Interstate Slave Trade

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Interstate Slave Trade

Trading slaves across state (or colony) lines had been common in the United States since the earliest slaves appeared in the American colonies. However, the closing of the transatlantic slave trade in the later years of the eighteenth century limited the possibilities of slave supply; therefore, southerners renewed their interest in slave trading within the United States. A slave trading system developed in the early nineteenth century to feed the demand for slaves due to westward expansion. White settlers moving west into Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi demanded new slaves to tame this new frontier territory they found themselves in. Slaves could clear fields, build roads, and help transform the landscape to a more hospitable and productive enterprise.

Slave demand by white settlers in the western United States coupled with the excess supply of slaves in the Upper South in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries led to a very profitable slave-trading system. Among the Upper South states, Virginia especially transformed itself from a slave-dominated tobacco plantation society into a more diverse agricultural state, growing not only tobacco but food crops as well. The transformation of the Virginia economy led to a surplus of slave labor, because the new agricultural commodities did not need the same attention from labor as tobacco did. Many white Virginians saw this growing surplus of slaves as dangerous to Virginia society because a surplus of slaves always held the possibility of revolt. Therefore Virginians saw the interstate slave trade as a way to eliminate this burdensome element from their society. At the same time, Virginians recognized the interstate slave trade could be a vehicle for economic gain. Selling slaves farther south could bring Virginians massive profits. As Charles Pinckney of South Carolina correctly identified, Virginia "will gain by stopping the importations (the transatlantic slave trade). Her slaves will rise in value and she has more than she wants" (Farrand 1911, p.369).

Although the interstate slave trade became more common after the closing of the transatlantic trade, Eli Whitney's cotton gin and the cotton revolution in the South remained the real impetus for propelling the interstate trade in slaves. Whereas western demand had been significant in beginning the interstate trade in slaves the late eighteenth century, the cotton revolution in the Old Southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana) caused demand for new slaves to skyrocket. The need for new labor sources to grow cotton and feed the ever-growing market revolution that enthralled the entire United States made the interstate slave trade a part of everyday slave life in the South. The cotton boom in the South linked the price of cotton with the price of slaves and tied the two together for the next fifty years.


During the nineteenth century, abolitionists claimed that Virginians engaged in slave breeding to provide slaves to sell to the Lower South. Edmund Ruffin, the prominent pro-slave farmer and future supporter of the Confederacy, argued, "It is an old calumny, often repeated in these older Southern States for sale, and that the surplus individuals were annually selected for market, precisely in the same manner as a grazier selects his beasts for sale" (p. 655).

Ruffin claimed the abolitionists' criticisms were false and indeed most historians agree that systematic slave breeding operations most likely did not occur in the Upper South. However, the idea of slave breeding in Virginia permeated abolitionist critiques and popular nineteenth-century literature as an example of the evils of slavery. Although slave breeding probably did not take place, the power of a female slave's reproduction continued to attract slaveholders because of the opportunity to sell slave children into the interstate trade.

SOURCE: Ruffin, Edmund. "The Effects of the High Prices of Slaves." Debow's Review (1859).

Although Virginia was the largest supplier of slaves in the interstate slave trade, Maryland, Delaware, and Kentucky also supplied many slaves who traveled farther south in the trade. In these states, the edges of the southern slave society, slavery gradually became less economically important (due to the lack of cotton), and it became more profitable to sell a slave to Mississippi than to keep him in Virginia. After the cotton boom, a slave in the Upper South had approximately a one in three chance of being sold into the interstate slave trade. Most of those sold were male slaves between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five. The trade also broke up about 20 percent of marriages in the Upper South, leading to women taking an ever-increasing role in family leadership in the aftermath. The effect on marriage and the family led Frederick Douglass to exclaim that the domestic trade "was the most cruel feature of the system" of slavery and the foremost example of the "revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy" that Americans allowed to exist (Douglass 1845; 1852).

The interstate slave trade broke up entire communities as well as individual families. The slave community stood as an important feature in slave life because in order to ameliorate their condition of servitude, slaves formed communities with each other that helped them survive the toughest and harshest punishments, as well as organize hope for freedom. Religion joined slaves together with a message of hope and frequently helped them organize resistance activities against the institution. The community offered slaves an alternative vision of life, one not polluted by death, degradation, and hopelessness. The interstate slave trade broke community apart and forced slaves across the country into new social settings unfamiliar to them. While slaves eventually did join new communities in the Lower South, breaking up and reforming community structure represented a major change in slaves' lives.

Slaves traveled south by two methods: land or sea. Larger slave-trading companies owned ships that, like those that carried slaves from Africa, transported slaves from ports in the Upper South to the Lower South on the Atlantic and on inland rivers. So important was the use of water to slave transport that in 1830 a newspaper in New Orleans claimed that the Mississippi was becoming a common highway for the traffic of slaves (Deyle 2005). Smaller traders opted for the less expensive option of moving slaves overland. Marching slaves the hundreds of miles from Richmond, one of the major supply centers, to the Lower South enabled traders to sell slaves the entire length of the journey to points along the trail to their final destination. As railroads became more widespread in the South, traders also transported their slaves via railcar to the Lower South. Whether by ship or by land, slave traders made New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi, the two end points of the interstate slave trade.

Once at their final destinations, slaves were sold by one of two means: public auction or private sale. Public auctions were more visible in southern society and indeed more memorable for their sinister connotations. Abolitionists particularly targeted the slave auction as representative of the evils of slavery in the South. William Lloyd Garrison noted, "We know that their bodies and spirits are daily sold under the hammer of the auctioneer as household works or working cattle; we need no nice adjustment of abstractions, no metaphysical reasoning, to convince us that such scenes are dreadful and such practices impious" (Garrison 1852, p. 322).

Although auctions remained common in the South, the majority of slaves transported in the interstate trade were sold by private sale. Slave traders ran holding pens where they could store slaves and where potential buyers could examine them. Traders separated slaves by gender and physical characteristics, highlighting their favorable qualities for buyers while attempting to hide those that would lower their price. Essentially, the buying process illustrated that slaves were a commodity to be merchandized as well as to be bought and sold.

The interstate slave trade benefited both the Upper South, which reaped large profits from the sale of its slaves, and the Lower South, which gained profits from the use of those slaves on its cotton plantations. However, while economically profitable, the interstate slave trade attacked southern justifications of slavery. After northern abolition groups reenergized themselves after 1830, the South defended slavery as "a positive good," showing the country that slavery's paternalistic elements actually helped African Americans instead of hurting them. At the heart of the paternalism of slavery rested the idea that a slave belonged to the master's family and that a master would take care of them for their entire lives, guiding them as a father would guide his children. Reducing the slave to an economic commodity as the interstate slave trade did attacked the foundation of the paternalistic system and challenged southerners to rethink how to defend slavery and the interstate slave trade. Southern slaveholders divorced themselves from the interstate slave trade by creating the image of the villainous slave trader, who was fundamentally different than themselves. By reviling the trader, they washed their hands of any responsibility for the non-paternalistic attributes of the trade.

The interstate slave trade allowed the Lower South an almost unlimited supply of slaves in order to expand their economic operations, especially the cultivation of cotton. The trade funneled so much southern money into slavery that slaves became the key indicator of wealth and power in southern society. With so much of their capital invested in slavery, the South had little choice but to secede from the Union and fight the Civil War in order to defend the system that dominated their lives.


Deyle, Steven. Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Douglass, Frederick. "I Am Here to Spread Light on American Slavery." Address delivered in Cork, Ireland, October 14, 1845. The Frederick Douglass Speeches, 1841–1846. Available from

Douglass, Frederick. "The Hypocrisy of American Slavery." Speech given in Rochester, New York, July 4, 1852.

Farrand, Max, ed. The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1911.

Garrison, William Lloyd. Selections from the Writings and Speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. Boston: R.F. Wallcut, 1852.

Johnson, Walter. Soul By Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Tadman, Michael. Speculators and Slaves: Masters, Traders, and Slaves in the Old South. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

                                 James J. Gigantino II

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Interstate Slave Trade

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