Truths and Lies about America’s Domestic Slave Trade

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The truth is rarely told about the domestic slave trade in the United States, and the way slavery is often taught in American classrooms suffers for it.

White slaveholders and slave traders forced the migration of more than one million enslaved people across state lines in the sixty years before the Civil War. Most were trafficked from upper South states with declining tobacco economies, such as Maryland and Virginia, to lower South states with thriving sugar and cotton economies, such as Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. Perhaps twice as many enslaved people—over two million in total—were bought and sold within the boundaries of individual states.

As I demonstrate in my recent book, The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, the slave trade was no sideshow in American life. When taken all together, an enslaved person was sold somewhere in the United States every 3.5 minutes for decades. Slave traders operated openly in cities and towns throughout the slave states, and many were wealthy and respected members of business communities. Advertisements from traders looking to purchase enslaved people, and from sheriffs and auctioneers making sales, appeared regularly in American newspapers. Travelers routinely reported seeing caravans of enchained enslaved people, known as coffles, on American roads and byways. The trade in enslaved people thrived in the United States for a long time, and it did so largely because the collective asset value of enslaved people was enormous, amounting in 1860 to more than Americans had invested in railroads, banks, and manufacturing put together.

But when American slavery is taught as something that could be seen mostly on plantations and farms, and as a practice hopelessly out of step with the trajectory of American economic development in the nineteenth century, we miss the dynamism and the movement of slavery over time. We miss the ways many white Americans understood the commerce in enslaved people as a regular part of life in the United States and as compatible with and vital to American economic power and growth. Perhaps most important, we miss how deeply the slave trade shaped the lived experiences of enslaved people themselves, for whom the slave trade and slave traders were threats hovering at all times, and for whom the prospect of forced migration was a source of ongoing psychological terror.

This is difficult history to teach. It demands that we convey to students how profoundly slavery was interwoven into American life before the Civil War, and it makes the coming of that war far more complicated than a morality tale of an antislavery North and a proslavery South. It calls for grappling with a past in which Americans profited by separating husbands and wives and parents and children, did so entirely within the bounds of the law, and suffered no immediate consequences for it.

For all of its challenges, however, this is history that has the virtue of being honest. Moreover, it is history that presents opportunities for showing how extensively enslaved people preserved their humanity, and how they fought and survived slavery. Because for all of its undeniable horrors, the story of the slave trade is not only a story of oppression and exploitation, or of men and women and children put on the auction block and sold in showrooms. It is also the story of how they fled the places where they were sold and made daring efforts to return to the families and communities from which they were taken. It is also the story of how they rebelled aboard ships taking them to New Orleans, picked the locks of handcuffs that bound them in coffles, and broke out of slave jails. It is the story of how they tried to shape the conditions of their sales to make the best possible situations for themselves when escape proved impossible, and how they tried to get word to friends and relatives left behind to let them know they were still alive and how they would do everything in their power to survive and see them again.

It would be an oversimplification, and arguably naïve, to see the core lesson of the history of the domestic slave trade as one of empowerment. But it is a way to understand why slavery seemed so intractable in the United States, and how those who bore its heaviest burdens refused to let its injustice define who they would be.