Wealth in the Antebellum South: Paternalism and the Weeping Time (part 2)

In part 1, I touched on paternalism as a justification for chattel slavery, and moved on to the way the wealth of the planter class in the South was tied up in enslaved human beings. The two things are sort of inextricably linked in my head, paternalism being the whitewash on the real justification for maintaining the system of chattel slavery: money. Follow the money. Enslaved people were literally real estate in the antebellum south, but much easier to move around and convert to liquid cash than, say, the family plantation.

We’d left off with one of the ugliest examples of this conversion of human beings to cold hard cash: The Weeping Time. This was the sale of 436 men, women, and children in order to pay off the debts of one Pierce Butler. The Butler plantations and the enslaved people who lived there were unusual for having been chronicled in Frances Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839. The journalist who covered the sale, Mortimer Thomson (who went by the pseudonym Q. K. Philander Doesticks, and I shall abide by his wishes and use it), published what he saw in What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation? Great Auction Sale of Slaves at Savannah, Georgia, March 2d and 3d 1859. A Sequel to Mrs. Kemble’s Journal. Having left off as Mr. Doesticks arrived at the sale, let us continue.

All of the people to be sold were at the Race-track at least four days in advance, where they were kept in sheds by “Mr. J Bryan, Auctioneer and Negro Broker.” The scene in the sheds was absolutely heart-breaking:

On the faces of all was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned to the hard stroke of Fortune that had torn them from their homes, and were sadly trying to make the best of it; some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, their chins resting on their hands, their eyes staring vacantly, and their bodies rocking to and fro, with a restless motion that was never stilled; few wept, the place was too
public and the drivers too near, though some occasionally turned
aside to give way to a few quiet tears. . . .The children were of all sizes, the youngest being fifteen days old. The babies were generally good-natured; though when one would set up a yell, the complaint soon attacked the others, and a full chorus would be the result.

The enslaved people were brought to the site early so that buyers could have a chance to examine them before the sale. But while the buyers were examining the people who were to go on the block, those people were likewise examining them. As Walter Johnson says in Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market:

They knew what the traders wanted them to say and what the buyers watned to hear. And they knew whether they fit the traders’ representations and the buyers’ expectations–whether they were sickly or skilled, whether they had thoughts of escape or revolt. Using these pieces of information, slaves could create themselves in the slave market, matching their self-representations to their own hoped-for outcomes. Sometimes, at enormous risk, they shaped a sale to suit themselves.

In actual practice, the people for sale might do this subtly, or as in one case described by Mr. Doesticks, they might do it more openly:

“Elisha,” chattel No. 5 in the catalogue, had taken a fancy to a
benevolent-looking middle-aged gentleman, who was inspecting the stock, and thus used his powers of persuasion to induce the benevolent man to purchase him, with his wife, boy and girl, Molly, Israel and Sevanda, chattels Nos. 6, 7 and 8. The earnestness with
which the poor fellow pressed his suit, knowing, as he did, that perhaps the happiness of his whole life depended on his success, was touching, and the arguments he used most pathetic. He made no appeal to the feelings of the buyer; he rested no hope on his charity and kindness, but only strove to show how well worth his dollars were the bone and blood he was entreating him to buy.

“Look at me, Mas’r; am prime rice planter; sho’ you won’t find a better man den me; no better on de whole plantation; not a bit old yet; do mo’ work den ever; do carpenter work, too, little; better buy me, Mas’r; I’se be good sarvant, Mas’r. Molly, too, my wife, Sa, fus’rate rice hand; mos as good as me. Stan’ out yer, Molly, and let the gen’lm’n see.”

Molly advances, with her hands crossed on her bosom, and makes a quick short curtsy, and stands mute, looking appealingly in the benevolent man’s face. But Elisha talks all the faster.

“Show mas’r yer arm, Molly — good arm dat, Mas’r — she do a heap of work mo’ with dat arm yet. Let good Mas’r see yer teeth, Molly — see dat Mas’r, teeth all reg’lar, all good — she’m young gal yet. Come out yer, Israel, walk aroun’ an’ let the gen’lm’n see how spry you be” —

Then, pointing to the three-year-old girl who stood with her chubby hand to her mouth, holding on to her mother’s dress, and uncertain what to make of the strange scene.

“Little Vardy’s only a chile yet; make prime gal by-and-by. Better buy us, Mas’r, we’m fus’ rate bargain” — and so on. But the benevolent gentleman found where he could drive a closer bargain, and so bought somebody else.

The descriptions used, “prime,” “rice hand,” “rice planter,” were all standardized language of the slave market that attempted to reduce the complexities of human beings into a simple set of words that would make their equivalence easy to compute. These standardized descriptions were listed in the catalog for the auction, and Mr. Doesticks kept a record of sale prices that went along with each, so that you end up with lots like so:

118 — Pompey, 31 ; rice — lame in one foot.
119 — Kitty, 30; rice, prime woman.
120— Pompey, Jr., 10; prime boy.
121— John, 7.
122— Noble, 1 ; boy.

Sold for $580 each.

The bidding was non-standard at the Butler auction, because the enslaved people were sold as families. Bids were taken as a price for each member, and then totaled up, so for Pompey’s family a total of $2900 was paid. This method of sale did odd things to the sale prices, Kitty and Pompey, Jr., being prime, would have probably brought more than $580 apiece if they hadn’t been paired with Pompey, who was lame, and the two younger children. Compare this family:

362 — Maria, 47 ; rice hand.
363 — Luna, 22; rice, prime woman.
364 — Clementina, 17 ; rice, prime young woman.

Sold for $950 each.

So to give what scanty credit is due, Pierce Butler could probably have made a lot more than the $303,850 that he took in if he had broken up the families. This kindness is totally overwhelmed by the fact that he thought selling actual human beings was a legitimate way to pay off his debts. As Mr. Doesticks notes (quoted in part 1),

It is true they were sold “in families;” but let us see: a man and his wife were called a “family,” their parents and kindred were not taken into account ; the man and wife might be sold to the pine woods of North Carolina, their brothers and sisters be scattered through the cotton fields of Alabama and the rice swamps of Louisiana, while the parents might be left on the old plantation to wear out their weary lives in heavy grief, and lay their heads in far-oft graves, over which their children might never weep. And no account could be taken of loves that were as yet unconsummated by marriage; and how many aching hearts have been divorced by this summary proceeding no man can ever know.

The enslaved people sold during the Weeping Time are unusual in that we know so much of their story. I haven’t pulled from Mrs. Kemble’s journal in the interests of not writing a novel on this subject, but it’s rare that we would have two such looks at the lives of enslaved people in the antebellum south. And it doesn’t end there.

A woman named Annette Holmes, researching her own family history, took it upon herself to try to track the people enslaved by the Butler family, both those who were retained by the estate and those who were sold. As you might expect, she had better success with some than others, and her findings are available here.

But for Pierce Butler, serene in his white skin and wealthy privilege, the story ended on the 3rd of March, 1859, when he collected the last of the money he needed to pay off his creditors. Mr. Doesticks describes Butler’s last interaction with the people he sold:

Leaving the Race buildings, where the scenes we have described took place, a crowd of negroes were seen gathered eagerly about a white man. That man was Pierce M. Butler, of the free City of Philadelphia, who was solacing the wounded hearts of the people he had sold from their firesides and their homes, by doling out to them small change at the rate of a dollar a head. To every negro he had sold, who presented his claim for the paltry pittance, he gave the munificent stipend of one whole dollar, in specie; he being provided with two canvas bags of 25 cent pieces, fresh from the mint, to give an additional glitter to his generosity.

How generous.

The Weeping Time, part of the PBS series Africans in America

Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839, by Frances Kemble.

What Became of the Slaves on a Georgia Plantation?” by Q. K. Philander Doesticks

Listings & Statistics of the Butler Auction by Annette Holmes

Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market by Walter Johnson (link is to purchase on Amazon)


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