“Slave trader.” It’s one of the most loathsome expressions in the English language. Even enslavers claimed to recoil at that designation in the era when slavery flourished. Andrew Jackson took umbrage at being called a “negro-trader” during the bitter presidential election of 1828, even though the slaves he bought and sold as a young man as part of the burgeoning interstate trade in enslaved people helped make him rich.
Jackson’s slave trading followed the pattern of many financially ambitious men at the dawning of the nineteenth century—something done long enough to amass enough capital to buy a plantation and become a comfortable, respectable enslaver and then never mentioned again. By the time Jackson became president, he enslaved almost 100 people but hated being called a slave trader.
But right around the time of Jackson’s presidency, slave trading took an ominous turn. That’s when Isaac Franklin and John Armfield created the Alexandria-based slave-trading firm of Franklin and Armfield, which would revolutionize the domestic slave trade. As Joshua Rothman, author of The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America, writes in our new entry on Franklin and Armfield, the company “transformed the domestic slave trade from a haphazard, short-term pursuit into an organized profession, demonstrating the trade’s capacity as a big business whose violence and exploitation could generate enormous profits and social respectability for its operators.”
What set Franklin and Armfield apart more than anything was its scale. Their network of purchasing agents covered more than 20,000 square miles of Virginia and Maryland, where they would buy up enslaved laborers from depleted plantations and deliver them to a massive slave-jail complex in Alexandria designed to hold hundreds of people. The captives would then be marched overland or sent down the coast in ships to the Lower South, where they would be sold to labor-hungry cotton and sugar plantations for a generous profit.
At its peak, Rothman estimates, Franklin and Armfield was transporting 1,000 to 1,500 enslaved people south every year, sending a shipload of enslaved people to New Orleans every two weeks for months at a time. The company was in operation for less than a decade yet was responsible for the forced displacement and migration of at least 8,500 enslaved people. And just as importantly, it paved the way for a host of copycat firms that continued to decimate the lives of the enslaved until the Civil War finally ended the domestic slave trade.
Franklin and Armfield both retired rich, respectable men, as the sheer success of their venture dampened the opprobrium once attached to slave trading, setting, as Rothman notes, “the standard for an especially malevolent form of American entrepreneurship.”
More >> Join us at noon on June 29 to hear Josh Rothman discuss his new book, our entry on Franklin and Armfield, and the interdependence of slavery and capitalism. Look for details soon at https://virginiahumanities.org/events/.
(Image: “Transporting Slaves Out of State,” originally published in George W. Featherstonhaugh’s Excursion Through the Slave States , courtesy of the Library of Virginia.)