Frederick Douglass and Slaves as Standing-Reserves

By the shedding of whose blood have we become one of the wealthiest nations in the world?  To begin an answer, why not turn to one whose back bore many a bloody lash for the sake of the so-called “American dream.”  In his 1852 oration, “The Internal Slave Trade,” Frederick Douglass offers his own analysis and stringent condemnation of America’s participation in the trafficking of human beings for economic gain.Slaves on the Auction Block

Behold the practical operation of this internal slave trade—the American slave trade sustained by American politics and American religion!  Here you will see men and women reared like swine for the market.  You know what is a swine-drover?  I will show you a man-drover.  They inhabit all our southern states.  They perambulate the country, and crowd the highways of the nation with droves of human stock.  You will see one of these human-flesh-jobbers, armed with pistol, whip and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans.  These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers.  They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill.  Mark the sad procession as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them.  Hear his savage yells and his blood-chilling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives.  There, see the old man, with locks thinned and gray.  Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms.  See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes, weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn.  The drove moves tardily. Heat and sorrow have nearly consumed their strength.  Suddenly you hear a quick snap, like the discharge of a rifle; the fetters clank, and the chain rattles simultaneously; your ears are saluted with a scream that seems to have torn its way to the center of your soul.  The crack you heard was the sound of the slave whip; the scream you heard was from the woman you saw with the babe.  Her speed had faltered under the weight of her child and her chains; that gash on her shoulder tells her to move on.  Follow this drove to New Orleans.  Attend the auction; see men examined like horses; see the forms of women rudely and brutally exposed to the shocking gaze of American slave-buyers.  See this drove sold and separated forever; and never forget the deep, sad sobs that arose from that scattered multitude.[1]

This is simply one among many scenes depicting the hardships African American slaves endured on a daily basis as a result of the institution of chattel slavery.  Enslaved by the love of money, the master’s vision becomes distorted.  Not only does he see human beings as things, but the sounds of suffering fall silent to his ears.  Deafened to the wailing of mothers’ torn from their children, he transposes the dissonance of clanking chains into gold-en keys, which like the dual cut of a double-edged sword open the door to his future and secure the bonds of his brother.

To add to their humiliation and degraded status as mere property of the white man, slaves were subjected to public auctions where they were ordered to stand, often naked or nearly so, and allow the potential buyers to examine their bodies to ensure their suitability for long-term servitude.  If a slave’s body showed signs of illness, disease, or possible weaknesses, they were passed over as bad investments, unprofitable for the master’s business.  Scar tissue on a slave’s back—the number of scars, whether the scar was old or relatively fresh—became the subject of a mythology employed to determine a slave’s character.   Too many scars indicated a rebellious spirit, whereas having few scars meant that the slave possessed a docile, obedient spirit.  “As they worked their way from inflicted scars to essential character, buyers fixed slaves in a typology of character according to the frequency, intensity, and chronology of the whipping apparent on their backs.”[2] While the slaves stood humiliated, exposed and wondering what kind of master might purchase them on that particular day, the slave buyers paraded themselves before the crowds as augurs who “could read slaves’ backs as encodings of their histories.”[3]


[1] Douglass, “The Internal Slave Trade,” 436–7.

[2] Johnson, Soul by Soul, 145.

[3] Ibid., 145.