold planters’ cotton and sugar, and provided them with commercial credit and other financial services. Franklin and Ballard, however, dealt directly with the commercial banks of both the South and the North, which they used to secure ready access to cash for making slave purchases throughout the distressed plantation counties of Maryland and Virginia. After selling the slaves at New Orleans and Natchez, the firm routed their gains in cash and commercial paper back through New York and Philadelphia banks. Chesapeake banks and merchants then supplied Armfield and Ballard with a steady stream of cash that restarted the cycle. Thus slave traders and bankers cooperated to send bound laborers to the plantation frontier, where they produced cotton, the raw material of industrial textile manufacture. British and northern bankers and merchants also provided the credit necessary for frontier planters to purchase both the slaves sent southwest from Chesapeake plantations, of which enslaved human beings often represented the only economically viable product, and the cloth bought to cover the forced migrants. Money and credit rotated in a wheel of international scale, while plantation products such as cotton and sugar—or slaves—circled in geared opposition. And at every step of their participation in the circulation of capital and commodities, Franklin, Ballard, and Armfield siphoned off a modicum of what they bluntly called “profit.”
The traders’ participation in, and even manipulation of, a series of vast networks of financial and commercial exchange meant that they were well versed in the way that the world of production, trade, and consumption worked. They accumulated knowledge and expertise, and they accumulated profits as well. By the end of the 1830s, gains from the trade had enabled Isaac Franklin to settle in Tennessee on “Fairvue,” one of several plantations that he now owned. This one was reputedly more impressive than his neighbor Andrew Jackson’s, “The Hermitage.” At his death, even in the depressed economic year of 1846, Franklin’s estate still commanded a value of three-quarters of a million dollars. Ballard, meanwhile, retired to Louisville, Kentucky, with his new wife. There, he lived off the skimmings of seven plantations that he had accumulated in the Mississippi Delta during the boom decade of the 1830s and the hard times of the 1840s. With almost a thousand slaves to his name, Ballard had clambered to a pinnacle of wealth occupied by only a handful of others in the antebellum United States. The slave trade had brought these men wealth, facility and familiarity with their economic world, and status.
So Ballard and Franklin, planters and traders, were hardly the socially excluded slave traders of late antebellum fictions. They handled cash and credit as insiders, and their ideas about the other commodities they manipulated illustrate beliefs implicit in the trade as a whole. In many ways, slaves moved through the circuits of trade like other early nineteenth-century goods. Certainly, traders tried to push them through in similar fashion. Of course, human beings do present particular challenges to those seeking to treat all products, in the quest for profit, as transparently fungible. In Marx’s famous illustration of the commodity fetish, buyers and sellers denied the human life and labor that made a table. Once the latter became a market commodity, it then “stood up,” said Marx, and talked back to human beings, “evolv[ing] out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas.” Such grotesque ideas, by which Marx meant buyers’ and sellers’ myths about the objective reality of the market and its laws of supply and demand, existed only in the minds of human beings. Enslaved people themselves were not wooden tables, and thus had their own ideas, quite different from the masters’ ideas about what slaves represented and meant in their own market world. They could not only stand up and rebuke but could resist and even kill the creators of the conditions that made them commodities, as slaveowners and traders knew only too well. Thus when an 1834 traveler crossed John Armfield’s path in the mountains of Virginia, as the latter marched two hundred slaves toward far-off Natchez, he noted that the trader had chained all the men together with stout precautionary iron shackles.
In fact, by the end of the eighteenth century, if not before, African-American culture had created families and individuals that rejected the despair that was one possible response to servitude, and instead raised up children imbued with a survivalist mentality. Men and women like twenty-one-year-old Henry Gant (cost, $450) or seventeen-year-old Charlotte McKenny (cost $300), both shipped from Richmond by R. C. Ballard on September 27, 1831, to New Orleans on the brig Tribune, were themselves the products of complex human social relations. Chesapeake communities supplied Gant, McKenny, and their peers with selfhood and enabled at least some masters to see slaves as more than the socially dead creatures postulated by the ideal state of bondage. Yet, just as social relations of industrial production created commodities like Marx’s table, often in the face of workers’ resistance, the relations of reproduction enshrined in the slave South’s law, custom, and political economy succeeded in selling human beings as goods on a market. Mothers, fathers, children, spouses, siblings, lovers, and friends could cajole, plead, and threaten in efforts to prevent the brutal division of human relationships. The history told by ex-slaves, however, contains many more separations than cases in which such pleading worked. Resistance to sale was typically ineffective, especially after the expansion of new plantation regions permitted slaveowners to sell, at a profit, the children that law made chattel. The act of sale ruptured the old plantation districts’ relationships of family, kinship, and community. The possibility of blacks manipulating whites narrowed radically, especially once original owners sold enslaved men, women, and children to traders. Neither Ballard and the Franklins nor the frontier planters to whom they sold slaves displayed much interest in enslaved African Americans’ individual or family social histories and identities. Decisively violent resistance, another possible alternative, was rare. Shackles, guns, whips, threats, isolation, division, dogs, and guards all did their work. Despite a few celebrated revolts, most enslaved people sent south and west to New Orleans were sold there, and to new owners not of their own choosing. The growth of the domestic slave trade after 1790 or so thus plunged the enslaved into a new round of commodification, which they had to find a way to survive.
As white men, both traders and masters, moved enslaved people between and onto markets, they conceived of African Americans as commodities. A transmutation of words and meanings allowed sellers and buyers to endow actual human beings with the universal and abstract qualities characteristic of the commodity. Traders such as Rice Ballard and Isaac Franklin began by drawing brutally thick lines between themselves and the goods they sold. During a cholera epidemic in Natchez, Franklin noted that the problem was not so much that some slaves were dying but that their deaths, if not properly hidden, would impede further sales: “the way we send out dead negroes at night and keep dark is a sin.” Of course, slave traders did not understand their own potential demise as mere impediment to further business or as the simple depreciation of trade goods. When Ballard heard that cholera had hit the river towns, he wrote to his partner, telling the latter to abandon his slaves to death should they become ill, rather than trying to care for them: “We had better loose [sic] all and begin again than loose ourselves.” In another case, Franklin worried about business, “not so much on his own account, as those he is conserned with,” because he feared the loss of his partners’ precious investments of time and money. Then he casually noted, “I sold Old Man Alsop’s two scald headed boys for $800. One of them Took the Cholera the day afterwards and died and the other was very near kicking the Bucket.” The individual white trader, his time, and his hard-won resources were all irreplaceable. In contrast, the partners could easily replace the black folks who made up their capital investment, so long as they had the cash required.
The transformation of slaves to easily replaced, inhuman goods was part of a process one might call the deanimation of enslaved people: their reduction in traders’ words to virtually inanimate articles. Whites held virtually every card in this game. In the letters exchanged by these traders, at least, this was no back-and-forth exchange between anxious traders and African Americans whose cooperation needed to be secured by coaxing. Those in the firm of Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard swung into the linguistic rhythms of deanimation with a coarse and practiced swagger. In March 1832, for instance, James Franklin wrote to Ballard from Natchez, eager for the next day of sales to begin: “I shall open my fancy stock of Wool and Ivory early in the morning.” The younger Franklin’s words evoked a peddler opening a case to display cloth and carved knickknacks, although he referred to enslaved African Americans. His “wool” suggested common racist descriptions of their hair, and his “ivory” evoked both African origins and the teeth that buyers inspected. Franklin described the enslaved as inanimate articles, stilled of life, and reduced to hair and teeth: “Wool and Ivory.”
Slavemongers also referred incessantly to men, women, and children as “stock”: James Franklin reported to Ballard after reaching Natchez in the fall of 1832 that “we arrived in this place . . . with all of our stock.” Other references to their human merchandise underlined the deanimation inflicted in the traders’ own minds. James, always a reliable font of offensive expressions, also wrote to Ballard in 1834, saying, “I suppose you are not buying any Cuffys right now.” Later, his uncle also used the term, reporting, “The price of Cuffy comes on whether they have fallen or not they are very high through all the country.” The singular term “Cuffy” standardized the human produce shipped from the Chesapeake, using a partitive term to imply that selling slaves was no different from selling “soup” or “lumber.” The product was uniform: the main difference between one and thirty was one of the quantity of packages.
To be sure, Franklin and Ballard sought a mix of types of slaves. In November 1833, Isaac Franklin complained to Richmond that “[I] Could have sold as many more if we had of had the right kind, men from 8 to 900 dollars, field women large and likely from 6 to 650 dollars.” He also reported “a Great demand for fancy maid[s]” as well as artisans and other skilled workers. Franklin also complained to Ballard about a recent shipment that did not meet standard size and age requirements: “yours and Armfields was the leanest invoice I have ever received. In fact your little slim assed girls and boys are intirely out of the way and cannot be sold for a profit.” Each variety was identical within itself, measured and assigned a certain dollar value to correspond to the quantity of “Cuffy” that he or she contained.
Enslaved human beings, in the minds of those who bought and sold them, became goods easily replaced, and thus valuable in proportion to their equivalency in money, the most easily transmuted commodity of all. Consider how one South Carolina planter wrote about disposing of a recalcitrant slave at a Charleston auction house: “Give Brass a new shirt and send to Robert Blacklock&Co. to be turn’d into money forthwith.” Brass became gold or paper, and at some point might be turned (in whites’ eyes) into Brass again, but the trader would hardly care. Franklin even complained in 1834 that Ballard had taken to extreme length the propensity to see slaves as uniform commodities, imagining that all goods were not only uniform within each particular category of product but that the categories themselves did not differ from each other in any way. Ballard had forgotten every peculiarity of human beings as retail goods, assuming that excess inventory could be purchased at low prices when demand was dull, stored without expense or risk, and sold when prices were high again. “He said,” Franklin grumbled, “he had concluded to continue purchasing at prices that were more Justifyable or profitable notwithstanding that he had been advised that we were suffering Great Losses from cholera and Small Pox and notwithstanding he had been advised of the risque.”
To whites in the slave market, blacks were deanimated commodities, and whites treated them as such. The humane practices of slave families and communities of the southeast and the inhumane structures of white planter law produced and reproduced enslaved African Americans ready, though hardly willing, for the slave trade. Then planters and traders colluded to market as standardized what could not be standardized, to deanimate those who thought, spoke, and acted. The slave traders’ success in accomplishing this mental movement created horrible consequences for the human beings packed onto slavers’ brigs like cordwood, imprisoned in cholera-infested Natchez pens like cattle, or displayed on the market like wool and ivory. To be told at such a point that one was in fact only a false and not a real commodity might have been cold comfort. And even as the words of Ballard and the Franklins deanimated their own idea of the slave, fixing her in white minds as the commodity “Cuffy,” the traders simultaneously reanimated the “lifeless” commodity: now not as individuals but as market myths. As people faced the crowd of “negro speculators” from the block, workers employed by the traders sometimes forced the slaves to dance. The “liveliness” they thus demonstrated was another one of the commodity’s standard package of imagined qualities. Ex-slave William Wells Brown recalled his service to a trader at a New Orleans slave pen: “Some were set to dancing, some to singing, and some to playing cards. This was done to make them appear cheerful and happy . . . I have often set them to dancing when their cheeks were wet with tears.” Such demonstrations supposedly proved that those offered for sale were lively if not truly living—standard, acceptably happy, ready-made units of slave.
The Franklins did not record any anxiety that the actual enslaved people whom they auctioned would refuse to dance while the sale proceeded. What they did worry about was a far more abstracted dance echoed by the ideal “Cuffy” prancing on the block: that of the reanimated yet lifeless and generalized commodity. The dealers believed that the mystical spell of the market’s abstract forces affected enslaved humans as they did cotton or interest rates, creating a fetiço “Cuffy”: a made thing that capered up and down in price and quantity, dancing on strings held by the abstract forces of supply and demand, a particle cavorting on a price wave. Like Marx’s table, slaves lived again in the minds of market-thinking whites like Ballard and the Franklins. In the twilight realm that was the grotesque half-life of the commodity, slaves rose and fell, they were “dull” or brisk, because of their relative relationship to other commodities, especially credit, money, and cotton. In early 1834, Isaac Franklin reported that “the [potential] rise of slaves had been lost by the fall of cotton.” James Franklin concurred, noting that “Cotton is only 13¢ to 14¢ which makes Negroes dull.” Even those slaves already held by frontier planters breathed air filtered through a matrix of supply and demand. In 1832, Ballard advised Franklin to slow sales until a feared cholera epidemic had run its course: “My opinion is that we had best hold on[:] the more negroes lost in that country the more will be wanting if they have the means of procuring them.” The number that survived or died in planters’ hands would determine the price and pressure for more on the next year’s market.
The bourgeoisie critiqued by Marx invested the energy of belief in one linguistically mystical move. They saw products as having no relation to the expropriation of wage labor that erased goods’ identities as the historical product of communal labor, clothing them instead in the abstract guise of commodities from nowhere and no-time. White men who watched and manipulated the slave market, however, invested in two such moves. First, they pretended that slaves were not alive—at least not in the sense of being living creatures with rights, social claims, and the ability to resist. Second, they reanimated the socially dead, but in a new fetish form that allegedly responded to market forces instead of to human ones. In fact, Isaac Franklin argued, one had to subscribe to the rules of such forces, whether illusory or not, in order to succeed in the “game” (as his nephew called it) that the beliefs of commodity fetishism had constructed. Franklin esteemed his partner Ballard, for instance, as “a Gent of his known capacity in financial arrangement” because Ballard understood the rules of their fetish-world. He grasped the complex links between slave supply in Virginia, credit availability from New York, cotton prices on the Liverpool market, and the prices and demand for slaves at New Orleans and Natchez. Ballard saw not enslaved people but goods that lived only in relationship to abstractions of cotton and credit. Power and skill enabled the fetishizer to make his vision shape the realities of lives inhabited by some human beings. He was, as another friend described him, “a smooth hand on Cuff.”
Forgetting undergirded the deanimation of the enslaved and their subsequent half-life in whites’ minds as “Cuffy,” but a sort of remembering added a spice of cruel power to the slavers’ experience of manipulating commodities. Like sugar or tobacco, slaves started as luxuries and were transformed into necessities in the eyes of their users, as the latter bought, sold, and consumed the former in order to raise their own social and cultural status. Far more obviously than the conspicuous consumption of sugar, the idea of the slave commodity carried a frisson, an implication, of the sadistic or sexual (or both) power and pleasure that created the precious commodity thus consumed. Those who could view and use human beings as mere objects of commerce could also exert immense power while displacing either burdens of guilt or the obligations enacted by social ties. The existence of a commercial market in human beings meant that some people could, at will, destroy the familial and social relationships that had raised an infant to a full-grown enslaved human being. While defenders of slavery claimed that the division of families was a rare but sometimes unavoidable necessity, the ability to separate families at will was at the heart of their economic and social power. Slave buyers and masters could pocket, or consume, the profit thus produced—an almost chemical energy released by the breaking of human bonds, whose fragility the law and custom of slavery enforced. Those who forgot still remembered the privilege and pleasure of destruction. More than that, some slave traders, at least, clearly enjoyed their ability to consume and digest old social worlds, forcing slaves into new, often frightening relationships. “The small fry,” wrote James Franklin with relish, of the unsold children in his Natchez pen, “look at me as if they were alarmed and I suppose they will have some cause when F[ranklin]&A[rmfield]’s lot arrives as I am daily looking for them.” Small children would be caged with strange adults whom they had never seen before. Some would be kind, some would be indifferent, and a few might be brutal. But none would be the parents or relatives from whom market transactions had separated them. James seemed to enjoy imagining their terror.
Thus the desire for slaves rested in part on the remembering of the consumption of their human relationships and also, as we have seen, on the simultaneous forgetting or denial that they were human beings created in the matrix of family and culture, rather than things in a market shadow-world. So the gents of Franklin and Ballard, with their known capacities in financial arrangement, moved easily in the world of commodities. They deanimated and reanimated the objects of their commercial dealings, broke the bonds between them, and experienced pleasure from the power thus exercised and created. Even as slave traders saw slaves as commodities, masters had no difficulty in accommodating themselves to the dealers. Staring up at us from the words scrawled by Franklin, Ballard, and company, we find evidence that their business represented an irruption of commodity fetishism—that supposed classic marker of capitalist cultural epistemology—within the heart of the allegedly anti-capitalist South. The southern men who supplied migrant planters with the laborers necessary to extend the plantation system to its height of antebellum power were, in their prejudices and perceptions, further astray in the mist of commodity fetishism than the most Yankeefied cotton mill magnate.
The trade signaled another irruption as well. Among themselves, the members of the firm Franklin, Ballard, and Armfield did not assume that participation in the slave trade made them only “pirates” or “robbers.” They were something else also. In a March 1832 letter to R. C. Ballard, James Franklin wrote of what he feared were grim economic prospects for himself and his partners: “We anticipate tolerably tough times this spring for one-eyed men [Franklin’s emphasis].” The traders’ economic pessimism is misleading. They usually did well, so long as they could collect even a portion of their accounts payable. But who, or what, were “one-eyed men”? Both the older and the younger Franklin used the phrase to describe themselves, their associates, and indeed all white men who bought or sold on the slave markets of the South. Isaac Franklin told Ballard in 1833 that he had “met with the robbers but has bore up as well as a One Eyed Man could well do.” He, like his nephew, referred to himself by the phrase. In another case, James Franklin used it almost as a term of contempt. Worried about the slow state of the market in Natchez and the rampant cholera that was killing off his “stock,” he looked for a buyer with peculiar vision. Single-minded and single-visioned, he would overlook as peripheral the disease-ridden state of the slaves Franklin had to sell: “I am in hopes that all the fools are not dead yet and some one-eyed man will buy us out yet.” And in other cases, to call someone or oneself a one-eyed man was clearly to acknowledge participation in the slave market as either supplier or customer. “The way your Old one-eyed friend looked the pirate,” wrote Isaac Franklin, referring to himself, and showing little desire for absolution, “was a sin.”
One-eyed men, of course, are kings in the land of the blind. But there are other one-eyed men in the metaphorical world. The phrase appears in eighteenth-century slang as a synonym for the penis. Quite clearly, it survived in that incarnation into the nineteenth century (and remains current today), for these words from a letter written by James Franklin reveal his own phallic representation:
I have seen a handsome girl since I left V[irgini]a that would climb higher hills and go further to accomplish her designs than any girl to the North&she is not too apt to leave or loose her gold[.] The reason is because she carries her funds in her lovers purse or in Bank&to my certain knowledge she has been used&that smartly by a one-eyed man about my size and age, excuse my foolishness. In short I shall do the best with and for the fancy white maid and excellent cook that I can.
Franklin’s extended metaphor tells a lyricized version of the rape of the light-skinned “fancy white maid” by a phallic “one-eyed man,” and leads one into the complex of remembering and forgetting that structured these slave traders’ understandings of sexuality and self. The first sentence leaves open the possibility that the “handsome girl” from Virginia might be free and white. Yet we find that she is “not too apt to leave or loose her gold” for she carries “her funds” in her “lovers purse or in Bank.” We can interpret the last phrase in two non-contradictory ways. The lover’s purse might mean that a woman’s lover carries money to spend at her discretion, in an attempt to win her favor, or perhaps she (were she, in a hypothetical example, free) seeks to marry a lover with a purse full of funds. But in a world where men bought enslaved women for the purpose of sex, the funds in question were more likely the purchase price of the “handsome woman,” and thus obviously rested in the purse or bank of her future owner and “lover.” And this value was likely to be considerable, since Franklin’s immediate reference to the enslaved “fancy white maid” reveals that she was in fact the “handsome girl” of the rest of the paragraph.
The second interpretation of the “lovers purse” notion reinforces the supposition that the woman at hand was enslaved: the lover’s purse is a multilayered metaphor that draws on a common slang term for the vagina. The “handsome girl” carries her funds in her “lovers purse” because her high market value derives directly from her exploitable sexuality. Here, Franklin locates that specifically in her genitalia, but she is not apt to “leave or loose” that gold so long as she remains female, “fancy,” and sexually available to white slave traders or purchasers. The absence of the possessive apostrophe in Franklin’s formulation only adds to the complexity of the metaphor. Whether lover’s purse (a purse belonging to a lover) or lovers’ purse (a purse in which to place the penises of potentially multiple lovers), the handsome girl’s sexual accessibility to himself and other white men was for James Franklin the key to her value. 33
In fact, as he goes on to brag, in no sense has the purse remained closed to him. In the sense of the literal purse or bank account of her future purchaser, Franklin would soon enough receive a payment from “her” funds. But he claimed that he had already enjoyed some of her sexual and economic value: “to my certain knowledge she has been used&that smartly by a one-eyed man about my size and age, excuse my foolishness.” The symbol of the one-eyed man, which referred to the organ that entered her “lovers purse,” was replete with simultaneous meanings. Franklin boasted of the accomplishments of his penis but also of his accomplishments as a penis. He knew that the handsome girl had been sexually “used,” for he, himself the one-eyed man, had already had sex with her, and “that smartly,” according to his own claim. Franklin had already “do[ne] the best with” the “fancy white maid” that he could, thus showing himself to be a “one-eyed man.”
This key unlocks important additional implications buried in several of the cited occasions of the phrase. When James Franklin hoped that “all the fools are not dead and some one-eyed man will buy us out yet,” he counted on sexual desire to overcome economic reasoning. He hoped that some white man would buy Franklin’s remaining stock of slaves, especially the female ones. But Isaac Franklin also called himself a one-eyed man. His idea of his own character, his metaphor for himself as a participant in the buying, selling, and raping of enslaved people, was plainly phallic. He, his partners, and his buyers were all one-eyed men together. Like ideas about honor and manhood, independence, and whiteness, the collective sexual aggressiveness enabled and valorized by the slave trade helped form a group identity for slaveowning white men. Market participants were all greedy for male and female labor in the fields, and for reproductive labor in the slave quarters, but also for fancy maids. So greedy were they, in fact, that such men spoke of themselves as if they were animated, erect penises, one-eyed men watching for mulatto women to rape.
Thus at the heart of the trade’s remembering and forgetting was another form of consumption, one that helped form traders’ and planters’ deepest concepts of themselves as sexually active men and as individual members of a class produced by and producing a history. A historically specific form of sexual fetishism worked together with commodity fetishism in an era of rapid plantation expansion, amplifying and accelerating each other’s force, creating a powerfully charged set of meanings that reveal slavery’s multiple attractions for its white participants. The trade and consumption of enslaved human beings promised powerful gratifications of the senses and the self, implying psychological and physical—including explicitly sexual—pleasures. For along with other whites throughout the Anglo-Atlantic world, the men of the firm of Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard remembered, consciously and unconsciously, the sexual coercion of black women when they spoke or thought about slavery and the slave trade.
The white world’s obsession with black female sexuality began, of course, long before the U.S. domestic slave trade, or even the United States itself. From the beginning of the European-African encounter, attempts to claim that black female bodies were disgusting because they did not obey European gender roles rang hollow. During the seventeenth-century rise of the plantation complex, black women became by law the sexual prey of all white men. Later, would-be patriarchs of the eighteenth century, such as Virginia’s William Byrd II, attempted to exert sexual control over black women as part of wider projects of household and self-dominion. By the nineteenth century, the belief that black women were inherently sexually aggressive, in contrast to allegedly chaste white females, increased their attractiveness to white men, even as white men publicly proclaimed their disgust with African-American women and their love for the pure and passive belle. Many encounters, rather than a single Freudian trauma of infantile sexuality, shaped the complex obsession with black women. Then the rejected black female body returned in the fixation on the fancy maid.
The rise of the domestic slave trade after 1790, as new lands opened up in the South and new demands for plantation produce—namely, cotton—arose in the Atlantic world, created a particular commercialized category of enslaved women that focused white fixations. Within the trade, light-skinned or mulatto “fancy maids” became to many white men the perfect symbols of slavery’s history, while also ensuring that being “a smooth hand with Cuff” helped make one a “one-eyed man.” To men such as the slave traders discussed here, women like the Charlottesville maid evoked a process of power and pleasure, remembered and forgotten in an ambiguous, simultaneous experience parallel to that which characterized the traders’ commodity-fetish relationship to “Cuffy.” Indeed, coercion, the trade, and the pairing of sexual imagery with women of mixed African and European ancestry were always close companions. Northern and British visitors to pre–Civil War New Orleans rarely failed to write about “yellow” women, “fancy maids,” and nearly white octoroons sold as both house servants and sexual companions in the slave trade. Some observers claimed to have knowledge of special auctions at which young, attractive, usually light-skinned women were sold at rates four to five times the price of equivalent female field laborers. Travelers and other writers constantly returned to the simultaneously offensive and exciting sight of coerced interracial sex, especially between white men and light-skinned “fancy” women.
The oft-repeated term “fancy” united the themes of speculation in the boisterous markets of the new commercial economy and sexual pleasures bought and sold. In the slang of antebellum Wall Street, “fancy stocks” were those of purely commercial value, scandalous in their speculative nature, “wholly wrapped in mystery,” as one 1841 commentator had it. Some were certainly the flimsy bank bonds of frontier states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, issued in the 1830s to raise capital that financed planters’ purchases of slaves and land. The causal proximity of such stocks to the slave market is perhaps no mere accident. “Fancy” maids, like “fancy” stocks, were objects of speculation. Yet each was part of a category that a society, still groping through its transition to a state where the market would be all in all, half-believed should be priced by its intrinsic value. In fact, the mysterious and uncertain nature of both fancies showed the fiction of commodification. What—if anything—lay hidden behind the value attached to a fancy stock by the ups and downs of supply and demand on Wall Street? Its attractiveness lay in its brassy nature, the unconcealably arbitrary character of its value, assigned only by the magical thinking of the market. Like fancy stock, the value of a fancy maid was also arbitrary when compared to the monetary value of her productive labor. Yet the origin of her market-assigned price in the power to coerce sexuality was lewdly plain to all one-eyed men who cared to titillate themselves. She was neither precisely black nor white, and neither field labor nor cooking and cleaning, but rather the “fancy” of the market for selling the right to rape a special category of women marked out as unusually desirable.
Slave traders and other “one-eyed men” singled out these women in particular, and the Franklins and Ballard assumed that through their possession of such women, they were one-eyed men, because slave traders’ violence represented and reenacted their own historically created identities. As historical practice, sexual violence was depressingly common: an inescapable itch for whites who discussed slavery, an everyday wound inflicted on people bought and sold as commodities. Abundant testimony by both ex-slaves and white participants confirms the ever-present sexual coercion of the traders’ yards. For many, both slave and free, the act of rape signified the slave trade and even slavery itself. The correspondents of Franklin, Ballard, Armfield, and company revisited the topic incessantly. Isaac Franklin was of course eager to see Ballard’s Charlottesville maid. Some months after the older Franklin twice requested that Ballard send the woman out to New Orleans, James Franklin told Ballard that Uncle Isaac had sent a slave on to Natchez for the younger man’s use. Perhaps they spoke of the same woman: “the Old Man sent me your maid Martha. She is inclined to be compliant.” Earlier, James had written about another light-skinned enslaved woman shipped by the partners to Natchez, “I shall do the best with and for the fancy white maid and excellent cook that I can.” And, James reported, his uncle Isaac was staying out late every night, engaged in “very boyish” behavior with some women, probably from their “stock.”
A caveat here should remind us of the possible wider stakes of the argument: while commentators displayed slave traders as the most dissolute members of white southern society, their eager desire to buy, use, and circulate enslaved women in sexual service hardly distinguished them from planters. Traders catered to the desires of planters when they selected and marketed “fancy maids.” Women like “the fair maid Martha . . . and our white Caroline”—both for sale by Isaac Franklin at Natchez in May 1832—were so light-skinned that they were called “white” by the traders, although their legal blackness was clearly understood by all. They were typically young, attractive, and trained for servitude in the house. Even at high prices, reported Isaac Franklin in 1833, “There are great Demand for fancy maid.” He told Ballard that he needed more such women to supply a growing market: “I do believe that a Likely Girl and a good seamstress could be sold for $1100,” or twice the going rate for female field hands.
The focus by slave traders on particular women, like one called Lucindy, whom Isaac Franklin impregnated and then passed on to a Louisville friend when his own impending marriage rendered her presence inconvenient, might lead one to believe that the sharpness of desire made them distinct individuals in the minds of whites. Certainly, both ex-slaves’ memories and contemporary documents generated by whites reveal that planters selected some enslaved women for the specific purpose of sexual service. Ballard sold a woman named Maria to a Mississippi planter named L. R. Starks in 1833. She was not happy with the arrangement that Starks had in mind, but soon something brought her around to his way of thinking: “M[a]ria seems much pleased with me and looks much better than when I made the purchase.” Perhaps Maria discovered a way to leverage Starks’s desires into something of supreme importance to her. Or perhaps Starks had discovered another sword to suspend above her head: “She is very desirous I should get her son. I therefore will take him if you will send him.” While some enslaved women sold on the market for sexual purposes maneuvered to turn white male desires to their own or others’ protection, traders and masters maneuvered as well. The stark imbalance of power meant that women like Maria chose, at best, between negotiated surrender on the one hand and severe punishment and possible death on the other. So a different woman named Maria may have found in 1848, when Ballard’s later business partner had her flogged repeatedly, until she was maimed and sterile—all, it seems, for refusing his advances. As one ex-slave remembered: “I can tell you that a white man laid a nigger gal whenever he wanted.”
Such men were not interested in a particular “Maria,” or a specific “Lucindy” but in their own “fancy.” The category of “fancy” maid did not open a way for women to make white men see them as people whose opinions must be considered. Instead, white men were intent on forgetting any fears of weakness implied by sexual need and directing their desires toward particular women whose fates they controlled. They erased dependence in a blur of self-controlled pleasure. Their occasional miming of some of the conventions of romance may have enabled some to forget their own direction of the entire fancy maid scenario. More often, as the letters of the Franklins and Ballard show, they reveled in their power. And when women like Lucindy tried, as a tactic of self-defense, to create lasting emotional bonds from sexual encounters, they often found that white men readily discarded enslaved “concubines” and even their own children. Nor did the manipulation of “fancy maids” recreate traders and planters as “one-eyed men” because white men were simply more attracted to light-skinned women than to dark-skinned women. The Franklins and Ballard, and others, could have talked about white prostitutes or waxed lyrical over the rapes of dark-skinned women. The latter were certainly a part of life in the slave pens. Indeed, despite the frequent efforts of white society to identify light-skinned women of mixed African and European descent as more attractive than their darker sisters, white men have constantly pursued the latter group as well. This, of course, helps explain how the United States became the home of so many light-skinned “blacks.” Instead, the affinity of “one-eyed men” for “fancy maids” arose from the ways in which the former attributed to the latter an identity that both forgot and remembered the long history of sexual violence and fetishism. The presence of light-skinned women for sale seemingly spurred white men to spill out a whole set of ideas about available and abusable sexuality. The metaphorical and actual uses that the white world sought, with a winking leer, to impose on such women, coyly revealed meanings that shot through the entire domestic trade.
Within the remembering and forgetting that made such women impassioned objects, one can find at least three relationships that explain the disconcerting contiguity of one-eyed men to fancy maids in these particular traders’ words. First, an anxiety caused by the specific cultural history of the early nineteenth century suggests something that sounds like the classically Freudian sense of sexual fetishism, although the castration anxiety Freud and many other interpreters of fetishism privileged cannot lift all of the weight of meaning that rested on images of fancy maids and one-eyed men. These slave traders referred to light-skinned and mulatto female slaves in terms that burlesqued the advancing ideal of female domesticity. The high price of one “Yellow Girl” Charlott, $900 in 1834, came in part from a background that equipped her to mime the conventions of the polite and proper parlor, the centerpiece of a domestic sphere increasingly dominated by female moral and cultural taste. Of Charlott, Isaac Franklin noted, “you mentioned that you purchased her from some Branch of the Barber [Barbour] family . . . the respectability of that family will have great effect.”
The “Yellow Girl” would not carelessly break the china or embarrass one before a guest. Yet her high price revealed and also concealed, in true fetish fashion, that for many white men she probably represented not a serving maid but a “fancy.” Her value to these particular men was her fetishized use: subject to their sexual assault, she represented for them a hostile satire of the parlor ideal, a rebuke of and a recourse against uppity white women. Traders’ words described Charlott and others in ironic terms and phrases that mocked the language of polite, feminine, and white domesticity. Isaac and James Franklin underlined “The fair maid Martha” in a letter to Ballard, mocking proper literary-romantic descriptions of white heroines. Black women, however, were anti-heroines. Women like the “maid Martha,” forwarded by Isaac Franklin to his nephew, were not allowed, despite their light skin, to remain “maids.” Direct or implied force “inclined [them] to be compliant” and thus recast men as still in control of both economic household and cultural home. The existence of fancy maids saved the one-eyed man: preventing the loss of power threatened by even modest and largely symbolic increases in female moral and cultural authority.
Further, a conglomeration of then-current gendered ideas about independent manhood made it unlikely that Isaac and James Franklin, or R. C. Ballard, would have completely enjoyed the explicit negotiations necessary for access to heterosexual relationships with free women. White men struggled to define their manhood through various avenues in the U.S. South in the early 1830s. Some were obsessed with honor and independence in a slavery-based society, others with the delusion of independent action, self-creation, and personal autonomy created by the market fictions of commodity fetishism, and still others with political republicanism. Often, the same man played several of these language games at once. We can see the independent man in the image of the duelist facing down a pistol or the candidate proclaiming his rejection of all outside influence on his political independence. But we can also see this ideal in the “land pirate” or the “robber,” or in the obsession of Isaac Franklin with beating his competitors to the Natchez market. For such a man, the coercion of sex from the enslaved, at least at one level, obviously evaded the problem of explicit negotiation and its acknowledgement of incomplete independence. A purchase of a human being seen as a commodity with no entangling social ties, purely represented by price, could be imagined as the self-controlled consumption of sexual pleasure. The assertion of complete independence, which such rapes represented, denied or forgot dependence on women, and also on the enslaved.
Yet the specific white focus on “fancy” or obviously mixed-race women relentlessly returns us to the place of history, especially its memory and its understanding, as the remembering that was present in the traders’ sexual fetishes. The exploitation of enslaved women of African and mixed African-European backgrounds was a part of plantation society long before the ideology of sentimental feminine domesticity could have ever unleashed male anxieties. And the same exploitation undoubtedly contributed, in ways not yet sufficiently investigated by cultural historians, to the ideal of the independent master. The traders’ own words remind us that “land pirates” believed that they became “one-eyed men” through the rape of women who symbolized the past, present, and future of slaveowning men. This becoming was a not-so-secret history that mixed anxiety and pleasure, attraction and control. Fancy maids, more than other enslaved women, embodied a history of rape in the pre-emancipation nineteenth-century South, one that reveals white anxieties about dependence on blacks but that allowed white men to assert and reassert their power and control.
People of mixed racial heritage, or “mulattoes,” symbolized the dependence of white men on black labor, both in the field and in the bed. Marked by their very skin color and other features as products of the white-black encounter in the South, mulatto women were obviously white and not-white, like “our white Caroline.” They were products of the long encounter between white exploiters of labor and black sources of labor, productive and reproductive. Their commodification reminded all that, in the South, every child of an enslaved mother was some form of slave laborer, an arrangement that enabled plantation slavery to function. Every enslaved man, woman, and child was a repository of reproductive capital and a source of production. The white political economy of the South would have collapsed without the legal and cultural fictions that assigned the “mulatto” and other children of African women to the created categories “black” and “enslaved.” Women like the “fair maid Martha,” and “the Yellow Girl Charlott” also, in their phenotypes, illustrated the long past of white sexual assault. “Mulatto” women thus embodied white dependency and white power, and offered men the chance to recapitulate and reexamine the past that had produced both white power and mixed-race individuals. Unwillingly, such women introduced a pornographic history, one obscene yet for that very reason more lusted-after, into the parlors, bedrooms, and above all, the markets of the elite white man’s world. They made flesh the years of white men desiring and depending on women (and men) who were supposedly less than civilized, Christian, or even human.
If the presence of “mulattoes” poorly concealed dependence, in both the past and present, on black labor, the presence of fancy maids allowed white men to remember and reassert a sort of control over both past and present. The history of rape, obvious to all, though openly spoken by few, was the remembered meaning of the fetish of the “fancy maid” in the white male mind. Assaults repeated and thus confirmed a history that had produced white men who bought and sold black women and men, and had made mulattoes as well. The historic penis, the one-eyed man, of earlier generations had in fact fathered the fancy maid—creating in the flesh a symbol of the history of coerced sexuality to which white men like the slave traders could return to at will. Like the Freudian fetishisms that do not produce neuroses, this symbolic relationship was the sexualized prose of the slave traders’ world. It worked for them.
The acts of coercion affirmed and recreated the rampant one-eyed man. Thus white slaveowners pleasured themselves with bodies marked by the past of their own power as a class; they had sex with their own histories. Their assaults repeated the originating acts of their own class and their own power, controlling past and future. Forgetting the human soul of the mulatto body, the Franklins, Armfield, and Ballard coupled instead with the history of rape. Their white male bodies also reenacted earlier acts in that history, with their penis as the symbol, the weapon, of white authority. And when these white men fathered mixed-race children, they readied a new generation for the market in commodity and sexual fetishes. As one formerly enslaved woman recalled: “They was glad of it . . . be glad to have them little bastards, brag on it.” They inflicted themselves on people seen as material representations of their own past and, in so doing, generated personal, collective, and economic futures.
Thus the obsession with fancy maids evolved out of histories both personal and social. Light-skinned and mulatto women symbolized for traders and planters the claimed right to coerce all women of African descent. Such men reveled in the acts of purchase and sale. To them, one act symbolized another, sliding together in a cloud of buying, selling, raping, and consuming. Midas-like, their possession of the lover’s purse turned the contemplation of the slave as commodity into the one-eyed man’s pawing over the gold of her value, and vice-versa. All forms of domination of enslaved women, and men as well, made the trader feel like a penis—the source of his own, self-controlled pleasure, the progenitor of his own history, in short, a veritable one-eyed man. At the same time that he remembered and reasserted his power, he forgot: the specter of castration or other forms of loss of masculine and masculinizing power, of course, but more important, the source of his power in past and present dependence on those human beings whom he would prefer to see as commodities.
The only distinction between commodity and sexual fetishization in this history of the slave trade comes from our own habit of intellectually separating economic desires from those of sexuality, our own kind of remembering and forgetting. The two sets of desires were remarkably compatible, and, indeed, the commodity and the sexual fetish were ultimately the same for such men. Slave women were so vulnerable to sexual assault—in the sense that they had no legal recourse and usually few other means of resistance—because they could be sold, and were such desirable purchases in part because they could be raped. Put another way, in the creation of the commodity fetish, the object becomes understood as its market-given value. If the slave market valued “fancy maids” for their sexual desirability and enforced availability, what was the meaning, to white men, the value of “her gold,” to quote James Franklin again? The commodification of black bodies meant that, for white men, sexuality of a particular sort—the promise and the pleasure of rape—irradiated the enslaved human commodity, especially women, in the eyes of one-eyed men. White men repeated the acts of a history of rape and found them pleasurable and powerful. Despite the resistance of many enslaved African and African-American women, these acts reasserted slaveowners’ authority over women like Charlott, Martha, and Caroline, and also over all enslaved African-Americans, whether male or female. Yet neither dependence nor control was absolute. One could even argue that the physical and symbolic or psychological pleasures of coerced sexuality were addictive, creating a psychological dependence on being able to assert sexual power over such women. Neither could have been present without the other. Such is the ambiguity of the fetish relationship.
I have tried to limit my discussion to a few men and to a few years. But the intersection between racial slavery, the commodification of human bodies, and the fetishization of raped women of African descent in the Atlantic world was, by the 1830s, an old story being played out in new ways. The long and inarguably linked histories of white-on-black rape and the various slave trades lead me to raise a few final, frankly speculative, questions, which must be tested elsewhere. First, one might hypothesize that, over the long centuries of the Atlantic slave plantation complex, the association of coerced sexuality with enslaved woman added significantly to whites’ experience of excitement and power in the trade in all things related to slaves and slavery. The image of sexual power without restraint was everywhere: one-eyed men stalked the landscape of slavery in the white mind of the Atlantic world, and in some ways still do. The message that African women were commodities, often raped by white men, added a taste of secondhand sexual power without restraint, a glimpse of the pure consumption of human beings, to the unconscious and conscious minds of many consumers. From sugar, to investment in planter-dominated banks, to, of course, the trade in slaves itself, the whole plantation complex stank of the arousal of rape. Even the abolitionist movement leaned on the prurient imagery of sexual coercion to generate opponents of slavery both repelled and fascinated by the institution’s sexual abuses.
The plantation complex’s sexual relationships, which ultimately produced white male masters, were hidden but not hidden. Franklin and Ballard were, perhaps, unusual and exceptional only because they actually spoke the unspoken messages that so pervaded everything having to do with slavery and the massively profitable plantation sector. But what does that pervasiveness signify? Mintz implies that the evolution of sugar into a highly fetishized commodity not only influenced the tandem developments of industrialization and imperialism (including plantation slavery) but also shaped the growth of the modern concept of the commodity itself. Could the complex fetishization of enslaved Africans have played a similar, simultaneous role? We have plenty of books on the Atlantic slave trade—experiences, numbers, and social results. But what of the meaning of the slave trade for the whites who participated in, directed, and profited from it? What of those who supported it, opposed it, or simply heard of it? Slaves, along with sugar, may have been the first modern commodities. They were people converted into symbols and objects of economic power, social status, and psychosexual fulfillment. Violent eroticism fetishized commodity fetishism, making all commodities taste a bit of the social and sexual relationships of slavery and the slave trade. After turning humans into Cuffy, wool and ivory, and fancy maids, and for some, experiencing the transformation of self into one-eyed men, perhaps additional commodifications have been easy: credit, labor power, labor product, salvation, government services, hope, justice, information.
In the end, even the potential for “fetishizing” the term “fetish” may serve a useful rhetorical purpose. How else can we evoke the terrible alchemy that allowed so many people to enjoy and deny, simultaneously, the exploitation of human sexuality that glowed like an aura from each plantation commodity? So the history of commodities begins with a slave trader or master’s imagined or retold rape of an enslaved woman; the history of slavery is the history of humans commodified and fetishized, charged by their buyers and sellers with a number of passionate meanings. The history of freedom, which must be told elsewhere, is in no small part the history of blacks’ resistance to the attempt to make them the fetish objects of white desires.
Edward E. Baptist is one of the two Charlton W. Tebeau assistant professors in the Department of History at the University of Miami. His published articles include “Accidental Ethnography in an Antebellum Southern Newspaper: Snell’s Homecoming Festival,” which appeared in the Journal of American History in March 1998. Baptist received his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, where he worked with Drew Gilpin Faust. In April 2002, the University of North Carolina Press will publish his first book, Creating an Old South: Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier before the Civil War. He is currently working on a study of the forced migration of enslaved African Americans to the plantation frontiers of the United States after 1787.
The author would like to thank the following persons for assistance and criticism: Ligia Aldana, Stephanie Baptist, Jeffrey P. Brosco, Stephanie M. H. Camp, Kenneth Goodman, James Lake, Russ Castronovo, Drew Gilpin Faust, Sybil Lipschultz, Charles Rosenberg, Lee Sorenson, Phillip Troutman, and the editorial board and anonymous reviewers of the American Historical Review. Richard S. Dunn and the McNeil Seminar for Early American Studies provided important feedback and encouragement, while Mimi Miller and the Historic Natchez Foundation and Steven Engle and the Department of History at Florida Atlantic University granted additional opportunities to present and discuss papers on this topic. He is also extremely grateful to Tim Pyatt and John White of the Southern Historical Collection at the University of North Carolina for the many ways in which they facilitated the research that led to this essay.
1 Isaac Franklin to R. C. Ballard, January 11, 1834, folder 13, Series 1.1, Rice Ballard Papers, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina (hereafter, Ballard Papers). Wendell Holmes Stephenson, Isaac Franklin: Slave Trader and Planter of the Old South, With Plantation Records (Baton Rouge, La., 1938). See Phillip D. Troutman, “‘Fancy Girls’ and a ‘Yellow Wife’: Sex and Domesticity in the Domestic Slave Trade,” unpublished paper presented at the Southern Historical Association, Louisville, Ky., November 10, 2000. For other references to the Franklin and Armfield or Franklin and Ballard firms, see George W. Featherstonhaugh, Excursion through the Slave States, 2 vols. (London, 1844), 1: 151–70; E. A. Andrews, Slavery and the Domestic Slave-Trade in the United States (Boston, 1836), 135–53; William Jay, A View of the Action of the Federal Government in Behalf of Slavery (New York, 1839), 75, 84, 86; E. S. Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the United States of North America, From April, 1833, to October, 1835 (London, 1835), 2: 179–80; Frederic Bancroft, Slave Trading in the Old South (Baltimore, Md., 1931), 59–60, 64, 275–76, 304; Michael Tadman, Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (Madison, Wis., 1989), 80–81, 84, 104, 107; Ariela Gross, Double Character: Slavery and Mastery in the Antebellum Southern Courtroom (Princeton, N.J., 2000); William Calderhead, “The Role of the Professional Slave Trader in a Slave Economy: Austin Woolfolk, A Case Study,” Civil War History 23 (September 1977): 195–211; and Calderhead, “How Extensive Was the Border State Slave Trade: A New Look,” Civil War History 18 (March 1972): 42–55.
2 Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women in the Old South (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1988), 98; Eugene Genovese, in Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York, 1974), perhaps most explicitly on 96–97; and Genovese, “The Logical Outcome of the Slaveholders’ Philosophy: An Exposition, Interpretation, and Critique of the Social Thought of George Fitzhugh of Port Royal, Virginia,” in The World the Slaveholders Made: Two Essays in Interpretation (New York, 1969), 118–244; Jeffrey R. Young, Domesticating Slavery: The Master Class in Georgia and South Carolina, 1670–1837 (Chapel Hill, 1999).
3 Tadman, Speculators and Slaves; Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, Mass., 1999); Stephen Deyle, “‘The Irony of Liberty’: Origins of the Domestic Slave Trade,” Journal of the Early Republic 12 (Spring 1992): 37–62; Phillip D. Troutman, “Slave Trade and Sentiment in Antebellum Virginia” (PhD dissertation, University of Virginia, 2000).
4 Recent scholarship has revived the earlier claims of Eric Williams and others to reemphasize the role of slavery and slave trades in making capitalist and consumerist society: Robin Blackburn, The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492–1800 (London, 1997); but see also Eric Williams, Capitalism and Slavery (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1944); Barbara Solow and Stanley Engerman, eds., British Capitalism and Caribbean Slavery: The Legacy of Eric Williams (Cambridge, 1987).
5 Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Anne and John Tedeschi, trans. (Baltimore, 1980), xxi.
6 Historians have now begun to address the experience of sexual abuse in slavery, which was traumatic and extensive, as African-American vernacular history had long since told anyone willing to listen. See Pauli Murray, Proud Shoes: The Story of an American Family (New York, 1956), 33–54; Paul Escott, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1979), 46–47; Deborah Gray White, Ar’n’t I A Woman? Female Slaves in the Plantation South, 2d edn. (New York, 1999), esp. 27–46; Angela Y. Davis, Women, Race and Class (New York, 1981), 3–29; Brenda Stevenson, Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South (New York, 1996), 236–38; Stephanie M. H. Camp, “Viragoes: Enslaved Women’s Everyday Politics in the Old South” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1998), chap. 1; John W. Blassingame, The Slave Community: Plantation Life in the Antebellum South, 2d edn. (New York, 1979), 154–56, 172–73; Hortense Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book,” Diacritics 17 (Summer 1987): 65–81; Darlene Clark Hine, “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts on the Culture of Dissemblance,” Signs 14 (Summer 1989): 912–20; Catherine Clinton, “Caught in the Web of the Big House: Women and Slavery,” in The Web of Southern Social Relations: Women, Family, and Education, Walter J. Fraser, Jr., R. Frank Saunders, Jr., and Jon L. Wakelyn, eds. (Athens, Ga., 1985), 19–34; Clinton, The Plantation Mistress: Women’s World in the Old South (New York, 1982), 212–13, 20–21; Saidiya Hartmann, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, 1997), 79–112; Martha Hodes, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South (New Haven, Conn., 1997), 1–9; Adele Logan Alexander, Ambiguous Lives: Free Women of Color in Rural Georgia, 1789–1879 (Fayetteville, Ark., 1991), 63–66, 78–79, 86–89; Carolyn J. Powell, “In Remembrance of Mira,” in Discovering the Women in Slavery: Emancipating Perspectives on the American Past, Patricia Gordon, ed. (Athens, 1996), 47–60; Victoria E. Bynum, “Misshapen Identity: Memory, Folklore, and the Legend of Rachel Knight,” Discovering the Women in Slavery, 29–46; Hélène Lecaudey, “Behind the Mask: Ex-Slave Women and Interracial Sexual Relations,” also in Discovering the Women in Slavery, 260–77; Patricia J. Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights (Cambridge, Mass., 1991); Thelma Jennings, “‘Us Colored Women Had to Go Through a Plenty,'” Journal of Women’s History 1 (1990); Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of Slave of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself, Jean Fagan Yellin, ed. (Cambridge, Mass., 1987); Johnson, Soul by Soul; and Nell Irvin Painter, “Soul Murder and Slavery: Toward a Fully Loaded Cost Accounting,” in U.S. History as Women’s History: New Feminist Essays, Linda K. Kerber, Alice Kessler-Harris, and Kathryn Kish Sklar, eds. (Chapel Hill, 1995), 125–46.
But desire and rape are not seen as central pillars of the institution of slavery in most works that focus on white slaveowners, mistresses, and traders. Exceptions include Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery (Baton Rouge, La., 1982), 86–87, 314–20; Walter Johnson, “The Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination in the 1850s,” Journal of American History 87 (June 2000): 13–38; Johnson, Soul by Soul; and some hints from Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York, 1982), 308–24; but usually, even historians who acknowledge the occurrence of rape are more descriptive than analytical: Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South, 328–34; Edmund L. Drago, Broke by the War: Letters of a Slave Trader (Columbia, S.C., 1991); Tadman, Speculators and Slaves, 184. For resistance to the use of sexuality and desire as categories of historical explanation, one need look no further than the debates surrounding Thomas Jefferson’s affair with Sally Hemings: Virginius Dabney, The Jefferson Scandals: A Rebuttal (New York, 1981); Joseph J. Ellis, American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1996), 216–19, 303–07; Ellis, “Jefferson: Post-DNA,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 57 (January 2000): 125–38; Annette Gordon-Reed, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (Charlottesville, Va., 1997); Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson: History, Memory and Civic Culture, Jan Ellen Lewis and Peter S. Onuf, eds., (Charlottesville, 1999).
7 For examples, see Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South, 314.
8 Quote from Emily Apter, Feminizing the Fetish: Psychoanalysis and Narrative Obsession in Turn-of-the-Century France (Ithaca, N.Y., 1991), 3; Michael Leiris in “Alberto Giacometti,” Documents 1, no. 4 (1929): 209, trans. by James Clifford in Suffer, no. 15 (1986): 39; compare Jean Baudrillard, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, Charles Levin, trans. (St. Louis, Mo., 1981); William Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, I,” Res 9 (Spring 1985): 5–17; Pietz, “The Problem of the Fetish, II,” Res 13 (Spring 1987): 23–46; Patrick Brantlinger, Fictions of State: Culture and Credit in Britain, 1694–1994 (Ithaca, 1996).
9 For this account of the etymology of “fetish,” see Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest (New York, 1996), 185–87; and Pietz, “Problem of the Fetish, II”; Emily Apter and William Pietz, eds., Fetishism as Cultural Discourse (Ithaca, N.Y., 1993). For Marx’s account of commodity fetishism, see Karl Marx, Capital, vol. 1, Ben Fowkes, trans. (New York, 1976), 163–78; and Michael Taussig, The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1980).
10 Sigmund Freud, “Fetishism,” in The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud, James Strachey, ed. (London, 1953–74), 21: 152–58; and Freud, “The Sexual Aberrations,” in “Three Essays on Sexuality,” Standard Edition, vol. 7, esp. 152–55. This example comes from Freud, “Fetishism,” 155.
11 Those who still insist that psychoanalytic theories refer only to the individual, and not to culture, might revisit Peter Gay, Freud for Historians (New York, 1985), esp. 144–80.
12 For some explanations of this process, see Winthrop D. Jordan, White over Black: American Attitudes towards the Negro, 1550–1812 (Baltimore, 1968); Kathleen M. Brown, Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs: Gender, Race and Power in Colonial Virginia (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996), 37–41, 109–16, 207–11, 355–57; Jennifer L. Morgan, “‘Some Could Suckle over Their Shoulder’: Male Travelers, Female Bodies, and the Gendering of Racial Ideology, 1500–1770,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3d ser., 54 (January 1997): 167–92.
13 Compare Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, Catherine Porter, trans., with Carolyn Burke (Ithaca, N.Y., 1985).
14 “Impassioned object” from McClintock, Imperial Leather, 181–203; Pietz, “Problem of the Fetish, I”; John Hoberman, Darwin’s Athletes: How Sport Has Damaged Black America and Preserved the Myth of Race (New York, 1997); David Shields, Black Planet: Facing Race during an NBA Season (New York, 1999).
15 Sidney Mintz, Sweetness and Power (New York, 1985), 43. Compare Johnson’s citation (Soul by Soul, 111–12) of Chancellor Johnson of the South Carolina Supreme Court, who denied slaves’ commodity status. In Johnson’s further discussion (Soul by Soul, 118–30) of planters, slave traders, and slaves’ commodity status, he emphasizes differentiation between slaves and the breakdowns and contradictions in whites’ invocation of commodity and market myths to describe the enslaved. It should be obvious that on this point I disagree with his marvelous book: I see white slave traders’ and buyers’ attempts, at least in the Ballard Papers, to understand enslaved human beings as denatured commodities as successful on their own terms. Breakdowns and contradictions occurred and existed. But whites also thought and treated the enslaved as commodities, almost whenever it suited their purposes to do so. Fetishism, in fact, thrived on contradictions.
16 General historiographies of the trade include U. B. Phillips, Life and Labor in the Old South (Boston, 1929), 155–59; Tadman, Speculators and Slaves; Deyle, “Irony of Liberty”; Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South; Winfield Collins, Domestic Slave Trade of the Southern States (New York, 1904); Johnson, Soul by Soul; Troutman, “Slave Trade and Sentiment.”
17 See the description of Armfield himself in Featherstonhaugh, Excursion through the Slave States, 1: 151–70.
18 See D. R. Hundley, Social Relations in Our Southern States (New York, 1860), 139–47. For a few examples of northerners’ obligatory discussion of mulatto women and sexual slavery, see H. Mattison, Louisa Picquet, the Octoroon: A Tale of Southern Slave Life, in Anthony G. Barthelemy, ed., Collected Black Women’s Narratives (New York, 1988); J. H. Ingraham, The Quadroone: or, St. Michael’s Day (New York, 1841); Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour, 2: 100; Jay, View of the Action of the Federal Government, 67–73, 89; Harriet Martineau, Society in America (New York, 1837), 2: 106–36; Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Quadroon Girl,” Poems on Slavery (Cambridge, Mass., 1842).
19 Quote from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, June 11, 1833, folder 11; compare Franklin to Ballard, December 8, 1832, folder 8; April 9, 1834, folder 11, Ballard Papers.
20 Franklin to Ballard, December 8, 1832, folder 8; “Pirates” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, April 9, 1834, folder 11; planters as “robbers” from same to same, January 29, 1833, folder 10; “Land pirates” from April 9, 1834, folder 11; “shavers” from March 11, 1834, folder 13, Ballard Papers.
21 John Brown, Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, A Fugitive Slave, F. N. Boney, ed. (Savannah, Ga., 1972), 19; compare William Reeves to Ballard, November 27, 1832, folder 8, Ballard Papers.
22 A minority of slavery’s critics stridently agreed: planters were no better than the much-maligned trader. Thus Harriet Martineau wrote: “Every man who resides on his plantation may have his harem, and has every inducement of custom, and of pecuniary gain, to tempt him to the common practice.” Martineau, Society in America (New York, 1837), 2: 112.
23 Stephenson, Isaac Franklin, 14–16.
24 Stephenson, Isaac Franklin, 22–33; for histories of this massive regional expansion, see Christopher D. Morris, Becoming Southern: The Evolution of a Way of Life, Warren County and Vicksburg, Mississippi, 1770–1860 (New York, 1995); Joan Cashin, A Family Venture: Men and Women on the Southern Frontier (New York, 1991); Ann Patton Malone, Sweet Chariot: Slave Family and Household Structure in Nineteenth-Century Louisiana; Daniel Dupre, Transforming the Cotton Frontier: Madison County, Alabama, 1800–1840 (Baton Rouge, La., 1997); Steven Deyle, “The Domestic Slave Trade in America” (PhD dissertation, Columbia University, 1995); Troutman, “Slave Trade and Sentiment”; Edward E. Baptist, Creating an Old South: Middle Florida’s Plantation Frontier before the Civil War (Chapel Hill, forthcoming 2002). For the New Orleans market’s central place in the interstate trade, see Johnson, Soul by Soul; Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South, 312–38.
25 R. C. Ballard&Co. Invoice Book, folder 417, Vol. 2; R. C. Ballard&Co., Slaves Bought, 1832–1834, folder 420, Vol. 4; [Enclosures in Vol. 4], folder 421, Ballard Papers.
26 “To be laid out” from Jas. G. Blakey to Ballard, June 17, 1834; “three brothers” from same to same, July 24, 1834; “great many buyers” from same to same, August 6, 1834, all in folder 15, Ballard Papers; Tribune from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, February 7, 1834, folder 13, Ballard Papers; Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South, 275–76.
27 Isaac Franklin to Ballard, January 9, 1832; January 18, 1832, both folder 4; March 11, 1834, folder 13; May 13, 1834, folder 14, Ballard Papers. For the law, see Collins, Domestic Slave Trade, 127–28. Collins cites Acts of Extra Sess. of 10th Leg. of La., p. 4; Hurd, Vol. II, p. 162; Laws of La., 1834, p. 6.
28 For the factorage system, see Harold Woodman, King Cotton and His Retainers: Financing and Marketing the Cotton Crop of the South, 1800–1925 (Lexington, Ky., 1968); compare Ballard to Messrs. Franklin, Ballard,&Co., September 7, 1832, folder 7; Isaac Franklin to Ballard, March 11, 1834, folder 13; and for the investment of the larger southern financial system in interregional slave trading, see “An Abstract of the Lists of Debts Owed to the Bank of Virginia,” enclosed in Bacon Tait to Ballard, May 1, 1838, folder 24, Ballard Papers.
29 Stephenson, Isaac Franklin, 11–12. One of Franklin’s plantations on the Mississippi River, “Angola,” in Louisiana’s West Feliciana Parish, has been since the early twentieth century the site of the notorious Louisiana state prison and labor camp of the same name. His home there has recently been excavated, as has “Fairvue.”
30 See Collection Overview, and Series 1.2, Ballard Papers. However, Ballard continued to trade, on a smaller scale, in slaves: compare Lucy Thurston, in George Rawick, ed., The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography, Supplement, Series One (Westport, Conn., 1977), vol. 10, part 5, 2112; and Series 1.3, Ballard Papers.
31 I borrow Marx’s famous imagery, see Marx, Capital, 1: 163–64.
32 Featherstonhaugh, Excursion through the Slave States, 1: 120–24. Compare Edward D. Jervey and C. Harold Huber, “The Creole Affair,” Journal of Negro History 65 (Summer 1980): 196–211.
33 For McKenny and Gant, see “Invoice Book,” folder 417, Ballard Papers. Historiography on development of black community in the Chesapeake: Allan Kulikoff, Tobacco and Slaves: The Development of Southern Cultures in the Chesapeake (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1986), 335–80; Stevenson, Life in Black and White; Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-Century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill, 1998), 498–558, esp. 519–22; for the concept of “social death,” see Orlando Patterson, Slavery and Social Death: A Comparative Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1982).
34 The WPA ex-slave narratives (Rawick, American Slave, series 1 and 2 and Supplements, series 1 and 2; plus Charles L. Perdue, Jr., Thomas E. Barden, and Robert K. Phillips, eds., Weevils in the Wheat: Interviews with Virginia Ex-Slaves [1976; Charlottesville, Va., 1992]) are filled with far more accounts of such separations than of successful negotiations.
35 Few families remained intact in the domestic slave trade, despite protestations of proslavery paternalists and modern-day moderators to the contrary: contrast Robert W. Fogel and Stanley Engerman, Time on the Cross: The Economics of American Negro Slavery (New York, 1974), esp. 49, with Paul David, et al., Reckoning with Slavery: A Critical Study in the Quantitative History of American Negro Slavery (New York, 1976), 94–133, and Tadman, Speculators and Slaves, 163–78.
36 “The way we send” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, December 8, 1832; “We had better loose” from Ballard to Isaac Franklin, December 2, 1832, both folder 8, Ballard Papers.
37 Isaac Franklin to Ballard, June 11, 1833, folder 11, Ballard Papers.
38 James P. Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., March 4, 1832, folder 5, Ballard Papers.
39 James Franklin to Ballard, October 5, 1832, folder 8; compare Isaac and James Franklin to Ballard, May 13, 1832, folder 6; October 25, 1833, folder 11, 1833, Ballard Papers. For this sort of language in the law and other forms of discourse, see Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 79.
40 “Cuffy” was a slang name for any black person. See J. E. Lightner, ed., Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang (New York, 1994– ), 1: 538; James Franklin to Ballard, March 7, 1834, folder 13; Isaac Franklin to Ballard, September 27, 1834, folder 15, Ballard Papers. For a similar use of the term, see J. W. Paup to E. B. Hicks, October 13, 1842, E. B. Hicks Papers, Box 1, folder 1830–1846, Perkins Library Special Collections, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina.
41 Franklin to Ballard, November 1, 1833, folder 12; “In fact” from same to same, December 8, 1832, folder 8, Ballard Papers. While Walter Johnson argues that the “individuation” of slaves by slave traders and slave buyers—the process of describing and discovering the enslaved as unique as part of the effort to sell each particular one, or to recreate oneself as a master by skillfully buying the right one—was an important opportunity for the enslaved to “shape [their] sales,” one must be careful not to place far more emancipatory hopes on a process of marketing than the evidence will bear. Johnson, Soul by Soul, 162–88.
42 J. H. Easterby, The South Carolina Rice Plantation as Revealed in the Papers of Robert F. W. Allston (Chicago, 1945); quote from 194, compare 426; compare Norrece T. Jones, Born a Child of Freedom, Yet a Slave: Mechanisms of Control and Strategies of Resistance in Antebellum South Carolina (Middletown, Conn., 1990), 41.
43 “He said” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, March 18, 1834, folder 13, Ballard Papers.
44 William Wells Brown, Narrative of William W. Brown, a Fugitive Slave, William Andrews, ed. (New York, 1993), 45.
45 “My opinion” from Ballard to Isaac Franklin, December 2, 1832, folder 8; “The . . . rise” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, March 18, 1834, folder 13; “Cotton is” from James Franklin to Ballard, November 13, 1833, folder 12; compare Isaac Franklin to Ballard, November 7, 1833, folder 12; September 27, 1834, folder 15; May 31, 1831, folder 1, Ballard Papers.
46 “Game” from James Franklin to Ballard, January 18, 1832, folder 4; “Gent of his known capacity” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, March 18, 1834, folder 13; “smooth hand on Cuff,” Jesse Cage to William Cotton, August 27, 1839, folder 28, Ballard Papers.
47 On the history of commodities, see Mintz, Sweetness and Power; and Jordan Goodman, Paul E. Lovejoy, and Andrew Sherratt, eds., Consuming Habits: Drugs in History and Anthropology (London, 1995).
48 James Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., March 4, 1832, folder 5, Ballard Papers; Mintz, Sweetness and Power, 101, xxix.
49 Contrast the respective roles of the trade in southern society in the pictures painted by Fred Bateman and Thomas Weiss, A Deplorable Scarcity: The Failure of Industrialization in the Slave Economy (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1981); Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, 37–99; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll; or Young, Domesticating Slavery; with those of Tadman, Speculators and Slaves; Deyle, “Domestic Slave Trade”; or Johnson, Soul by Soul.
50 James P. Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., March 27, 1832, folder 5, Ballard Papers.
51 Isaac Franklin to Ballard, January 29, 1833, folder 10; compare same to same, December 25, 1833, folder 12; and Bacon Tait to Ballard, November 25, 1838, folder 25, Ballard Papers.
52 “I am in hopes” from James Franklin to Ballard, May 7, 1833, folder 11; “looked the pirate” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, January 11, 1834, folder 13, Ballard Papers.
53 Lightner, Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang, 2: 720, lists “one eyed” plus a noun as a way to refer to the penis, and cites a 1775 toast to “Adam’s dagger . . . the one-eyed stag.” See also Michael Moon, Disseminating Whitman: Revision and Corporeality in “Leaves of Grass” (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 26–30, for Whitman’s use of similar imagery in a different context.
54 James P. Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., March 27, 1832, folder 5, Ballard Papers.
55 Franklin and his associates defined their essence as penile, although recent historians have argued that, before the 1890s, white men in the United States did not focus on definitions of masculinity based primarily on biology or even on private sexual behavior. Indeed, according to these and other scholars, one’s ability to establish one’s independence—in republican politics, artisanal or yeoman economic self-reliance, and in the cultural performances of male defiance of authority—was the all-important basis for proving one’s manliness. The definition of masculinity as an innate force in all male bodies, usually exemplified by the performance of genital heterosexuality, became more prominent in the 1880s and 1890s. Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago, 1995); E. Anthony Rotundo, American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era (New York, 1993), and Michael Kimmel, Manhood in America: A Cultural History (New York, 1996), have roughly agreed with her chronology.
56 “All the fools are not dead” from James Franklin to Ballard, May 7, 1833, folder 11; “too hard for a one-eyed man” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, December 25, 1833, folder 12, Ballard Papers. Rape or the threat of rape may have served to increase planter and slave trader power through terror; compare Antonia I. Castañeda, “Sexual Violence in the Politics and Policies of Conquest: Amerindian Women and the Spanish Conquest of Alta California,” in Building with Our Hands: New Directions in Chicana Studies, Adela de la Torre and Beatríz M. Pesquera, eds. (Berkeley, Calif., 1993), 15–33; Richard D. Trexler, Sex and Power: Gendered Virtue, Political Order, and the European Conquest of the Americas (Ithaca, N.Y., 1995). Ideas about honor did help shape group identity among planters and other wealthy southern white men in this era. See Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South (New York, 1981); Faust, James Henry Hammond; Kenneth Greenberg, Honor and Slavery: Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, the Proslavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, and Gambling in the Old South (Bloomington, Ind., 1996).
57 Jordan, White over Black; K. Brown, Good Wives; Morgan, “Some Could Suckle.”
58 For the nonexistence of the legal category of the rape of enslaved women—in other words, the fact of its pure legality—see Thomas P. Morris, Southern Slavery and the Law, 1619–1860 (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1996), 305 (“No white could ever rape a slave woman”); Melton McLaurin, Celia: A Slave (Athens, Ga., 1991), 89–121; Philip Schwartz, Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705–1865 (Baton Rouge, La., 1988), 159–61; Mark Tushnet, The American Law of Slavery, 1810–1860 (Princeton, N.J., 1981), 85–86; Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll, 33; U. B. Phillips, American Negro Slavery (New York, 1918), 459; for the importance of sexual control over enslaved women to eighteenth-century patriarchs, see K. Brown, Good Wives, 319–73; Kenneth Lockridge, On the Sources of Patriarchal Rage: The Commonplace Books of William Byrd and Thomas Jefferson and the Gendering of Power in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1992).
59 McClintock, Imperial Leather, esp. 184; Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 77, argues that “slavery in the United States [was] one of the richest displays of the psychoanalytic dimensions of culture before the science of European psychoanalysis began to take hold.” Here, she refers specifically to the tangles of interracial sexuality and genealogies. Compare Painter, “Soul Murder and Slavery”; and Nell Irvin Painter, “Of Lily, Linda Brent, and Freud: A Non-Exceptionalist Approach,” in Half-Sisters of History: Southern Women and the American Past (Durham, N.C., 1994), 93–109; Clinton, “Caught in the Web of the Big House,” 22; James Hugo Johnston, Race Relations in Virginia and Miscegenation in the South (Amherst, Mass., 1970); Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel (London, 1838), 1: 267–68. For Francophone parallels to English-language discourses on black female sexuality, compare T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, Black Venus: Sexualized Savages, Primal Fears, and Primitive Narratives in French (Durham, 1999).
60 Bancroft, Slave-Trading in the Old South, 327–33; Collins, Domestic Slave Trade, 105–06; Andrews, Slavery and the Domestic Slave-Trade, 165–66; Monique Guillory, “Some Enchanted Evening on the Auction Block: The Cultural Legacy of the New Orleans Quadroon Balls” (PhD dissertation, New York University, 1999); Johnson, “Slave Trader, the White Slave, and the Politics of Racial Determination”; Karen Halttunen, “Humanitarianism and the Pornography of Pain in Anglo-American Culture,” AHR 100 (April 1995): 303–34; Judith Wilson, “Optical Illusions: Images of Miscegenation in Nineteenth and Twentieth-Century American Art,” American Art 5 (Summer 1991): 88–107; Albert Boime, The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century (Washington, D.C., 1990), 82–84; Marcus Wood, Blind Memory: Visual Representations of Slavery in England and America, 1780–1865 (New York, 2000), 236–39. In defiance of evidence suggesting a white obsession with the mulatto, Eugene Genovese suggests that light-skinned women had no particular significance in the world of white meanings: “Typically, the mulatto, especially the mulatto slave, was ‘just another nigger’ to the whites”; Roll, Jordan, Roll, 429 (quote), 413–31.
61 [Frederick Jackson], A Week in Wall Street, By One Who Knows (New York, 1841), 80, 82, 83 (quote); George G. Foster, Fifteen Minutes around New York (New York, 1854), 49–50; C. G. Parsons, Inside View of Slavery: or, A Tour among the Planters (New York, 1855), 182; Robert Everest, A Journey through the United States and Part of Canada (London, 1855), 104. Compare Brantlinger, Fictions of State.
62 John Brown remembered that in the New Orleans slave pens where he spent several months in the late 1840s, “the youngest and handsomest females were set apart as the concubines of the masters, who generally changed mistresses every week . . . the slave-pen is only another name for a brothel”; Brown, Slave Life in Georgia, 95. Compare Moses Roper, A Narrative of the Adventures and Escape of Moses Roper from American Slavery (London, 1840), 24, 63–66; Bethany Veney, The Narrative of Bethany Veney, A Slave Woman (Worcester, Mass., 1889), 29–30; McLaurin, Celia; Fredrika Bremer, The Homes of the New World: Impressions of America, Mary Howitt, trans. (New York, 1853), 1: 373, 2: 535.
63 Charlottesville “fancy girl” from Isaac Franklin to Ballard, November 1, 1833, folder 12; and January 11, 1834, folder 13; “The Old Man sent” from James Franklin to Ballard, March 7, 1834, folder 13; “very boyish” from James Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., March 27, 1832, folder 5, Ballard Papers. See Stephenson, Isaac Franklin, 19.
64 “Fair maid Martha” from Isaac and James Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., May 13, 1832, folder 6; Isaac Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., June 8, 1832, folder 7; also see Isaac Franklin to Ballard, November 1, 1833, folder 12, Ballard Papers. Compare J. Brown, Slave Life in Georgia, 19.
65 Jesse Cage to William Cotton, August 27, 1839, folder 28, Ballard Papers.
66 Here are but a few examples of ex-slaves’ memories of women bought specifically for sexual abuse: Rawick, American Slave, vol. 16, part 3 (Maryland), 54 (Richard Macks); Supplement series 2, vol. 7 (Texas), part 6, 2531 (Rosa and Jack Maddox); vol. 8 (Texas), part 7, 3292 (Mary Reynolds); vol. 16, part 4 (Ohio), 104 (Julia Williams); John W. Blassingame, ed., Slave Testimony: Two Centuries of Letters, Speeches, Interviews, and Autobiographies (Baton Rouge, La. 1977), 362, 400. Compare McLaurin, Celia.
67 L. R. Starks to Ballard, February 5, 1833, folder 10; P. B. January to Ballard, October 28, 1854, folder 217; November 29, 1854, folder 219, Ballard Papers.
68 J. M. Duffield to Ballard, May 29, 1848, folder 127; August 5, 1848, folder 131[?], Ballard Papers. For ex-slaves’ comments on this topic, see J. Brown, Slave Life in Georgia, 104, 112–13; Rawick, American Slave, vol. 16, part 3 (Maryland), 53, 55 (Richard Macks) for a case of resistance that ended in death; vol. 16, part 4 (Ohio), 61 (Julia King); vol. 18, 2; vol. 18, 51; Supplement series 1, vol. 8 (Mississippi), part 3, 803 (Lucy Galloway); “I can tell you” from Supplement series 2, vol. 7 (Texas), part 6, 2531 (Rosa and Jack Maddox), but one might just as well cite the WPA narratives, passim, as the ex-slaves are generally in agreement that force and threat made these relationships inevitable. Further limiting the ability to defend oneself against sexual aggression was the fact that the slave trade had separated Maria and her sisters from black family, friends, and potential white allies. Such women were therefore more vulnerable to sexual predation—more easily seen and treated by whites as commodities—than ever.
69 Cage to Cotton, August 27, 1839, folder 28; compare Virginia Boyd to Col. Ballard, May 6, 1853, folder 191; C. M. Rutherford to Ballard, August 8, 1853, folder 196, Ballard Papers. For masters selling their own children, see Rawick, American Slave, vol. 18, 3, 251–52, 298; Blassingame, Slave Testimony, 400 (interview with J. W. Lindsay), 702–04 (Sella Martin).
70 Joel Williamson, New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York, 1980); F. James Davis, Who Is Black? One Nation’s Definition (University Park, Pa., 1991).
71 Spillers, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” 67; compare Abdy, Journal of a Residence and Tour, 179; Everest, Journey through the United States, 104; Johnson, Soul by Soul, 113–15.
72 McClintock, Imperial Leather, 181–85, criticizes the overemphasis on “the authority of the castration scene” (183). For readings of sexual fetishism that emphasize the centrality of castration anxiety, see Freud, “Fetishism”; Robert J. Stoller, Observing the Erotic Imagination (New Haven, Conn., 1985), 35–36.
73 Isaac Franklin to Ballard, September 27, 1834, folder 15, Ballard Papers. Compare Joseph Alsop to Ballard, February 5, 1834; Isaac Franklin to Ballard, January 11, 1834, both folder 13, Ballard Papers.
74 “The fair maid” from Isaac and James Franklin to Messrs. R. C. Ballard&Co., May 13, 1832, folder 6; James Franklin to Ballard, March 7, 1834, folder 13, Ballard Papers. For an example of the tensions engendered in the antebellum United States by the rise of the domestic ideal, see Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “Davy Crockett as Trickster: Pornography, Liminality, and Symbolic Inversion in Victorian America,” in her Disorderly Conduct: Visions of Gender in Victorian America (New York, 1985), 90–108. For southern accounts, see Painter, “Soul Murder and Slavery,” esp. 136–37; and Marli Weiner, Mistresses and Slaves: Plantation Women in South Carolina, 1830–1880 (Urbana, Ill., 1998), 53–56.
75 It seems almost redundant to add here that while gender and sexuality are currently seen as different categories of historical and cultural analysis, one can obviously bear on another: Isaac Franklin was unlikely to have considered that his gendered identity had nothing to do with his sexual practices, and vice-versa.
76 See K. Brown, Good Wives, esp. 372, and 328–34.
77 The motifs of incest and/or oedipal competition come to mind here. They are beyond the scope of this essay, but recall the admonition of 1850s proslavery theorist Henry Hughes that “Amalgamation is incest.” Hughes, Treatise on Sociology, Theoretical and Practical (New York, 1854), 240. Compare Jennifer DeVere Brody, Impossible Purities: Blackness, Femininity, and Victorian Culture (Durham, N.C., 1998), 55.
78 Rawick, American Slave, vol. 18, 251.
79 James Baldwin recognized the still-potent historical detritus of these white ideas in his own time in his short story “Going to Meet the Man” (1965). For a view of fetishization that examines consequences and responses among African Americans in the nineteenth century, see Robert Reid-Pharr, “Violent Ambiguity: Martin Delany, Bourgeois Sadomasochism, and the Production of a Black National Masculinity,” in Representing Black Men, Marcellus Blount and George Cunningham, eds. (London, 1996), 73–94.
BY: EDWARD E. BAPTIST