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  • The Domestic Slave Trade and the United States Constitution
  • Mark R. Cheathem (bio)
David L. Lightner. Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006. xii + 228 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $45.00.

In recent years, historians have turned an eye toward examining the internal slave trade of the United States. This attention is surprising, not because the internal slave trade is an unimportant topic, but because it has taken so long for historians to address adequately the forced movement of African Americans during the antebellum period.

The progenitor of this historiographical trend is Michael Tadman, whose Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South (1989) was the first in-depth treatment of slave trading since Frederic Bancroft's Slave Trading in the Old South (1931). In Speculators and Slaves, Tadman examined the slave-master relationship and the claims by slave owners that they were paternalistic while they actively bought and sold African Americans as commodities. The slave trade that permeated the antebellum South, according to Tadman, "occurred, not because of crippling debt or the death of owners, but overwhelmingly for speculative reasons" (p. 210). White slave owners reasoned that the disruption to the lives of African American individuals and families was minimal and temporary; presuming that blacks were inferior emotionally and intellectually allowed them to depict themselves as paternalistic protectors even as slave families were torn apart.

Other historians have built upon Tadman's work. Walter Johnson's Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (1999) examined the New Orleans slave market from the perspectives of the slave, the master, and the trader. Where Tadman used quantitative data to make his case, Johnson relied upon slave narratives, court cases, slave owners' correspondence, and bills of sale to describe in exquisite language the horrors of the slave trade for African Americans. Johnson also edited The Chattel Principle: Internal Slave Trades in the Americas (2004), a collection of essays placing the internal slave trade of the United States within the broader context of slavery in the Western Hemisphere. [End Page 374]

Three other recent works have also contributed to a better understanding of the internal slave trade. Robert H. Gudmestad's A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade (2003) argued that white southerners used slave traders as scapegoats to soothe their guilt over the capitalistic exploitation of bonded labor. This scapegoating allowed them to "blame a lowly class of itinerant traders for slavery's abuses while fully accepting the activities of prosperous speculators" (p. 4). In Slave Country: American Expansionism and the Origins of the Deep South (2005), Adam Rothman cogently examined slavery's increase in the southernmost states, attributing its attraction as a region of growth to "contingent global forces, concrete policies pursued by governments, and countless small choices made by thousands of individuals in diverse stations of life" (p. xi). Steven Deyle has also added what is the most masterful and comprehensive handling of the internal slave trade in his Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (2005). A finalist for the 2006 Frederick Douglass Prize, Deyle's study reinforced previous arguments about the slave trade, while emphasizing its role in the market revolution. "The domestic trade," he maintained, "was not simply a consequence of this development but a central component in propelling it" (p. 6).

With the exception of Gudmestad, none of these recent works deal to any extent with the debates over the domestic slave trade that took place within the Constitutional Convention, the American political party system, and the United States Supreme Court between the 1780s and the 1860s.1 In Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War, David L. Lightner addresses these constitutional, legal, and political debates, specifically as they related to the question of if and to what extent Congress' power over interstate commerce gave it jurisdiction over the internal slave trade. Lightner argues that "southern anxiety over the threat to the interstate slave trade was an important element in precipitating the secession crisis and the...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6628
Print ISSN
0048-7511
Pages
pp. 374-379
Launched on MUSE
2007-10-09
Open Access
No
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