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  • Clerks All! Or, Slaves with Cash
  • Walter Johnson (bio)

Douglas Egerton's fascinating article begins with an image of slave rebels in Charleston in 1822 planning to rob a bank. And, indeed, it speaks volumes that such an image should be interesting in and of itself, as it surely is. We have focused intensively in the literature on slavery and slave revolts to discern underlying tendencies and long-term transformations, but there is much about the everyday life of slavery (and especially of enslaved resistance) about which we know next to nothing. And apparently when slave rebels thought about revolt one of the practical steps they considered was to take over banks and steal the money inside (if, of course, taking that money from those banks could be called stealing given that it represented, in congealed form, labor that had been wrung from their bodies). Egerton asks why they began with the banks.

Ranging widely and comparatively in time and space, Egerton proposes a big answer composed of several smaller arguments. To wit: Urban environments that hosted banks were shaped by structures and practices that both suggested and supported collective revolt as a solution to the problem of slavery. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century cities, Egerton points out, were geographically complex: They provided a lot of places to hide and a lot of places to encounter subversive ideas and discontented people. And they provided enslaved people with a lot of ways to make money. The urban economy was sufficiently complex that it required flexible terms of employment even for slave labor. The skilled labor of a cabinet-maker would never be needed all the time by one [End Page 641] owner, but through hiring out, it might be useful to any number of clients and transformed into an income stream. Likewise, a man trying to set up a tavern in his front room might not have had the money to invest in buying a slave, but hiring a slave for a year at a time might have been a way to begin to make that money. And, finally, there were all the petty bribes and small cash incentives through which notionally unpropertied slaves were daily and regularly coaxed into labor everywhere in the Americas.1

And this money, Egerton argues, was meaningful. It was the lubricant that offered slaves an entrée to the treating and drinking of the multiracial tavern life of the docks, a world that Egerton's wonderful books on the revolts in Richmond in 1800 and Charleston in 1822 demonstrates was full of the subversive ideas and rough characters that made the idea of revolution believable. But there was more to money than that, for money, Egerton suggests, shaped the aspirational structure of revolt. The experience of having had money in their hands, Egerton argues, was, for slaves an experience of freedom: of possibilities that were otherwise foreclosed, of crossing boundaries that were in principle defined by race, but in practice, it turned out, defined by the cash nexus. Of buying fine clothes, or standing for a round of drinks, of experiencing the tonic power of [End Page 642] being able to choose, to evaluate, consider, compare, linger. Of behaving like a clerk. For Egerton, this experience was one of "psychological independence" of the very sort that made it possible to imagine revolution and freedom.

I must admit that it took me a while to get used to this idea, but after my initial skepticism, I did so, and it is, of course, a really bright and interesting idea. Enslaved people lived in a society where power and beauty and sanctity and all sorts of other virtues were experienced and expressed as control over commodities. And the only irony in the fact that some of them—many of them?—might have joined their owners in imagining that the achievement of human freedom could be indexed by the possession of things is the most obvious one. It seems utterly sensible to try to imagine a world in which enslaved people could care for themselves and express their love for one another by pursuing money and purchasing goods. And, indeed, it seems utterly sensible to try to imagine a...


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