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A Slave Trader’s Office Decor and the Pornography of Capitalism

In the antebellum South, the slave trader’s office was a site of desire.

“I know it when I see it,” declared Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart as he concurred with the majority opinion in the Jacobellis v. Ohio decision of 1964. He was referring, famously, to pornography: sexually explicit, erotic material intended to produce arousal or excitement. Less focused on prurient matters, another definition of the word “pornography” applies more broadly to any image or portrayal that elicits an intense emotional reaction. In this sense, viewers may tune into food porn on the Food Network, as television chefs make and serve succulent dishes more lavish than anything we would prepare or consume in our own homes, even if we could afford the ingredients or had the time to cook them. HGTV offers its own variety of porn as we watch run-down homes renovated into stunning showplaces. What ties the programming of these television channels to my recent Journal of the Early Republic article on the relationship between slave trading and wildcat banking is the pornography of capitalism.

Both definitions of pornography employ the same tactic of commodifying desire. By marketing their product through extravagant and lascivious imagery, pornographers play upon the nagging notion that what we currently possess or have access to is insufficient. That same emotion is foundational to capitalism, an economy based on consumerism. Pornography—sexual or otherwise—fills the disconnect between imagination and reality, permitting people to live vicariously in a society in which it is difficult to satisfy all of our wants.

In the antebellum South, the slave trader’s office was a site of desire. After Washington, DC, slave dealer and bank speculator William H. Williams vacated Alexander Lee’s Lottery and Exchange Office on Pennsylvania Avenue, he assumed operation of the notorious Yellow House slave pen, only a half mile west of the U.S. Capitol building. Like all slave traders, Williams employed pornography to sell enslaved human beings. Recent scholarship contends that slavery proved crucial to capitalist development in the United States.[1] Although that debate continues, it is indisputable that slavery and capitalism met in the slave trader’s office. There, southern whites’ dreams were attainable, for the right price. Historians Walter Johnson, Ed Baptist, and others have well documented the pornographic characteristics of the domestic slave trade. Whether at private sales in slave traders’ offices or at public auction, purchasers could review, minutely inspect, grope, and fondle enslaved women, disrobed and immodestly displayed, in advance of sale. Traders themselves (Baptist’s “one-eyed men”) raped the young, physically attractive, light-skinned enslaved women in their possession, known as “fancy maids.” But the nightmare did not end there for the trader’s victims. Through the acquisition of a valuable “fancy girl,” buyers, too, could live out their sexual fantasies with abandon. Once a bill of sale was drawn up and the transaction completed, new owners could forcibly extract bodily pleasure from their enslaved property virtually at will.[2]

The sexual pornography of the slave trader’s office extended seamlessly into the emotional pornography of the surrounding decor. William H. Williams’s office affords just one example. At the Yellow House, enslaved captives and antebellum travelers alike commented upon the distinctive articles ...