TEXT

The House That Jeff Built

This 1863 political cartoon by David Claypool Johnston modifies a popular nursery rhyme (“This Is the House that Jack Built”) to condemn the institution of slavery and the secessionist leaders of the South, particularly Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.
Author
David Claypoole Johnston
Grade Level

This text is part of the Teaching Hard History Text Library and aligns with Key Concept 7.

 

12 vignettes with verse

This is the House that Jeff built.  

This is the cotton,        by rebels call’d king, 

(Tho’ call’d by loyalists no such thing)  

That lay in the house that Jeff built. 

These are field-chattels that made cotton king, 

(Tho’ call’d by loyalists no such thing)  

That lay in the house that Jeff built. 

These are the chattels, babes, mothers, and men, 

To be sold by the head, in the slave pen__ 

A part of the house that Jeff built. 

This is the thing by some call’d a man, 

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can. 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span,  

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

These are the shackles, for slaves who suppose 

Their limbs are their own, from fingers to toes; 

And are prone to believe, say all that you can, 

That they shouldn’t be sold by that thing call’d a man; 

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can, 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span, 

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

These buy the slaves, both male and female, 

And sell their own souls to a boss with a tail 

Who owns the small soul of that thing call’d a man;  

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can, 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span, 

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

Here the slave breeder parts with his own flesh 

To a trader down south, in the heart of the secesh. 

Thus trader and breeder secure without fail 

The lasting attachment of him with a tail, 

Who owns the small soul of that thing call’d a man;  

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can, 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span, 

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

This is the scourge, by some call’d the cat; 

Stout in the handle, and nine tails to that  

’Tis joyous to think that the time’s drawing near  

When the cat will no longer cause chattels to fear, 

Nor the going, going, gone of that thing call’d a man, 

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span 

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

Here the slave driver in transport applies, 

Nine tails to his victim, nor heeds her shrill cries. 

Alas that a driver with nine tails his own; 

Should be slave to a driver who owns only one:  

Albeit he owns that thing call’d a man, 

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can, 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span 

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

Here’s the arch rebel Jeff whose infamous course 

Has bro’t rest to the pillow, and made active the hearse; 

And invoked on his head every patriots curse, 

Spread ruin, and famine, to stock the slave pen, 

And furnish employment to that thing among men 

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can, 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span 

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

But Jeff’s infamous house is doom’d to come down. 

So says uncle Sam, and so said John Brown.__ 

With slave pen, and auction, shackles, driver, and cat, 

Together with seller, and buyer, and breeder, and that 

Most loathsome of bipeds by some call’d a man, 

Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can, 

From yearlings to adults of life’s longest span 

In and out of the house that Jeff built. 

Source
This text is in the public domain. Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/item/2008661652/.
Text Dependent Questions
  1. Question
    What is the “house” that Jefferson Davis built? What does it symbolize?
    Answer
    The house is a pen holding enslaved people, representing the institution of slavery.
  2. Question
    Who are the “rebels”? What do they think of cotton?
    Answer
    The rebels are Southerners who seceded from the Union. They refer to cotton as “king,” indicating that they consider it extremely important—as a source of economic wealth and political power.
  3. Question
    Who is responsible for the extraordinary value of cotton?
    Answer
    “Field-chattels,” or enslaved black people who were ruthlessly exploited in the cotton fields, are responsible for its extraordinary value.
  4. Question
    Who are the chattels and what happens to them?
    Answer
    The chattels are enslaved human beings—infants, children, women and men—who were owned by others as private property. Family members were often separated during auctions when enslaved people were sold on an individual basis.
  5. Question
    The artist refers to the person “whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can” as a “thing” as well as the “most loathsome of bipeds” that some might call a man. Based on this description, what can you infer about the artist’s understanding of the slave trade and the individuals who engage in it? What is significant about his word choice?
    Answer
    Johnston clearly disapproves of the slave trade and is critical of individuals who sell and buy enslaved people, portraying them as quasi- or subhuman. Opponents of slavery frequently challenged the dehumanization of enslaved persons by arguing that they were people, not things (as they were commonly depicted). By suggesting that it is the enslavers rather than the enslaved who are less than human, Johnston subverts proslavery ideology used to justify the institution on ostensibly natural or scientific grounds that are actually racist. Johnston is arguing that slavery is inhumane and that it is not those who are brutalized by the system of slavery, but rather the enslavers and others directly involved in reproducing and benefitting from human bondage, who are truly inhuman.
  6. Question
    According to the text, what is the purpose of shackles?
    Answer
    The purpose of shackles is to prevent and punish resistance by enslaved people.
  7. Question
    A cat with nine tails is a euphemism for what?
    Answer
    It is a euphemism for a whip.
  8. Question
    The artist suggests that Confederate President Jefferson Davis—representative of the enslavers’ secession and rebellion—is responsible for what?
    Answer
    He is responsible for death (“made active the hearse”) and destruction (“spread ruin, and famine”).
  9. Question
    For what purpose did Davis take his “infamous course”?
    Answer
    He took his course to perpetuate slavery (“to stock the slave pen, / And furnish employment to that thing among men / Whose trade is to sell all the chattels he can”).
Reveal Answers
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