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Steven Deyle
University of California, Davis

The Domestic Slave Trade in America: The Lifeblood of the Southern Slave System

Paper to be delivered at the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery and Abolition

Yale University, October 1999

Abstract

The domestic slave trade, in all its components, was very much the lifeblood of the southern slave system, and without it, the institution would have ceased to exist. By serving as the economic conduit between the upper South and the lower South, the interregional slave trade linked together the two main subregions within the South, and provided numerous benefits for both. Moreover, it helped to create a national slave market that resulted in an escalation of property values across the South. While this rise in slave prices often made it difficult for individuals who wished to purchase, it certainly proved beneficial for the region as a whole. Most important, it increased the monetary value of human property for everyone who owned it. Therefore, by linking the South's two main subregions into a common economic concern, and making the entire slaveholding class wealthier as a result, the creation of a national slave market solidified the region's commitment to the institution of chattel slavery. And it made the domestic slave trade an indispensable component in the southern slave system.

The slave trade's importance, however, was not confined to the South. It also had a major influence upon those outside the region, and especially within the antislavery movement that emerged in the 1830s. In fact, the abolitionists used the slave trade both as a tactical device in attracting new supporters and as a fundamental component in their ideology. Important to their argument was the abolitionists' acute understanding of regional differences within the South and the integral part that the interregional trade played in maintaining the institution of slavery. They realized that the interregional slave trade was the lynchpin that held the entire system together. Most important, they also recognized that this interstate trade was subject to congressional regulation, via the commerce clause of the U.S. Constitution, and it was here that they sought a political solution for abolishing slavery.

This paper will focus upon how the domestic slave trade became the lifeblood of the southern slave system; it is impossible to imagine the system surviving without the ability to transfer human property from one owner to another, or to transport it to another region where it was more in demand. Moreover, this paper also explores how this domestic trade affected those outside the South. It will show how many in the northern abolitionist movement recognized the crucial role that the slave trade played in sustaining the southern slave system and how they saw it as the key to a quick destruction of the institution. In sum, this paper argues that the domestic slave trade was not only an essential component in the southern slave system, but that it also had a major impact upon antebellum American society as a whole.