A Slave Auction in South Carolina

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A Slave Auction in South Carolina

Editorial cartoon

By: Anonymous

Date: c.1820

Source: Corbis Corporation

About the Author: The illustration of a South Carolina slave auction is a part of the collection of images maintained by the Corbis Corporation, a worldwide provider of visual content materials to advertisers, broadcasters, designers, magazines, media organizations, newspapers, and producers. The artist is unknown.


The practice of slavery took root in the American colonies after 1620. By the second half of the century, colonies such as Maryland and Virginia had developed as prosperous agricultural economies that were primarily supported by labor-intensive farming, particularly in the cultivation of tobacco and other commodities grown for export.

Convict laborers and indentured servants had been brought from England to America, but the availability of this type of labor was limited. The importation of black slaves, first from the West Indies and then from Africa, soon became a central feature of the economy. In 1640, Maryland was the first American colony to institutionalize slavery. By 1690, there were over 200,000 American slaves.

The American colonies quickly became a vital component of an international economic structure built upon the slave trade. Africans, both male and female, who had been captured by rival tribes, were sold by local chieftains to European slave traders. The traders then transported the slaves, in foul and often deadly conditions, to America, where they were offered for sale. Slave labor was an essential part of the intensive farming needed to grow and harvest export crops, the most important of which were tobacco, sugarcane, rice, and cotton.

Slavery soon fell out of public favor in the North, beginning with Vermont's constitutional ban on the practice in 1777; by 1804 all Northern states had followed suit. A number of antislavery movements arose in both England and America in the late 1790s, and the political pressure applied by these groups led to a ban on the Atlantic slave trade by both countries in 1807. This did not outlaw American slavery, however, and the domestic sale of slaves continued. By 1820, there were approximately 700,000 slaves in the South; in South Carolina, Maryland, and Virginia, the slave population outnumbered that of whites.

Slave auctions were a regular feature of life in southern cities, principally Charleston, South Carolina; Richmond, Virginia; and New Orleans. Although records are incomplete, the last slave sale in the United States likely occurred in South Carolina in 1865.



See primary source image.


The slave auction was one of the most significant and enduring public symbols of the practice of slavery in the United States. George Washington, a slave owner for his entire adult life, frequently participated in slave auctions during his career as a gentleman farmer in Virginia, prior to his entry into military and then political life. Washington's will freed the approximately 100 slaves that he owned at the time of his death in 1799. Thomas Jefferson, although he was a frequent critic of slavery who tried without success to end the practice, owned hundreds of slaves who worked the farming operations at his Virginia estate. When Jefferson died in 1827, most of his slaves were sold to pay his debts.

Slave auctions were, by their nature, public. They were vital aspects of the slave economy, representing an opportunity to profit from the sale of surplus labor as well as an efficient means to acquire it. Auctions were "one-stop shopping," in which a number of slaves could be compared by prospective owners in a single viewing.

Auction proceedings were invariably an emotionless and strictly economic exercise—at least for the auctioneer, buyers, and sellers. This entirely commercial attitude stood in stark contrast to the slaves' enormous stakes in the proceedings. It was common for entire family units—husband, wife, and children—to be sold as individual "components." The distress and trauma caused by separation from family members, often permanently, is reflected in this illustration.

The auction was dehumanizing in other respects, as well. Each slave offered for sale was liable to be physically inspected by a prospective purchaser as one would inspect a farm animal. Teeth, build, demeanor, and potential for demanding physical labor were all explored in demeaning ways. Slaves were often made to jump or dance to display their physical capabilities.

Ironically, the auctions were conducted and attended by self-professed Christians whose churches might be located within 100 yards of the auction house. Many southern churches held a theological rationale for slavery: Noah's curse that his son Ham's descendents, popularly believed to be the black African peoples, would always be 'servants of servants.' Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States (1861–1865), echoed this belief with his pronouncement that slavery was sanctioned by the Bible. Interestingly, the powerful northern abolitionist movement was also fueled by Christians, beginning with the Quakers in 1775.

The public slave auction was an element of the "peculiar institution", as slavery came to be euphemistically described. Its characterization as unusual or eccentric was a kinder image than that of forced labor and the auctioned sale of human beings. The expression was also capable of a double meaning—the word "peculiar" is derived from the Latin peculium, meaning private property.



Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The History of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440–1870. New York: Touchstone, 1997.

Wiencek, Henry. An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves and the Creation of America. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003.

Web sites

Eyewitness to History. "Slave Auctions." 2002 〈http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com/slaveauction.htm〉 (accessed June 27, 2006).

University of Virginia. "Imaging Slavery in Mark Twain's Books." 2002 〈http://etext.virginia.edu/railton/wilson/slavery/mtslavhp.html〉 (accessed June 27, 2006).

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