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Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade

Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade

by Maurie D. McInnis

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In 1853, Eyre Crowe, a young British artist, visited a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia. Harrowed by what he witnessed, he captured the scene in sketches that he would later develop into a series of illustrations and paintings, including the culminating painting, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia.

This innovative book uses Crowe’s


In 1853, Eyre Crowe, a young British artist, visited a slave auction in Richmond, Virginia. Harrowed by what he witnessed, he captured the scene in sketches that he would later develop into a series of illustrations and paintings, including the culminating painting, Slaves Waiting for Sale, Richmond, Virginia.

This innovative book uses Crowe’s paintings to explore the texture of the slave trade in Richmond, Charleston, and New Orleans, the evolving iconography of abolitionist art, and the role of visual culture in the transatlantic world of abolitionism. Tracing Crowe’s trajectory from Richmond across the American South and back to London—where his paintings were exhibited just a few weeks after the start of the Civil War—Maurie D. McInnis illuminates not only how his abolitionist art was inspired and made, but also how it influenced the international public’s grasp of slavery in America. With almost 140 illustrations, Slaves Waiting for Sale brings a fresh perspective to the American slave trade and abolitionism as we enter the sesquicentennial of the Civil War.

Editorial Reviews

Washington Independent Review of Books
“This is an attractive book about an unattractive subject. Author Maurie D. McInnis . . . has produced a splendid art book that looks at the ugly face of slavery in the antebellum south.”

Visual Studies
“A wealth of information for visual studies and social science scholars looking for a comprehensive overview of the visual language of slavery and abolition.”
E.B. Robertson, University of California, Santa Barbara - E. B. Robertson
Slaves Waiting for Sale is a stupendous contribution to the field of nineteenth-century racial representation. It is canny in its structure, astonishing in the depth of its research, and immensely sophisticated in the deployment of research details—all in the service of a deeply rewarding argument. Using Crowe’s painting as the backbone of the book is very smart, and the sequence of chapters, as McInnis charts the landscape of slavery from Richmond to Charleston to New Orleans, and the resulting visual representation of that landscape, is engrossing. It’s a book that will speak to readers in many different fields.”

William W. Freehling
“With this book, Maurie McInnis consolidates the reputation, earned in her prizewinning book about Charleston antebellum architecture, as a forerunner in the integration of art and broader cultural studies. This latest brilliant integration brings a new dimension to our understanding of American slavery.”

Bernard L. Herman
Slaves Waiting for Sale epitomizes the best of scholarship. Beautifully crafted, compellingly argued, and powerfully original, this book guides us through Crowe’s painting in a far-reaching narrative that cuts across the antebellum South and transatlantic debates over the human cost and deeply contested ideologies of slavery. Her analysis brings to bear the evidence of works by other artists, archaeological excavations, literature, and personal accounts in a reading of Crowe’s work and its array of contexts that is sophisticated, accessible, and truly exemplary.”

Edward L. Ayers
“This book reveals an iconic work of art in remarkable depth and breadth. With ingenious research and imaginative writing, Maurie McInnis unites places and facets of life too seldom joined. No one will be able to see the slave trade—or nineteenth-century America and England, for that matter—in the same way after reading this powerful book.”

Virginia Magazine
“McInnis takes the reader deep into the grim but lucrative workings of antebellum slave commerce through careful study of visual and material culture contextualized by meticulously gathered period descriptions, public records, statistics, photographs, and maps. . . . [Her] exemplary book makes a significant contribution to new scholarship and initiatives that document and share this unvarnished history.”
Slavery & Abolition - Marcus Wood
“Maurie McInnis has produced a most significant and sustained piece of work that takes up several neglected aspects of the visual archive generated around the North American slave-sale systems in the mid-nineteenth century. In its methodological and formal diversity, the work is nothing short of a triumph. . . . “McInnis’s close reading of Eyre Crowe’s remarkable masterpiece is a triumphant proof of the imaginative realignments that this book insists upon. This author’s insights will be working their way through slavery studies for many years to come. I think Maurie McInnis for producing this morally centered and precisely written contribution to the semiotic study of slave sales.”
Journal of American History
“As we follow Crowe to the slave auctions he sketched, McInnis vividly reconstructs the geographies and everyday life of the cities that supported the slave trade and that Crowe tried to navigate for his eyewitness accounts. She also . . . thoughtfully compares the slave trade in Charleston and New Orleans, where auctions were staged theatrically in hotels and on city streets, with its less conspicuous, though no less integral, presence in Richmond.”
Journal of American Studies
“Chronicling the thematic, topical and aesthetic developments in depictions of transatlantic and domestic slave trading, selling and auctioning, Slaves Waiting for Sale provides a nuanced examination of the nexus of visual culture and politics on the eve of the Civil War. . . . Its showcase of new and diverse primary source material, fashioned into a compelling case for the centralization of art in the study of the American slave trade, asserts Maurie D. McInnis’s [book] as a critical and necessary contribution to current scholarship on American slavery.”
American Studies
Slaves Waiting for Sale is a welcomed addition to the visual portrait of slavery seen through the vision of nineteenth-century artists and a study that scholars of the domestic slave trade will want to read.”

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University of Chicago Press
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6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.70(d)

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By Maurie D. McInnis


Copyright © 2011 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-55933-9

Chapter One

With Thackeray in America

IN OCTOBER 1852, the young artist Eyre Crowe boarded the ship Canada in Liverpool bound for Boston. He was accompanying the celebrated author and satirist William Makepeace Thackeray on what was to be a six-month speaking tour of the United States. Thackeray, a family friend whom Crowe had known since he was a young boy, had written the aspiring painter the previous month to cajole him into making the trip. "Though I don't think you'd make the best and the cutest Secretary," Thackeray playfully opened, "yet to me you would be valuable as you know from old affection and entire confidence." As the author and the artist traveled from Boston to Savannah with numerous stops in between, both gathered material that eventually shaped the direction their respective art took. In anticipation, Thackeray commented before setting out on the journey, "Let us hope I shall bring back something amusing from America—my book just out [Esmond] is as dreary and dull as if it were true."

At the time they embarked, Crowe, still in his twenties, had not met with much success. His childhood had been spent in Paris, where his father was a journalist for the London Morning Chronicle. It was there that he first became acquainted with Thackeray, a friend of his father. At age fourteen Crowe enrolled in the atelier of Paul Delaroche; he later accompanied the painter to Rome for additional artistic training. When he moved to London with his parents in 1844, he enrolled in the Royal Academy School of Art to continue his studies and to become known to the London art world.

He had exhibited paintings at the Royal Academy in 1846, 1848, and 1849, but with little critical notice. The only mention of these early productions, in fact, came from Thackeray himself, who was then employed by Crowe's father as the art critic for the Morning Chronicle. The "energy, good drawing, and character" cited by Thackeray in his 1849 column were not enough to launch Crowe's painting career, and in 1850 and 1851 the artist had no works accepted for exhibition. Therefore, having previously worked for Thackeray in copying illustrations and text for various publication projects, he gladly accepted the offer to serve as secretary for Thackeray's speaking tour.

It was the first trip to the United States for both of them. Thackeray had just completed his novel Esmond (1852) and decided to undertake this lecture tour entirely for financial reasons, hoping to put some money away for his wife and children. As he commented in a letter to a friend, "It's only for the money's sake that I pursue it. But it [speaking] is more profitable than book-writing and serves even to aid that." The author's intent was to deliver a series of six lectures in each of the cities he visited: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, Richmond, Charleston, and Savannah. Having produced best-selling novels such as Vanity Fair (1848) and Pendennis (1848– 50), he was one of the most celebrated authors of the day, second only to Charles Dickens. Thackeray's fame had been established as a young satirist writing for publications such as Fraser's Magazine and Punch, where his biting satire often poked at England's stuffy upper-crust society. After the success of Vanity Fair, however, he found himself a part of that society, and his later works, including Esmond, are now seen as considerably less successful. It was as if he found it difficult to satirize his newly won social class. Nevertheless, when he arrived in America in 1852, he was a literary giant and his visit was eagerly anticipated.

Among the passengers on their thirteen-day crossing were two literary sorts, Arthur Clough, "the English poet" and James Russell Lowell, "the American poet," as their shipmates called them, in addition to a mix of other English and American travelers. By all accounts, it was a rough crossing, with "the ship plunging like a porpoise." Thackeray and Crowe were greatly troubled with seasickness, and even simple correspondence was frustrated by the rocking ship. Because the vessel pitched so violently, Thackeray complained in a letter to his daughter, "I can't write, and my sentences lurch about and grasp hold of anything to support themselves"; he added, "Poor Eyre has been very puky [sic], he is the worst secretary and the best creature." In the close quarters characteristic of a mid-nineteenth-century ship, the passengers got to know one another well and often talked politics. The Englishman Clough reported that one evening the discussion turned to slavery and a man from Hartford, Connecticut, who took "not the antislavery view" and stated that the North was "quite satisfied," talked at length about the recently passed Fugitive Slave Law. The American poet Lowell and his wife, "fervent abolitionists," vehemently countered his arguments. Such shipboard conversations served as an introduction to a topic that proved omnipresent during their travels.

Thackeray and Crowe disembarked in Boston and soon headed to New York, where they were quickly thrown into the social whirlwind that characterized their time in America. Thackeray was a highly sought-after guest, and they saw more of people than they did of places. The novelist told his daughters, "I go to dinner before the lecture, to parties afterwards, am receiving visitors or writing notes all day, and the pace of London is nothing to the racketing life of New York." The long course of the lectures meant that they remained in each city often for several weeks; in New York they stayed for more than a month.

Thackeray's lectures were biographical sketches of the humorous English writers of the previous century, including Dean Swift, William Congreve, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Henry Fielding, and others. A subscription for the entire series cost three dollars. Before he arrived, the New York Times printed a review of the lectures from the Liverpool papers, which stated: "Mr. Thackeray does not give you a cut and dried memoir of the subjects of his lectures, but dissects them with the sharpest of critical lancets, and puts them before you as they were when they wrote, quarreled, and loved in this earth." As the Times noted, the success of these lectures in Britain had "sharpened the public eagerness to hear him," so that when he finally arrived in New York, the interest in the series was such as to "fill the house to overflowing." As a testament to the author's fame, the lectures were attended "by the celebrities of literature and fashion"; one newspaper said that "if the building were to fall and crush its inmates, the loss would put New York back intellectually half a century." Much to Thackeray's delight, there was enough demand for him to give the complete series a second time, and he commented to his daughters, "It actually rains dollars at New York."

Crowe's experiences during the journey remain somewhat elusive. Whatever journals he kept or letters he wrote are not known to survive. We therefore know about his experiences primarily through Thackeray's letters and the artist's own drawings. Crowe's job, in addition to secretarial duties, was to go to each city before Thackeray arrived and arrange lodging and the logistical details for the lectures. It appears he did this job with varying degrees of efficiency, but the author's affection for him seemed to outweigh any frustrations with Crowe's lack of thoroughness. Thackeray commented in one letter to his daughters, "Eyre is the very greatest comfort to me: I couldn't do without him. He is the kindest, fondest, best-humoured affectionate fellow." Closer to the end of the trip, Thackeray commented to a friend, "[Crowe] has been of the great comfort to me in the journey, and has never once ceased to make puns or to be in a good humour." As a celebrity, Thackeray was invited to numerous grand affairs; Crowe generally accompanied him, and thus they both saw much of America's high society.

Not surprisingly, Thackeray, and Crowe by extension, became a part of the social swirl in every city and were invited to meet everybody who was anybody wherever they went. In Boston there was a particular focus on literary men, such as Washington Irving, George Ticknor, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and in Washington on political men, including New York senators Hamilton Fish and William H. Seward and presidents Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. Philadelphia was characterized by large soirees, "great suppers of men, ninety or a hundred of them." "They are all of the topping people of the city grave, wealthy kind old fogies," the author complained, "and are pleased, Lord how they are pleased!—but I can't get up enthusiasm for 80 gentlemen I never heard of before: and the very hand-shaking & ceremonial of introductions are a sort of acting." The intensity of forced socializing with strangers Thackeray found, at times, quite overwhelming. He told a friend that he was "perfectly drunk with the number of new acquaintances poured into" him, confessing, "I tremble as I walk the streets here lest every man I meet is my friend of last night who will be offended of course if I forget him."

There was general agreement in the published reviews that Thackeray was a competent orator but little more. According to the New York Times, the fascination lay entirely in what he said, not at all in the way he said it. In all the cities, his visit was enthusiastically received; there were largely favorable reviews in the press and huge audiences usually full to overflowing (fig. 1.1). In Charleston, where he originally planned to deliver only half the lectures, he was such a success that he stopped in the city a second time to deliver the second half. There the author drew the "largest audience" he had "ever seen assembled," with "many standing patiently to listen." In Richmond, Thackeray reported that the "pretty little" Atheneum was so crowded that he was sorry he had not rented a room twice its size. Only Savannah did not fulfill his expectations; there the crowds of five hundred to six hundred were not large enough for him to earn much money. While the audiences loved him, Thackeray grew weary of lecturing. As he commented frequently, "I am getting so sick and ashamed of the confounded old lectures that I wonder I have the courage to go on delivering them." He had plans to lecture in other cities—New Orleans, Albany, Montreal, and others—but by April, after six months in the United States, he was so homesick that one day in New York, when he saw a notice for a steamer heading to England, he departed that same day, taking Crowe with him.

Thackeray was not the first literary celebrity to travel in America, and he was well aware of the missteps made by some of his predecessors. Most famously, Dickens had visited nearly ten years previously and had published American Notes for General Circulation (1842) after his return. Dickens was not yet thirty years old at the time of that visit. Riding the extraordinary success of The Pickwick Papers (1836– 37), Oliver Twist (1837– 39), and Nicholas Nickleby (1838– 39), he was celebrated as no other person, native or foreign, had ever been, "with a feeling that was formerly rendered only to emperors and kings."

Despite auspicious beginnings, before long Dickens was castigated by the press. The conflict was initially about Dickens's plea for international copyright protection. British authors earned no royalties from their works sold by American publishers. As the most popular living author, Dickens described himself as "the greatest loser by the existing [American copyright] Law alive." Quickly the press turned on him. What began as a difference of opinion over copyright issues soon blossomed into much more, and his bitter disappointment at the press coverage left him predisposed to dislike virtually everything about America.

Despite an outpouring of affection in every city he visited, Dickens left America disillusioned. He wrote to his friend W. C. Macready after his trip to Richmond, "I am disappointed. This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination. I infinitely prefer a liberal Monarchy ... to such a Government as this." As the letter continues, he criticizes specifically the educational system, the care of poor children, the press, international copyright law, and slavery, the sight of which "pained" him "very much." For Dickens, slavery was particularly incongruous in the land of liberty. He confessed to his friend John Forster that if he were not such a radical, "he would return home a Tory," because "the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty" was going to be "dealt by this country in the failure of its example to the earth."

Like Frances Trollope's Domestic Manners of Americans (1832), Dickens's American Notes portrayed Americans as utterly lacking in culture and refinement. American publishers predicted, "It will ruin Mr. Dickens's personal popularity altogether with us; it is grossly abusive of the country, and he appears to have travelled from one end of it to the other in the worst possible temper, and with a predetermination not to be pleased." Nevertheless, as one publisher said, "No one can fail to be vastly entertained." His critical tone, ill humor, and rather sweeping pronouncements not only angered American readers but were also resoundingly criticized by the British press, resulting in diminished sales.

When Thackeray set off for America a decade later, he was well aware of the potential pitfalls that lay before him. Crowe noted, "The facetiæ perpetrated in the 'American Notes' had damped the enthusiastic ardour of the Yankees," and when Thackeray arrived there was no great reception such as the one that had greeted Dickens. From early in his travels, Thackeray sensed that writing a book was perhaps not the best course. "It seems impudent to write a book," he commented to his daughters, "and mere sketches now are somehow below my rank in the world." In one letter he queried what Dickens could have meant by writing American Notes and was incredulous that Dickens was so critical of America after only a short visit.

Thackeray had no desire to damage his popularity with the American public. He was well aware that nothing he could write or say would ever please everyone. Besides, he was making more money as a lecturer than he would from writing a book. Even though a decade had passed, American publications had not forgotten, or forgiven, the treatment Americans had received from Dickens. They expected that Thackeray would do as his predecessor had done. One predicted, "He'll come and humbug us, eat our dinners, pocket our money, and go home and abuse us, like that unmitigated snob Dickens." Another said, "Like Dickens, he will probably be courted and fawned upon by all.... In return ... as the author of American Notes did before him, [he will] lampoon the character and institutions of the American people who afforded him their hospitality." There was probably good reason to expect a similar treatment. Much of Dickens's dissatisfaction with the United States was due to the lack of international copyright protection. Despite his enormous popularity, he had earned virtually nothing from the sale of his works in America. Ten years later, there still was not an Anglo-American copyright agreement. Thackeray, however, adopted a different model. Rather than lobbying for a change to copyright laws, he befriended American publishers, getting from them courtesy contracts. Something was better than nothing, he decided.

Thackeray enjoyed great popularity in America. Some scholars suggest that his popularity was greater here even than in Britain. In 1851 the Southern Quarterly Review had pronounced him "the greatest delineator of human nature" and "the greatest writer of the present century." He so charmed everyone during his visit that one reviewer commented, after his trip was concluded, that although Thackeray had promised not to write a book about the United States, "We hope he will." This writer felt sure that Thackeray was not the "severe satirist, who concealed scalpels in his sleeves," that they had expected, but instead "a friendly, genial man," one who had "intellectual integrity" and who did not "satirize society with malice." Convinced that the author had "found friends instead of critics," this reviewer at least did not fear the result of Thackeray's pen. Thackeray, however, held firm to this conviction that he should not write a book featuring his observations about America.


Excerpted from SLAVES WAITING FOR SALE by Maurie D. McInnis Copyright © 2011 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Maurie D. McInnis is professor in the McIntire Department of Art and associate dean for the College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia. She is the author of The Politics of Taste in Antebellum Charleston.

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