- Sold Down the River: Slavery in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley of Alabama and Georgia
Sold Down the River is a study of the development of slavery in an area of the deep South that is relatively understudied by historians despite the deep commitment of the people in the region to the institution of slavery. Perhaps, as Carey notes in the book, this is a result of “Old South” slavery being present in the region for a comparatively short amount of time, but as the titles of the introduction and the first chapter imply, there were several “slaveries” in this region. This book masterfully traces these changing slaveries beginning with slavery among the Creeks and evolving through their removal and replacement by whites who brought plantation agriculture with them. The book then shifts into discussions of the slave trade and the changing demographics of the region in the mid-nineteenth century, the nature of work, power and resistance, religion, family life, and finally, emancipation. Each of these chapters is thoroughly researched, extraordinarily well-written, and places the region of the Lower Chattahoochee Valley in the broader context of the country and the world.
Throughout the book Carey is careful to point out that the enslaved possessed agency, even in this area in which nearly fifty percent of the white population owned slaves, and that the peculiar institution could be surprisingly flexible. Work on and off of the plantation was performed by negotiations between slaveowners, overseers, slaves, and occasionally, those who hired the labor of bondspeople. Consequently, despite the obvious power imbalance, slaves exerted some control over their lives via controlling the pace of work or through subtle and overt acts of resistance. Of course, as the author points out, slavery was primarily an economic institution that existed for the benefit of the owner and was maintained through the threat and application of force. Evangelical Christianity offered both a buttress and a critique of this system as the Second Great Awakening linked master and slave [End Page 314] in the Lower Chattahoochee Valley in religion, but it also led to the rise of the abolitionist movement in the North. Instead of creating a local challenge to slavery, whites in the region were willing to accept blacks as members of the church, but also as chattel who could be treated with supreme cruelty. Outside attacks by abolitionists on the morality of slavery made many Southern whites even more convinced of the proslavery nature of Christianity, as “problems with slavery. . . were rooted in human weakness, in the propensity to sin” [and] “slavery was no more or less evil than most other worldly institutions” (p. 145). As the author notes, many of these slaves brought to the region lived there long enough to witness slavery come to an end in the valley as well, but the problems encountered post-emancipation are not really the subject of this book.
In the introduction, Carey makes it clear that he structured this book primarily for “students and general readers interested in the Chattahoochee Valley” (p.5) with an “empirical” rather than “postmodern bent” (p.6) and in this regard, the book is both successful and not. On the one hand, the book relies deeply on primary sources in order to provide the structure of life in the region, but on the other, it is also undergirded by the scholarship that he downplays in the introduction. Historians will recognize the literature that he is addressing even if general readers do not. Interestingly, rather than really engaging the broad scholarship on slavery, Sold Down the River almost universally confirms most of it, particularly the more recent works that argue slavery was driven by the market, but also those studies that deal with day-to-day life, work, and religion, some of which are pretty heavily invested in “postmodernism.” In other words, the sources are new, but the conclusions are the same. Still, that is more of a meta-critique for a...