Slave Trade and Sentiment in Antebellum Virginia

Troutman, Phillip Davis, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Ayers, Edward, Corcoran Department of History, University of Virginia
Butler, Reginald, Department of History, University of Virginia
Nudelman, Franny, Department of English, University of Virginia
Miller, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia

The slave market lay at the crossroads of antebellum southern thought and practice. It exposed the contradictory impulses arising from market-crop production, patriarchal labor relations, sentimental notions of family, and the designation of enslaved African-Americans as moveable property. Dislocating hundreds of thousands and breaking countless family bonds, it intersected two key trends of modernization in antebellum American history: mass migration and domestic sentimentality.

The domestic slave market comprised the geographic network across which traders and other slaveholders moved information, money, and enslaved people. It reenacted the "social death" of the African slave trade, this time breaking up the families on which American slavery had been built.

Sentimentality constituted a language of grief, of embarkation, of distance. As such, it found selective use among the many people working variously to understand, avoid, denounce, deny, or reconnect across the domestic slave market.

Paternalistic slaveholders articulated a sentimental ideal resonant with that of northern domestic reformers. Both envisioned households ruled by affection and moral suasion, yet both remained inextricably entangled in the market revolution they sought to evade or obscure. Slaveholders applied sentiment in coming to grips with their inability to master the market world they had embraced. They aimed their sentiment at slaves, but always turned it back on IV themselves, validating their own self-image, whatever their participation in the slave market might be. Abolitionists' sentimental critique fixated on the auction block, which embodied the commodification they feared in American society. By portraying slaves as commodities, however, antislavery artists themselves commodified African Americans, rendering them sentimental icons rather than individuals.

Sold or carried away, the few literate people in slavery deployed sentiment selectively to implicate slaveholders in the grapevine by which they hoped to get word back to family. Paternalistic sentiment, far from representing the antithesis of the slave market, may have found its fullest use for slaves in negotiating the effects of masters' market decisions. For African Americans autobiographers, sentimental language seemed suitable, yet they struggled to make it relevant. Quite often, sentimentalism failed them, incapable as it was of fully suturing the emotional ruptures suffered in the slave market. Only in the twentieth century did aged African Americans reject sentimentalism, invoking in more brutal terms the inhumanities done in the days of the domestic slave market.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Digitization of this thesis was made possible by a generous grant from the Jefferson Trust, 2015.

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