There is darn little art without political economy. Welcome back to another way of looking at John James Audubon.
In his book, Audubon’s Elephant, detailing the difficulties of getting the double elephant edition of Birds of America published in Britain, Duff Hart-Davis says Audubon’s portfolio weighed a hundred pounds. Hart-Davis doesn’t inform us that when Audubon referred to “servants” in the 1810s, what he meant were slaves. Richard Rhodes in his biography John James Audubon: The Making of an American gives more details. In the slave state of Kentucky, the Audubons bought and sold nine humans between 1813-1819, investing at least $10,500. Previously, Audubon’s father Jean had worked many slaves on Saint Domingue before the Haitian revolution; that’s what allowed him to invest in the Pennsylvania farm property (which included a lead mine) that JJA was supposed to manage when he came to America at the age of 18 in 1803. (His father also wanted him out of the way of Napoleon’s recruiters.)
After the Panic of 1819, which financially crushed the Audubons and just about everyone else in the West (then the Ohio and Mississippi valleys), the family sold off the last of their slaves to pay their debts. Two, who had paddled Audubon down the Mississippi, were sold in New Orleans, the deepest of the Deep South, where the plantation economy was notorious for its brutality.
Wiped out and demoralized by the Panic, the nation’s first economic nose-dive (sparked by the bill coming due for the Louisiana Purchase), Audubon decided to turn to art rather than commerce. (But of course art was commerce, as it has always been in some form or another, as he knew or learned the hard way.)
The national image of slavery remains one of large plantations, all that Gone With the Wind garbage. Whitney’s cotton gin (1793) had radically transformed the cotton industry; production doubled each decade after 1800. The plantation economy, rather than the domestic labor economy, began to overwhelmingly dominate the slave market. That market was constricted because the importation of slaves had been outlawed in 1808, although an illegal trade continued. It was the internal trade in humans that boomed, seeing a large population transfer from the Upper to the Deep South. In the decade before the Civil War, Kentucky was one of the biggest exporters of slaves to the plantations.
Slavery touched everything. It was near universal at the birth of America, accepting those who could not afford a human (and, initially, those few who opposed to it on principle). Middle class folk, like the Audubons before the bust, had a middle class life because of slaves. While Audubon was away in Scotland and England producing and selling Birds of America, his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon was teaching the daughters of slaveholders in Louisiana. The Rathbone family, who welcomed Audubon to Liverpool so generously when others shied away from the long-haired frontiersman, had made their fortune in the cotton trade, although by then they were abolitionists.
In the Audubons’ time in Henderson, Kentucky, a quarter of the state’s population was enslaved. The western frontier was made by slaves just as much as the South was. So, of course, was Brooklyn: almost a third of Kings Co.’s population was enslaved at the time of the Constitution; although full emancipation came in 1827, some slaves were illegally kept until the early 1840s in out of the way corners of the county.
It’s marching season. Tomorrow is the People’s Climate March in DC and elsewhere.