Books

Slave Traders Knew Exactly What They Were Doing

A new history of three 19th-century human traffickers explodes all the old excuses.

"Franklin & Armfield's Slave Prison."
Library of Congress

Why would someone ever get into the business of selling other human beings? That’s the dark question that drove historian Joshua Rothman to write The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, his tremendous new book about the lives of 19th-century businessmen Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard. “The observation that Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard lived in a nation that sanctioned and rewarded the market exchange of people as property is true,” Rothman begins. “But it is inadequate.” From there, the history intertwines a careful biography of a very successful business with unflinching attention to the monstrosity that business was built upon.

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The Ledger and the Chain tells the story of how these three men profited from the United States’ decision to outlaw the foreign slave trade, in 1808. The change, of course, did not put an end to slavery inside the United States, and because the slaveholding states of the Upper South were finding that their land was increasingly difficult to work after decades of tobacco cultivation, they profited by selling people further South, where cotton and sugar production was booming.

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Rothman documents how Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard, canny operators to the end, jumped into the breach and made the most of the expanding domestic slave trade. They figured out how to build what Rothman calls “an enormous operation still nimble enough to adjust to abrupt market shifts,” swooping up smaller traders and incorporating them into their company. They analyzed political shifts and worked skillfully around Southern states’ occasional half-hearted efforts to regulate the domestic trade. They steered their way through disruptions to the market due to events like Nat Turner’s uprising in Virginia in the summer of 1831, a global cholera epidemic in 1832–33, and the Panic of 1837. They signaled their status as serious businessmen by purchasing and renovating urban facilities that combined beautiful private residences with large jails for penning up people to be sold. And they were the first slave-trading company in America to buy and outfit their own ships to take captives from the Upper South to markets in Louisiana and Mississippi, a big initial expense that allowed them to cut out middlemen and increase their profits.

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The Ledger and the Chain intertwines this business history with a group biography of a trio of everyday monsters. Rothman’s book never strays far from the fact that this big business was built on forced removal, a process that entailed, for the people being trafficked, a tremendous amount of pain: “The uprooting of the familiar, the heartache of loss, the stress of isolation, the darkness of a ship’s hold, the fear of the unknown, the threats of intimidating men, the violence of fists and feet and whips, the humiliation of being ogled and inspected and groped …” How, Rothman wonders, did capitalist entrepreneurs profiting from slavery perceive all of this trauma? Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard, at least, viewed it as “manageable,” and “well worth it.” They cared about enslaved people’s pain, and the way some other white people judged them for causing it, “only insofar as those things made their jobs more challenging and their profits more difficult to attain.”

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In fact, Rothman suggests, the three men at the heart of the book may have seen the terror of the trafficked as a feature, not a bug—something they actually liked about their occupations. “Their professional dominance came in part from their command of the intimate daily savageries of the slave trade,” Rothman writes. “The exhilarating thrill of acting with impunity animated them, feeding a roguish swagger and bold ambitions.”

This dynamic is most visible in the traders’ letters discussing teenage girls who were sold as sex slaves. In trading these young women, identifiable in documentation by their much-higher-than-usual prices (and, sometimes, by the traders’ explicit discussion of their likelihood to sell for those purposes), Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard prided themselves on their ability to know what buyers might want—their success “speculating on the erotic desires of slaveholders.” They also raped such women, themselves; Rothman found many ribald references to those activities in their own correspondence, interspersed with discussions of everyday business matters.

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The Ledger and the Chain disproves a commonly held 19th-century myth about slave traders: that the more genteel people of the South saw them as disreputable and wouldn’t socialize with them, outside of conducting some supposedly regrettable, but necessary, business. This was an idea white Southerners often advanced when in conversation with Northern visitors inquiring about the slave trade. “Displacing responsibility for slavery’s degrading viciousness was a way for slaveholders to extract themselves from the transactional element of merchandizing human beings,” Rothman writes. “It was a denial of the fact that at some point or another, every slaveholder would effectively be a slave trader.”

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But while elite Southerners may actually have disdained small-fry traders, they didn’t have the same issue with the wealthy threesome of Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard. As the men got older and richer, they married much younger women of high status: classic Southern belles. They became directors of banks, elected officers in militias, delegates to the state Democratic convention. When an enslaved man, condemned to hang for murder, gave a salacious interview to a newspaper, alleging that he had worked for Isaac Franklin and witnessed him cheating and swindling customers, a different paper ran an entire column “refuting the calumnies” of the man’s account. The refutation included a quote from former President Andrew Jackson, who said that Franklin “had always sustained the character of an honest and high-minded man.”

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Rothman’s previous book, Flush Times and Fever Dreams: A Story of Capitalism and Slavery in the Age of Jackson, about a rash of extralegal violence in Mississippi in 1835, had some of the same concerns of The Ledger and the Chain: How did white Southerners live with the fact that their culture rested on such brutal foundations? Flush Times, which was one of my favorite sources for Slate’s History of American Slavery podcast, showed how enslavement was part of a broader economy of speculation and exploitation, and how economic instability had the tendency to bring the brutality of the system to the surface. (Rothman appeared as a guest on Episode 5 of that show.)

The Ledger and the Chain distills these crucial questions to their core. This is a story about three men who made that brutality their business, and lived very prosperous lives built on a foundation of exploitation. What more can one say, after looking this history in the face? Rothman, after years of looking at their letters and documents, throws up his hands. “They understood that Black people were human beings,” the historian concludes. “They just did not care.”

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Over the course of my career at Slate, I’ve worked on a few Slate Plus podcasts on heavy historical topics: the history of American slavery, Reconstruction, and the history of fascism. The deep research I did while putting together those projects still serves me, years later, while writing historical pieces for Slate. Thanks very much for supporting this kind of work! —Rebecca Onion, staff writer