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Adam Rothman

The Domestication of the Slave Trade in the United States

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

Yale University, October 1999


Between 1770 and 1820, the United States withdrew from the international slave trade, During the same period, a substantial slave trade within the United States developed, uprooting slaves from the Atlantic seaboard and transplanting them in the western interior and Deep South. This “domestication of the slave trade” was one of the most important social, economic and political transformations in the United States from the Revolution to Civil War. It greatly contributed to the consolidation and expansion of slavery during an era fraught with dangers for slaveowners in North America.

The domestication of the slave trade grew out of the tension between economic opportunity and political crisis in the late eighteenth century. Rising demand for cotton and sugar in the world market and the restructuring of the Caribbean plantation economy created new opportunities for planters in the United States to profit from the use of slave labor, while territorial expansion in the southern United States incorporated a vast new region into the orbit of the plantation system. However, revolutionary stirrings among slaves throughout the Americas intensified fears of slave resistance and rebellion within the United States. Many slaveholders joined opponents of slavery in concluding that the importation of slaves from Africa and the Caribbean endangered the security of the country. Southern slaveholders hoped that the combination of prohibiting the importation of foreign slaves and dispersing the slave population through the southwest would strengthen the security of slavery in the United States.

Through the domestication of the slave trade, slaveholders and their allies fashioned a distinction between slaveholding and slavetrading which became integral to proslavery doctrine. Southern politicians and intellectuals applied the distinction between slaveholding and slavetrading to the expansion of slavery into the new territories of the southwest, but a substantial internal slave trade developed anyway. For the most part, the task of regulating the internal movement of slaves was left up to the southern states. All the southern states experimented with constitutional and legislative restrictions on the domestic slave trade in the early nineteenth century. These measures did not retard the growth of the internal slave trade, but they did express the emerging logic of proslavery doctrine. Their failure demonstrated the contradiction between the ethical outlook of proslavery doctrine and the commercial reality of slavery in the American South.