Slavery was abolished in America at the end of the Civil War, with the 13th amendment to the Constitution:
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
The amendment passed Congress in January of 1865 and after much debate it finally passed the Senate in December of that year. As has been pointed out by many, it has a loophole: slavery as a punishment for crime. The American prison system houses a disproportionately large number of African Americans and it exploits inmates to this day by forcing them to do unpaid labor, or by paying them so little — ten cents an hour — that it might as well be nothing.
The roads of history can be long and winding, but the places and people they connect never fail to surprise.
From the beginning of the United States, from even before the Constitutional Convention in 1789 (where the Constitution was written) there was friction between the slave-breeding states Virginia and — to a smaller degree — Maryland on one side, and the African-slave-importing South Carolina and — to a smaller degree — Georgia on the other. Eventually the slave-breeding states won.
WTF! you say? Slave-breeding states? Yes, I’m sorry to have to put it like that, but for the South slavery was a business, the main business, from the beginning of the British colonies to the end of the Civil War in 1865. To try to put it more delicately would be to obfuscate matters. It was what it was. People were used for unpaid labor, they were used as currency, as debt collateral, as investment, as a means to acquire free land, as political clout — both on the individual and on the state level, they were used for medical experiments, they were sex slaves and they were bodies designated for the creation of more slaves. It was horrible, disgusting, America’s original and most vile, most capitalist sin.
In future posts I will be going into each of these different ways that people were exploited as slaves, relying heavily on Ned and Constance Sublette’s incredibly comprehensive tome The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave-Breeding Industry, but today I want to focus on just a few aspects.
Yes, Virginia was a slave state, but it didn’t become a true slave-breeding state until the import of African slaves was prohibited, officially in 1808, but in reality earlier in most places due to fear of bloody uprisings like the one in Saint Domingue (now Haiti) that started in 1791 and resulted in a free and independent Haiti in 1804. Before it became the sole provider of slaves for the rest of America — along with Maryland to a lesser degree — Virginia already grew tobacco, which was a relatively easy crop and seasonal, so slaves didn’t die in large numbers from the work, and in the off-season there were plenty of other tasks to be done; thus Virginia diversified somewhat compared to the deep South.
The Deep Southern states grew sugar cane, rice and cotton, which were brutal crops.
Sugar cane because it was seasonal and dangerous — the cane was harvested with large knives but no protective gear, there were lots of snakes, and the processing involved large fires and hot liquid in small, often wooden buildings. Most importantly, the planters figured that it was cheaper to work a few slaves to death during the sugar season and buy new ones the next season than to have to treat them well enough that they survived and had to be fed and clothed and housed during the off-season, when there wasn’t much else for them to do since the Deep Southern plantations weren’t diversified.
Rice was brutal because it grew in water, which bred mosquitos, leading to mosquito-born illnesses, and it required large numbers of slaves, who were housed in the smallest possible spaces, so epidemics were common.
Cotton was brutal because it hurt to pick cotton from the hard and prickly bolls, the bags got heavy — around 200 pounds at the end of the day — and slaves were whipped in the field if they accidentally broke a twig, because a boll on a broken twig will not bloom during the next season.
Of course, on any plantation, the overseers were savage goons; the job description didn’t exactly attract amicable types. The overseers on cotton plantations, for instance, had quotas, and anyone who didn’t meet the quota at the end of the day, when the cotton was weighed, was usually whipped. And the quotas kept going up…
Also, fear of uprisings led planters to work their slaves harder than necessary just to keep them exhausted. So, even though more efficient agricultural equipment was being invented all the time — the Industrial Revolution was full on, after all — planters preferred to have their slaves do everything manually.
Anyway, long story short: the Deep South had a negative slave population growth due to the circumstances the slaves had to endure, while the Upper South, especially Virginia, had a positive slave population growth, which meant they were perfectly positioned to develop slave breeding as a profitable business. And that they did. From 1810 — just after the door permanently closed on the African slave trade, predominantly to Charleston, South Carolina — to 1860, almost 450,000 people were sold from Virginia into the Deep South.
More on the breeding side of things in a later post, though.
Slave trading had been a business since the beginning; interstate traders either bought slaves from Virginia and sold them further south or bought them from South Carolina, where they arrived in Charleston from Africa, and then sold them further west. At times more slaves would be bought in Charleston and at others in Virginia, depending on various circumstances. One of them was that South Carolina would import more or less slaves from Africa, depending on the availability and the demand, much like the Saudis do nowadays with oil, which would infuriate the Virginians. Once the African trade was prohibited, Virginia and Maryland were the exclusive sources for slaves for the rest of the South.
At first the interstate slave trade was a one-man business, with a few assistants to keep the slaves in line en route. Literally. Over land slaves were walked in coffles, or chain gangs — groups of slaves chained together. Pretty soon the slave trade from Virginia and Maryland to the Deep South expanded and became concentrated in a few cities. Alexandria, Virginia was perfectly situated on the Potomac, across from Washington DC and close to Maryland. Richmond also became a major collection point for slaves bred locally in Virginia and for coffles to Natchez, Mississippi. Baltimore, Maryland had its port and ship building industry, which made it the obvious collection point for shipping slaves down around Florida to the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans. And it had packet boats — boats with regular schedules (once every two months) — which could be relied on for timely delivery down south.
Slave traders grew their businesses and took on agents on the buying end, in the slave-breeding states. At first they would stay at an inn; later they would establish offices. They placed advertisements in the local papers announcing they were interested in buying slaves. The inns at first obligingly reserved special rooms to keep the slaves, and soon small, secure sheds, until eventually someone would build a slave jail, also called a slave pen — for profit, of course. So the inn keeper, the jailor and the town (through fees and taxes) all made money from the slave trade. The agents would scour the countryside of Virginia, Maryland and Kentucky for slaves for sale and bring them to their collection points. When they had enough for a coffle, they would walk them to a slave jail in Richmond or Baltimore, where they would stay, sometimes up to four months, until the agent had acquired enough slaves for a boatload or an overland coffle.
From 1828 to 1837 the biggest slave traders in US history, Franklin and Armfield, did their business out of Alexandria and Baltimore. Isaac Franklin (1789 – 1846) was a big-picture guy; he orchestrated the logistics and the banking side of the business from Tennessee.
In the summers Franklin and Armfield took overland coffles from Richmond down to Natchez, Mississippi, sometimes counting as many as three hundred slaves, the biggest on record. It was a long, hot trip, two to four months, and more than a thousand miles — the men sometimes with iron shackles around their waists, their hands cuffed behind their backs, other times with their wrists linked to one another, most if not all barefoot, the women and children following behind, sometimes linked with rope. Each night any of the women could expect to be taken to the woods by the trader or his overseers to be raped. Here and there along the way, on stretches where towns were non-existent, “stands” sprung up, kind of like truck stops, but for traders and their coffles — another business that flourished thanks to the slave traders. This article gives a good idea of these hellacious experiences.
On the shipping side of things in Baltimore, Franklin and Armfield set up their own packet lines, custom-built the boats for slave transport and ran them more often — every two weeks instead of every two months. They also transported slaves for other traders, who thus subsidized their shipping costs. The boats were sail-steam hybrids; sail for the sea and steam for up the Mississippi. All this made their business faster, with slaves spending less time languishing in jails and on boats on the smallest rations possible, so less slaves arrived at their destination dead.
Isaac Franklin ran the business on a national scale like it had never been done before; it was in every way a modern business.
A note on the slaves who didn’t make it to their destinations: the slave traders were hated by the locals in their ports of call. Aha, finally some morality! you think? No. The traders were a nuisance because they would throw their dead in the marshes rather than spend money to have them buried and the stink was overpowering throughout the town. Often the townspeople didn’t dare drink the water anymore. In 1833 Isaac Franklin dumped the bodies of several slaves who had died from cholera in a bayou in Natchez. It caused a panic and as a result several towns issued an ordinance banning long-distance traders from selling their slaves within the city limits.
Once in Natchez, or Louisville, Kentucky, Franklin would take the slaves that he hadn’t sold yet the rest of the way by steamboat down to New Orleans. Louisiana had a law that children under ten were not to be separated from their mothers. In 1929 Franklin arrived in New Orleans with a group of 110 slaves, many of them children, and of the children a suspiciously high number were aged ten. So most of them were probably younger, but it’s not like anyone could prove their age, or was actually interested, other than the children and their mothers, of course, but their opinion on the matter was irrelevant.
Having arrived in the Deep South, Franklin and other traders advertised their slaves as “Virginia negroes” or “Virginia and Maryland negroes”. It was kind of a brand, indicating relative docility and good health compared to slaves whose backs were a road map of lash scars, which indicated that they had worked on a Southern plantation and were therefore already not in the best of health anymore, and that they might be prone to insubordination.
Along the way, the traders pimped out their female slaves or kept them for their personal pleasure. Slave traders were notorious for having multiple sex slaves. In letters to another business partner, Isaac Franklin regularly mentioned “fancy girls” — very young girls, lighter-skinned, doomed to a life of sheer hell, who were usually “broken in” by the traders on the way to their destinations — and at one time he brainstormed about having two of their older female slaves run a brothel, either in New Orleans, Baltimore or Alexandria, for the benefit of the company and its clients.
So, all in all it’s not surprising that slave traders were looked down upon by polite society, even while polite society prospered in large part thanks to their services. Franklin became filthy rich but that meant nothing since he was a slave trader. So in 1830 he bought two thousand acres outside of Gallatin, Tennessee, his hometown, and began building his estate Fairvue. Or rather, his slaves built it. No expenses spared; he even built brick slave houses! When it was finished in 1832, people said his place was even grander than General Andrew Jackson’s! In 1835 Isaac Franklin left the slave business. Well, he stopped personally driving coffles, anyway.
Instead of a slave trader who raped young girls and dumped corpses into the bayous, he now presented himself as a respectable, slave-owning gentleman. He still dealt in slaves, but now in the rich planters’ way. Slaves were collateral for mortgages and Franklin became a predatory lender. He acquired tens of thousands of acres of land this way, including three existing plantations and quite some undeveloped land in Louisiana. He started spending his winters there and built up the plantations, bought more slaves and started developing the new land as a fourth plantation, which he called Angola.
Franklin died in 1846 on one of his Louisiana plantations, probably of cholera. He was the richest man in Tennessee and probably in the whole South. At the time of his death his estate was worth at least $750,000, which would be around $24 billion in today’s money.
His Tennessee plantation Fairvue is still a residence. In 1977 it became a National Historic Landmark, but in 2005 the National Parks Service withdrew the designation. It’s surrounded by an expensive subdivision with a golf course, club house, the works. Franklin had planned to give each of his three daughters one of his Louisiana plantations, but none of them lived to adulthood. He had a child by a slave woman, but it’s unknown what became of him or her (sources conflict as to gender).
The plantations eventually went to the state of Louisiana, which ran them with convict labor during the last part of the 19th century, and since 1901 officially as a state penitentiary, an agricultural prison still called Angola. Nowadays it has around 6300 inmates, almost 75% of whom are black, and about 72% of whom are in for life without the possibility of parole. It’s a plantation run by convict labor, also known as slave labor. Among other work, the inmates pick cotton, by hand.
- The American Slave Coast : A History of the Slave-breeding Industry / Ned and Constance Sublette
- Angola for Life / Jeffrey Goldberg. – The Atlantic, september 21, 2015.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7ABpWhY5Xzk
- Isaac Franklin Plantation / National Landmarks Program. – National Parks Service, 10-4-2014. https://www.nps.gov/nhl/find/withdrawn/franklin.htm
- Isaac Franklin’s Money Had a Major Influence on Modern-Day Nashville / Betsy Phillips. – Nashville Scene, May 2005. https://www.nashvillescene.com/news/pith-in-the-wind/article/13059116/
- Retracing Slavery’s Trail of Tears / Edward Ball. – Smithsonian Magazine, November 2015. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/slavery-trail-of-tears-180956968/