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The Role of the Professional Slave Trader in a Slave Economy: Austin Woolfolk, A Case Study
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THE ROLE OF THE PROFESSIONAL SLAVE TRADER IN A SLAVE ECONOMY: Austin Woolfoik, A Case Study William Calderhead Of all the aspects concerning the institution of slavery, the position of the professional slavetrader is perhaps the most controversial . While a few critics saw the role of the trader in a positive light, for example his function in the economics of supply and demand , a great majority saw only evil in his activities. During the half-century before the Civil War he became a symbol of oppression for Black Americans, slave and free alike, a point of embarrassment for southern whites, and an object of scorn for the militant anti-slavery advocates of the 1830's. From these diverse views, a legend developed about the typical professional trader. In character he was considered to be heartless, cunning, and unscrupulous; economically he was purportedly building a great fortune from the vast profits that were to be had in the trade; and socially by shipping huge numbers southward, he was distorting the demographic balance of the slave population of the upper South. Except for a few studies like that of Isaac Franklin by Wendell Stephenson,1 little effort has been taken to examine the traders and their activities. As a result the negative tone of their legendary image has changed very little over the passing of time. One of the most prominent of these controversial figures was a Georgian named Austin Woolfolk who dominated the border state trade from his headquarters in Baltimore during the 1820's and 1830's. A close examination of his operations in those years should separate fact from legend. Four facets of Woolfolk's activities need analysis: an examination of conditions in Maryland and in the South that would have a bearing on trading operations; a survey of Woolfolk's enterprise and methods of operation; a consideration of the problems that he faced; and an analysis of the effect of his activities on the social and economic aspects of slavery in Maryland and in the ante-bellum South. Early in the nineteenth century three developments created and 1 Wendell H. Stephenson, Isaac Franklin, Slave Trader of the Old South (Baton Rouge, 1938). 195 196civil war history stimulated a vigorous interstate trade in slaves; the expansion of cotton production, the closing of the Atlantic slave trade, and the rapid demographic growth of the new gulf coast states. The slave population of this latter area mushroomed and nearly 200,000 chattels were taken there in the 1820's alone.2 Two important groups served to channel this vast movement of slaves: the planter seeking out excess slaves; and the professional trader, scouring towns and villages in search of chattels. The upper South, where slavery was momentarily in decline, appeared to be a fertile area for the slave seekers, and Maryland, with 107,000 chattels, was a logical hunting ground. By the 1820's three developments had occured that would affect the trading activities with the Old Line State. First, the economic hard times of the depression of the early 1820's and a growing feeling in the state that a slave labor system was economically infeasible tended to create market conditions that the slave traders favored.3 But accompanying the hard times was an emerging reluctance on the part of local owners to sell south, a feeling blunted on occasion by the actions of prominent public figures. Thus Judge Washington, president of the new American Colonization Society, shocked local owners when he quiedy sold south his fifty-four slaves instead of sending them to Liberia. A litde later, Charles Goldsborough, former governor of Maryland, made plans to leave Maryland and take his forty-seven slaves with him and settìe in Mississippi.4 Both men were motivated by low prices and lack of profits on the local scene. Nevertheless, such conditions did not prevail throughout Maryland, as the state contained three different areas of slaveholding activity. There were five tobacco counties (with 37 per cent of the state's slaves) where the slave system still thrived, a piedmont area where slavery was marginal, and the Eastern Shore area (39 per cent of the slaves) where slavery was in decline.5...