Tuesday, March 3, 2009

This Day in Southern History (Largest U.S. Slave Auction Held)

March 3, 1859—In a year that would see sectional tensions rise to the boiling point over slavery because of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, another incident involving the issue—the largest recorded slave auction in American history—occurred on, of all places, a rainy racetrack in Savannah, Georgia.

In all the books and articles I’ve read about slavery over the years, I don’t remember a single one—until the other day—mentioning this episode. But when a transaction happens involving 436 men, women and children—all born on the same two plantations, many now scattered from loved ones—it’s understandable that the trauma would be named, as this one came to be called, “The Weeping Time.”

To me, that nickname recalled another abuse of human rights in the state—the expulsion of Cherokee Indians in the state more than twenty years before during the Jackson administration.

In a thousand different ways, slavery debased everyone who came in contact with it, but the slave auction was particularly ugly. You can’t understand it without coming to terms with the fact that the slave was considered, above all, property, and slaveholding was conceived of as a business—and a profitable one at that.

When you or I look at a piece of property, particularly a used one, we want to inspect it as closely as possible—turn it over, looking for possible flaws, probing and poking, if necessary. So it was with slave auctions.

Because slaves dealt above all else with physical labor, their body parts were examined particularly closely.

All of this incensed Northerners who came in contact with the “peculiar institution.” One of the legends about Abraham Lincoln that began to circulate shortly after his death, by cousin John Hanks, was that, as a 22-year-old, he had witnessed a slave auction in New Orleans. The sight of a mulatto girl being pinched by potential buyers had so revolted Lincoln, the story goes, that he told his companions, “If I ever get a chance to hit that thing (slavery), I’ll hit it hard.”

Lincoln’s political hero, Henry Clay, also found the spectacle of slave auctions unseemly, though his response was not to disallow the traffic in human beings but to make it less conspicuous. In the debate surrounding the Compromise of 1850, he disavowed the spectacle of slave auctions held in Washington, but, he was careful to note, allowing private sales of slaves by owners was fine.

Two other Northerners, a brother and sister, took more dramatic action against slavery and slave auctions than Clay—though, in the end, not quite so much as Lincoln himself. After witnessing a slave auction in Washington, Kentucky, Harriet Beecher Stowe became a committed abolitionist, and nearly 20 years later her Uncle Tom’s Cabin fired up northern anger against slavery as never before. Her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, held mock slave auctions at Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn.

The one in the South that we’re talking about here concerned a prominent—even notorious—Georgian. Pierce M. Butler, grandson of a Revolutionary War hero, had, it is true, charm—certainly enough to woo and wed English actress Fanny Kemble. That marriage came apart specifically over slavery, as the bride, unaware of the source of her spouse’s fortune (their courtship was mostly conducted in Philadelphia, where the family also had an estate), began to ask one too many questions about it all.

Twenty-five years after Butler’s misalliance and a decade after it was finally ended in divorce, the plantation owner came to a ruinous financial end. Or, at least, he seemed to. More about that in a minute.

Butler was forced to put his slaves on the block in the first place because of two traits he shared in common with other planters: his constant, terrifying vulnerability to financial reverses and the staggering debts he accumulated as a result of his bon vivant gambling debts. The ethos of the plantation owner was that one constantly needed to expand one’s holdings.

Since this often involved taking on more and more credit to buy additional land and slaves, planters constantly worried about a bad year that could ruin a life’s work. Such a year came in the Panic of 1857, which brought Butler low.

But that wasn’t the end of his problems. Well-founded rumor had it that much of Butler’s $700,000 in indebtedness stemmed from one disastrous gambling bet after another. Perhaps it was appropriate, then, that the “Weeping Time” would be held at Ten Broeck Race Course.

Slaves being auctioned off were put in stalls normally reserved for horses, with some there held for as long as weeks. There, the requisite ritualistic degradation of the slaves began—mouths yanked open to examine teeth, arms and legs pinched for muscle tone.

Ostensibly, families were kept together, but that depends ultimately on how the word “family” was defined. True, husbands and wives stayed together, as did parents and children. But slave communities also involved relationships between siblings, grandparents, and cousins. These extended relationships were ended at a stroke.

I mentioned a short while ago that slavery degraded everyone who came in contact with it. Here’s an instance that showed how this worked: The manager of the auction, a broker named Joseph Bryan, was himself an African-American.

The event was recorded by a 27-year-old New York-based humorist and journalist named Mortimer Neal Thomson, who adopted the pseudonym Q.K.Philander Doesticks. To make himself as inconspicuous as possible, Thomson had posed as a bidder, though he made sure to place bids as low as possible so he wouldn’t inadvertently end up with a slave himself.

In the published piece, Thomson railed bitterly against slavery in general and Butler in particular. But the article assumed particular power when he simply recorded how the slaves looked: “"On the faces of all [the slaves] was an expression of heavy grief; some appeared to be resigned ... some sat brooding moodily over their sorrows, ... their bodies rocking to and fro with a restless motion that was never stilled."

When all was said and done, the auction netted $300,000. His debts satisfied, at least for now, Butler was wealthy again—enough so that he took off on a trip to Europe. But he was two years removed from an even worse catastrophe for himself and the South—the Civil War, which resulted in the destruction of his property. After Appomattox, he tried to recoup his fortune by hiring freedmen, but it didn’t work. He died in 1867.

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