Slave Trade, Domestic

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Slave Trade, Domestic


The domestic slave trade, for much of the eighteenth century a small-scale localized activity, grew exponentially during the late colonial and early American years. The tremendous growth of this practice was aided by a combination of political and technological factors in post-Revolutionary America. Chief among these are Eli Whitney's 1793 invention of the cotton gin and the resulting entrenchment of cotton as a staple agricultural cash crop, the 1808 federal prohibition of importing slaves through the international slave trade, and the rapid rate of western settlement in the early nineteenth century. By the antebellum period the domestic slave trade had fundamentally altered America's racial demographics, acting as a "Second Middle Passage" that yearly relocated thousands of African American slaves who had established deep generational roots on the eastern seaboard of mainland North America.

Until the early nineteenth century the economy of Virginia and Maryland relied almost exclusively on tobacco cultivation. The plantation system's torrid pace of raising this notoriously nutrientdepleting crop left soil in these traditional slave societies seriously eroded. Planters were left with a significant surplus in their slave labor force as the less profitable and labor-intensive seasonal cultivation of wheat replaced tobacco as the Chesapeake's primary crop. Outnumbered by their slaves, planters constantly feared slave rebellions, for they recognized the latent revolutionary potential in a mass of underemployed bondsmen. Chesapeake planters such as George Mason vehemently opposed the international slave trade partly because the ubiquitous threat of revolt was intensified with each shipment of Africans arriving on America's shores. Ever conscious of their surplus in bound laborers, Thomas Jefferson and other members of the Chesapeake planter elite aggressively advocated opening the recently acquired Louisiana Territory to slavery. The line between self-interest and altruism was nearly indistinct as 1808 federal legislation closed America's shores to the international slave trade. Many of the most vocal advocates for withdrawing from the international slave trade were members of the elite Virginia vanguard, acutely aware of their own self-interest. Despite their opposition to importing slaves, Chesapeake planters left little doubt of their support for slavery by taking the lead in exporting over 200,000 slaves between 1790 and 1829.

the rise of cotton

The rise of cotton as a staple cash crop in the Southern economy coincided with the agitation to close America's borders to slave importation. Profits from cotton were seemingly boundless, limited only by how much space was available for its cultivation and how much labor was available to work the land. No one could have predicted that in less than half a century the crop would have so great an impact on America's economy, settlement patterns, race relations, and politics. This enormously profitable cash crop left no part of the Southern interior untouched; Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, and Texas all eventually provided an unquenchable demand for the surplus of bound laborers in the Chesapeake and Upper South.

Of course, cotton plantations could not spread south and west into largely uncultivated land without significant federal involvement. Free from British restrictions against settling beyond the eastern seaboard, settlers flooded into the trans-Appalachian West with the aid of federal troops who aggressively cleared Native Americans from what would eventually become known as the Black Belt. With indigenous peoples out of the way and seemingly unbounded land available, planters utilized a largely enslaved labor force to clear forests and prepare grassland for producing cotton. By the 1820s much of what is now Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana was gainfully settled and quickly incorporating slaves into the plantation system.

expansion of the slave trade

Cotton production, the conclusion of America's involvement with the Atlantic slave trade, and westward expansion would together stimulate the voracious demand for slavery in the Deep South. As planters who exported their human chattel from declining slave economies in the Upper South and Chesapeake readily met this demand, professional slave traders rose to act as middlemen. Although before the Revolution a living could be made in transporting bound servants away from New England, the middle colonies, and the Upper South, the profession flourished when the only significant source for slaves could be found in the dense surplus of slaves inhabiting the Chesapeake. Slave traders and speculators generally used inland waterways and coastal shipping routes to transport this human traffic to Georgia, where a consistent average of over two thousand slaves were received every year, and onward toward larger markets in Alabama, Louisiana, and Missippi. A standard coastal route for antebellum slave traders departed from Norfolk and arrived in New Orleans after stops to pick up or drop off human cargo at southern port cities such as Baltimore, Alexandria, Richmond, and Charleston.

By the 1820s New Orleans filled a role previously played by Charleston during the international slave trade's heyday by becoming the domestic slave trade's central hub. Ideally situated in the burgeoning Deep South and located at the mouth of the Mississippi River, New Orleans was easily accessed via both coastal and inland waterways. Louisiana's slave population grew as New Orleans's eager participation in the domestic slave trade coincided with the rise of plantation-based sugar cultivation in and around the flourishing city. Given the growing tendency of owners to use sale as a punitive measure for unruly slaves, it is not surprising that in 1826 Louisiana closed its harbor to the domestic slave trade as a measure of public safety. With large profits slipping away the ban was short-lived, and by 1829 New Orleans reclaimed its position as the destination of choice for slave traders and prospective buyers throughout the Deep South. The only change made was a bureaucratic reform requiring all slaves entering the city's slave market to be certified for good conduct by a previous owner.

While New Orleans's domestic slave market flourished because of its relatively easy access through established trading routes over waterways, inland routes of the Upper South transported slaves chained or roped together in "coffles" of thirty to forty slaves that marched over twenty miles per day. While coffles were generally used for covering shorter distances, it was not uncommon for prolonged journeys from Virginia to Louisiana to take over a month. Regardless of how they arrived at trading centers, slaves involved with the nineteenth-century domestic trade often occupied the same or similar rigidly controlled slave pens that were made infamous by the campaign to abolish the international slave trade.

impact on slaves

America's 1808 decision to criminalize participation in the Atlantic slave trade was a pivotal event in the lives of African Americans throughout the nation. This decision had an impact on slave culture by virtually ending the introduction of "saltwater" Africans to America's shores. More important, it meant that slaves from the older slave states—mostly from Virginia, Maryland, and the Carolinas—would be used to satisfy the seemingly insatiable demand for human chattel throughout the Deep South's budding slave societies. In the North the security of free blacks was constantly jeopardized as kidnappers became a prime threat to their precious liberty. Free blacks vigilantly defended their freedom by ensuring that their free papers were in order and spreading word throughout the community when suspected kidnappers were in town. In the Upper South and Chesapeake, slaves could no longer realistically hope for paternalist-minded owners to offer manumission as a reward for prolonged meritorious service. In short, although new slaves were no longer legally allowed to penetrate America's borders, obtaining freedom within the nation was becoming more difficult.

With relatively easy sale as an option, rebellious or unruly slaves often faced sale and forced migration as a punitive measure. By the antebellum period this method of labor management had solidified, and being purged "down the river" was one of the most dreaded fates that could befall a slave. Rebels and troublemakers were not the only slaves to endure the Second Middle Passage. The typical slave involved in the domestic trade was a young adult, physically healthy, and potentially productive as both a laborer and a parent for future slaves. Although not all slaves relocated through the domestic slave trade, the internal slave trade affected nearly all slaves by shattering established communities and kinship networks that had developed over generations along the eastern seaboard. Those who were sold faced the intimidating prospects of forced relocation and an uncertain future. Remaining members of these now bifurcated slave communities that had lined the Chesapeake and Upper South had to readjust to life without the presence of loved ones who had provided crucial support throughout the trials of enslavement.

Because the deep bonds of African American slave kinship and community regularly transcended the boundaries of one's immediate plantation, any plantation's closure or en masse liquidation affected slaves' lives by the hundreds. The transfer of just one slave sold to transform a wilderness into a commercially viable plantation could rob the community of a parent, grandparent, sibling, or uncle or aunt. Multiplied by the thousands each year during the early nineteenth century, such reciprocal losses nearly obliterated entire communities. For enslaved women, the trauma of sale could be much deeper. In addition to separation from their family and community en route to an unknown land, advertisements highlighting their reproductive capabilities reveal that African American women's fertility had been transformed into a marketable commodity.

The American Revolution and ensuing nationhood had a profound impact on the domestic slave trade's establishment and rapid development. By removing the trans-Appalachian barrier on settlement and aggressively relocating this region's indigenous population, the federal government provided an ideal environment for the steady westward expansion of slavery below the Mason-Dixon line. Although the Constitution explicitly allowed federal oversight of interstate commerce, the 1808 prohibition on participating in the international slave trade also ensured that the internal slave trade would remain undeterred and unregulated. The Cotton Kingdom's brisk growth throughout the Deep South firmly debunked the notion that westward diffusion of slaves would lead to the institution's gradual demise. Thus the new American nation never passed legislation protecting slave families or regulating the terms and conditions of chattel slavery. Stimulated by an insatiable appetite for surplus bondsmen in the eroding slave societies of the Chesapeake and Upper South, driven by colossal profits from plantation cultivation of cotton, and unimpeded by federal supervision, the Second Middle Passage tore apart African American families and shattered slave communities while simultaneously spreading slave culture throughout the Deep South and forever changing the racial landscape of America.

See alsoCotton Gin; Expansion; Louisiana Purchase; Plantation, The .

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David Lucander