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

Jeff Forret

Edward Williams Clay, Practical Amalgamation (New York: John Childs, c. 1839). Courtesy of the Library Company of Philadelphia.

“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 that adorned the walls where Williams conducted business.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

One of the distinguishing features of the slave trade was the violence endemic to it. Solomon Northup, the most famous inmate of the Yellow House, later recounted his experiences in Twelve Years a Slave. He described how, on one occasion, he was directed to an “upper room” above the jail cells. The “white-washed room, without any carpet on the floor . . . seemed a sort of office.” Northup recalled that it contained “a stove, a few old chairs, and a long table, covered with papers,” no doubt related to Williams’s business operations. But what most struck Northup was “a rusty sword” hanging on the wall by a window.[3] The provenance of the sword is unknown, perhaps a relic of Williams’s or an ancestor’s military exploits. It was fitting for a slave trader and proprietor of a slave jail to display proudly an instrument of violence on his wall. Of course the whip, manacles, and chains, rather than swords, were more emblematic of the violence inflicted upon the enslaved, but the sword nevertheless suggested an aesthetic of violence and the sort of broader immunity to human suffering required for men like Williams to direct the domestic slave trade.

The other objects of fascination on Williams’s walls mocked those critical of slavery and the business of slave trading. In 1841, English abolitionist Joseph Sturge visited the Yellow House and, inside, cast his eyes upon “portraits and caricatures of abolitionists” hanging in Williams’s office. The derisive artwork ridiculed renowned Irish antislavery agitator Daniel O’Connell; American-born abolitionist and founder of both the American Anti-Slavery Society and the American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, Arthur Tappan; and former U.S. president John Quincy Adams, a long-time thorn in the side of proslavery congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives. The prints featured these prominent figures in “low and disgraceful pictures” with black people, “as objects for the obscene jokes and witticism of the scoundrel traffickers.” The risqué images found in Williams’s office were likely the “amalgamation prints” described by historian Stephanie Camp as “proslavery representations of abolitionists as race-mixers.” Proslavery southern whites routinely sexualized the abolitionist movement and transformed abolitionists into amalgamationists by asserting the fiction that anyone who favored the emancipation of slaves must also promote racial miscegenation. “The young man in charge of the establishment began to explain [the prints], for our amusement,” Sturge recorded, but upon learning that his guest was an abolitionist, turned sheepish, “uneasy,” and eager to see him on his way. Perhaps the jailer feared his logic would be refuted, as when Abraham Lincoln later observed that just “because I do not want a negro woman for a slave” does not mean “I must necessarily want her for a wife.”[4]

William H. Williams’s office afforded his customers a safe, controlled space to indulge in a peculiar brand of pornography. The shocking portrayals of blacks and whites, designed to humiliate and embarrass slave dealers’ abolitionist foes, added to the sexually charged atmosphere of the surroundings. The print culture and material artifacts that together composed the visual tapestry of Williams’s interior design enhanced the pornography of capitalism that drove the slave trade itself.


[1] Edward E. Baptist, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (New York, 2014); Sven Beckert, Empire of Cotton: A Global History (New York, 2015); Calvin Schermerhorn, The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815–1860 (New Haven, CT, 2015).

[2] Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge, MA, 1999); Edward E. Baptist, “‘Cuffy,’ ‘Fancy Maids,’ and ‘One-Eyed Men’: Rape, Commodification, and the Domestic Slave Trade in the United States,” American Historical Review 106 (Dec. 2001), 1619–1650.

[3] Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave, ed. Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon (Baton Rouge, LA, 1996), 34.

[4] Joseph Sturge, A Visit to the United States in 1841 (1842; repr. New York, 1969), 83 (first, sixth, and seventh quotations); John G. Whittier, “The Slave Market at Washington,” No. 5, Voices of the True Hearted (Philadelphia, 1846), 65 (second and third quotations); Stephanie M. H. Camp, Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South (Chapel Hill, NC, 2004), 98 (fourth and fifth quotations); Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3 (New Brunswick, NJ, 1953), 146 (eighth and ninth quotations).

17 February 2020

About the Author

Jeff Forret is Professor and Graduate Director in the Department of History at Lamar University.

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