A Cruel Business
Alabama author examines America’s domestic slave trade
Solomon Crenshaw Jr.
Joshua Rothman spent years researching his latest book, The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America. And he came away from that research in conflict with a popular theory: that slave traders did not think of enslaved people as people.
“I actually don’t think that’s true,” he says while sitting on the front porch of his Forest Park home in Birmingham. “The real horror of the slave trade, to me, is that the enslavers knew these people were people—but they just didn’t care. That, to me, is the hardest thing for us to get our heads around.”
In his acclaimed book, The Ledger and the Chain, Joshua Rothman reveals the horrifying story of America’s domestic slave trade and its role in the making of the country.
Although enslavers understood that legally enslaved people could be treated as property, he says, what made the slave holder and the slave trade especially awful and insidious was that slave holders knew enslaved people were human beings.
That is what made the enslaved valuable. They could be trusted to do things that a farm animal couldn’t be trusted to do. They were valuable because they were human, and everybody knew it, he says.
Rothman, who is chair of the Department of History at the University of Alabama, went into this book in an effort to get into the mindset of slave traders, trying to understand how they could do the things they did. But he still doesn’t entirely understand how people could treat other humans so inhumanely.
The real horror of the slave trade, to me, is that the enslavers knew these people were people—but they just didn’t care.
“I understand in the abstract that people do awful things to people,” he says. “All of human history tells us that. But I don’t get how you could be a slave trader and see the looks in people’s faces and understand how they see, how they feel when you’re selling them, when you’re tearing their families apart and just not care. I don’t get that.”
In his book, Rothman tells the story of the domestic slave trade in the United States by focusing on three men – Isaac Franklin, John Armfield and Rice Ballard – who became major players in the business. References to this trilogy typically list them in the same order.
Their company operated under the name Franklin and Armfield. Ballard, who joined the operation a few years after it opened, was a full partner in the business, Rothman says, but Franklin and Armfield had a personal relationship that was much deeper than either had with Ballard.
“Franklin is clearly, really the guy in charge,” Rothman says. “If you’re going to pick one of those three who really knows the business better than the other two, it’s going to be Franklin. He’s been in it for much longer. He’s the money guy. That’s why I always talk about them in that order.”
Sex trafficking is, in part, literally ‘Let’s sell people who can make babies.’
And for slave traders, it was all about business. The book tells of enslaved persons called “fancies,” as though a potential slaveholder might take a fancy to a particular female slave.
“Part of the business is sex trafficking,” Rothman says. “Given how important slaveholders saw the reproduction of enslaved people—the reproductive lives of Black women—as being central to slavery, arguably sex trafficking … that’s always part of the business.”
“Sex trafficking is, in part, literally ‘Let’s sell people who can make babies,’” says Rothman. “But it’s also sex trafficking in terms of sex for pleasure and sexual exploitation and rape, basically. That’s what they’re selling.”
Front of “slave pen,” Alexandria, Virginia, showing a Union army guard and other men in front of a building previously owned by the slave-trading firm Franklin and Armfield. The Union army used the former slave jail to house Confederate prisoners. (Courtesy of The Library of Congress).
Vile Words and Deeds
In the book, Rothman uses terms such as “inventory,” “merchandise,” and “cargo,” because that’s how slave traders saw the people they bought and sold.
“I try to make clear in the book that this is how they’re thinking about it, but it infects the way that we talk about it,” says Rothman. “It’s inevitable that it’s going to do that. It’s one of the ways in which I think we still grapple with the slave trade and how to talk about it.
“It’s hard to do that without using the same language that they would have used, the same mindset that they would have used then,” he says. “Whenever I speak to groups about this, I always find myself stumbling over those words because I don’t know how to not use them; it’s the only way to get the point across.
A view of the slave establishment of Franklin & Armfield in Alexandria, Virginia. This is part of a broadside condemning the sale and keeping of slaves in the District of Columbia, issued during the 1835-36 petition campaign waged by abolitionists. (Courtesy of The Library of Congress).
“But it makes me really, really uncomfortable to say it out loud.”
The author says he likes to think that people in the modern world understand the evils of the slave trade and the “awfulness” of referring to people as property.
One of the most uncomfortable scenes in the book is when Franklin is faced with a dilemma after several slaves die of cholera. Franklin buries several of the victims, but ultimately decides that it is “just too much of a hassle.”
So, under the cover of night, he dumps the rest of the victims into a ravine and shovels a little dirt on top. His deed eventually comes to light when spring rains washes away the soil, revealing the bodies of a teenage girl, a woman, and an infant.
Slave traders were important players in helping money circulate in the United States.
“He just didn’t want to deal with it anymore, and he knew that if word started getting out that a lot of people in his slave pen were dying, that could cost him business, even for people who were alive,” Rothman says. “He could easily imagine potential customers who would say, ‘I want to go out and buy some people, but I’ve heard they’re really sick at Franklin’s place. So I’m not going to buy from him.’”
The author writes that a man concerned about the dignity of the enslaved might have arranged for proper burials.
“Isaac Franklin,” he writes, “was not that man.”
The domestic slave trade of which Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard were a part grew greatly after January 1, 1808. On that date, a new federal law made it illegal to import captive people from Africa into the United States, marking the permanent and legal end of the trans-Atlantic slave trade into the United States.
Opinions on the new law varied. Some said slavery was slavery, but others argued that there was a difference.
Isaac Franklin, along with John Armfield and Rice Ballard, built the largest and most powerful slave-trading operation in American history (Courtesy of the Belmont Mansion Association.)
John Armfield played a key role in the dehumanizing domestic slave trade, which sent tens of thousands of enslaved African Americans from the upper South to the cotton and sugar fields of the lower South. (Courtesy of the University of Alabama Special Collections.)
“There were a lot of white Americans who persuaded themselves that the trans-Atlantic slave trade was wrong because you were taking people who were free and putting them into slavery, whereas people in the United States were already enslaved,” Rothman says. “Even if they had mixed feelings about slavery, they could tell themselves that there’s some moral difference there between the two.”
Rothman says few people, certainly before the American Revolution and even before the end of the trans-Atlantic trade, made their living as slave traders. It was not the kind of business people went into and stayed for a long time.
Cotton and Chains
“The real thing that makes slavery boom, of course, is the cotton economy,” Rothman says. “You get a cotton economy that starts to grow in the 1790s and then takes off after the end of the War of 1812 through the 1840s.
“By the time it’s really taking off, you couldn’t legally get people from Africa anymore,” Rothman says. “The only place you could get people legally was within the United States. That created a huge demand and a huge incentive for the forced migration of people within the United States and, obviously, a financial incentive for slave traders to serve this new market.”
Forced migration typically involved a coffle system, where lines of slaves were fastened or driven along together.
Forced migration typically involved a coffle system, where lines of slaves were fastened or driven along together.
“It means caravan,” says Rothman. “That’s how we imagine it happening. People (were) put in handcuffs and ankle cuffs, chained in line, either by chain or a rope, and sort of force-marched. That is the most common way slave traders moved people.”
Sometimes slaves were in groups as small as five or 10. Sometimes the groups were as large as 200. More typically, 25 to 50 people were moved at a time.
“They would be walked every day, sometimes within individual states, but there were forced marches that would go from Northern Virginia down to Mississippi,” Rothman says. “That’s 1,100 miles, and people would be force-marched as much as 15, 20 miles a day, every day, for two or three months.”
Slaves might also be put below deck on a schooner, or a brig, and sailed along the Atlantic coast. Eventually, the railroad also became an option.
People would be force-marched as much as 15, 20 miles a day, every day, for two or three months.
The Stamp of Slavery
In his book, Rothman argues that domestic slave traders helped shape the development of the United States before the Civil War.
As the cotton economy grew, it couldn’t expand as quickly or economically as it did without slave labor and slave traders, he says.
“Yes, there were slaveholders who brought people themselves, who traveled to places and bought enslaved people and then brought them back. But the reality is that there was a market there that slave traders serviced. Without that service, the way slavery functioned, it couldn’t have worked the same way,” he says.
And the impact goes deeper. Because the slave trade was a business, slave traders were important players in helping money circulate in the United States.
Slave traders had relationships with banks, and shipping companies, and insurance companies, and politicians and judges.
“Slave traders had relationships with banks, and shipping companies, and insurance companies, and politicians and judges,” the author says.
“All of that was part of a larger financial system and a larger legal and political infrastructure that’s fundamental to what made the country operate in the era of slavery.”
As slave traders grew richer, Rothman says their industry had a devastating emotional impact on enslaved people and their descendants.
“At the time of the Civil War, there were four million enslaved people in the United States,” he says. “That was a little more than 10 percent of the population; it’s about a third of the population in the slave states. Every single one of those people lived in fear of being bought and sold all the time.”
Rothman says in places of the upper South, where most people were being taken and trafficked, the statistics show half of slave marriages were broken up. One in three young people were sold away at some point in their lives.
“The impact of the slave trade on enslaved people’s lives was enormous,” he says. “Part of shaping the country was shaping millions of people’s lives, and slave traders did that.”
All of that financial value that spun off of them… that has never returned. It’s just extracted.
A Legacy of Lost Wealth
The financial and economic impacts of the slave trade continue to this day, with African Americans having lost the chance over 200 years to grow generational wealth.
“Enslaved people … obviously their labor value is entirely taken from them for generations and never given back when slavery ends,” says Rothman, noting that enslaved people could be bought, sold, mortgaged, or used to underwrite stocks and bonds at banks.
“All of that financial value that spun off of them… that has never returned,” he says. “It’s just extracted. We still see the legacy of that loss today. All you have to do is look at (the difference in) household wealth between white and Black families. It’s enormous. There’s a huge wealth gap there. That isn’t solely attributable to the slave trade or to slavery, but it ultimately has its roots there.”