- A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade
From the works of Harriet Beecher Stowe to J. T. Randolph, slave traders stalked the pages of antebellum fiction and antislavery literature. Yet of the many facets of slavery that scholars have examined in the past three decades, the one topic that has been consistently understudied has been the internal slave trade. Compared with other subjects deemed worthy of monographs—from slave religiosity to rebelliousness to family structure—the internal traffic in humans of the early to mid-nineteenth century has been curiously ignored. The few exceptions include Michael Tadman's Speculators and Slaves (1989), a study of how the trade functioned in the border South, and Walter Johnson's Soul by Soul (1999), which follows the commerce into the markets of New Orleans. Robert Gudmestad touches on both terminuses, but his primary goals are to describe how the trade changed over time and to situate it within the capitalist marketplace of antebellum America. As to the first matter, at least, Gudmestad succeeds admirably.
More than any other scholar, Gudmestad emphasizes the transformation of the trade after 1820. Before that decade, most slaves migrated south with their owners, who moved into the fresher lands of the southern frontier. After the labor of bondpeople opened the lower South for settlement, planters from the newer states returned to the border to acquire more slaves. More important, by the 1830s speculators and professional traders began to scour Virginia and Maryland for young, surplus laborers. When they could, buyers preferred to purchase their own slaves since traders typically earned 20 to 30 percent of the final cost of a single bondman, which amounted to as much as $200. Prospective planters also wished to avoid buying the "convicts, the inhabitants of jails, drunkards, rogues, and vagabonds" they feared that professionals might unload on them (p. 11). Seasoned traders, by comparison, had experience in safely [End Page 525] moving large coffles of slaves, who often chose the moment of sale as their chance to flee north.
The heart of this study, however, is Gudmestad's effort to place the rising interstate slave trade within "the general economic development of the United States following the War of 1812" (p. 33). Even more than Tadman, Gudmestad seeks to use "the capitalist ethos" of professional traders to dismantle the paternalistic model of master-slave relations in the cotton era. To be sure, the pose of planter benevolence was never as vulnerable as when allegedly protective masters divided black families and forced young slaves to march south against their will. Yet the fact that speculators dealt in cash or embraced the language of free enterprise ultimately fails to prove a capitalist mentality for the planter class, just as it fails to establish that the Old South as a whole functioned as a capitalist society. Curiously, Gudmestad never defines what he means by "capitalism," a term that does not appear in his index. This is no small point, since historians continue to clash over the question of whether a society may be defined as capitalist if large segments of the labor force are unwaged human chattel with virtually no purchasing power. Nor does the fact that this trade flourished at the same time that northern businessmen "established corporations" and "generally promoted commercial development" indicate much; correlation is not cause (p. 33).
Indeed, Gudmestad provides a good deal of evidence that confounds his thesis. When in 1816 John Randolph of Roanoke rose in Congress to denounce "the villains who carried" slaves south, he was hardly making a case for emancipation; rather, he was seeking to halt a practice that exposed the glaring weakness in paternalism (p. 36). White ministers, many of whom were undeniably proslavery, consistently deplored the traffic in human beings. One courageous Virginia Methodist condemned a speculator by name from his pulpit. When the trader's wife complained to the minister, he apologized for the offense but...