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Michael Tadman
University of Liverpool

The Interregional Slave Trade in the History and Myth-Making of the U.S. South

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

Yale University, October 1999


This paper has two main elements. First I am concerned with the scale and structure of the interregional slave trade — its demographic composition, its economic importance, its significance for slave families and communities. Second, I am concerned with the reputation of the trade both during the antebellum period and in the century and more after. The commercial traffic in people is a sensitive subject and was inevitably at the centre of antebellum slavery debates between the North and South. The trader, I shall argue, was usually a wealthy and highly respected member of the antebellum community. Why then did proslavery writers choose, in the their rhetoric, to pillory him? Why in the late nineteenth century and still today do so many white Americans deny the significance of the trade? Why in the key vehicles of southern public history — plantation tours — is there still such a strong tendency to declare that the planter family concerned never sold any of its slaves, never broke up families, and always enjoyed the loyal support of its slaves?

My paper will argue that in the overall movement of slaves between the states the trade was far more important than planter migration. I shall argue that it was a selective traffic, mostly carrying 'likely,' 'prime,' young-adult slaves. Only in the case of the sugar area did it carry more males (about two-thirds males) than females, and the sugar exception was because of the severe labour that the sugar planters imposed on their slaves. The importation into the sugar plantations of Louisiana, like that to the sugar kingdoms of the rest of the Americas, led to natural decrease (even thought in Louisiana's case the slaves were U.S.-born, not Africans). The trade between the Upper and Lower South brought valuable supplements to the incomes of owners in the exporting states, but was not essential for their economic survival. For the slaves of the exporting region it meant, however, the break-up of one in five marriages and the separation from at least one of their parents of one in three children.

The trade played an important part in antebellum slavery debates, with abolitionists seeing it as the most visible expression of the slaveholder cruelty that was a day-to-day experience for slaves. Slaveholders, if they wanted to defend their 'peculiar institution,' had little choice but to claim that the scale of the trade was exaggerated by northern propagandists and southerners maintained that the trader was an outcast. This latter claim was at odds with everyday reality, since traders were usually counted among the leading families in their communities. Slave owners, it seems, could square this contradiction because of their conception of 'worthy' and 'unworthy' slaves. Typically, owners took the view that they treated their 'worthy' slaves with indulgence and tenderness, and this allowed them to see themselves as benevolent paternalists. It allowed them also to treat slaves they regarded as 'less worthy' in any way they wished, and still they could regard themselves as performing their duties as paternal leaders. The trader was part of this intellectual rationalising process. Owners who, without pressing need and against the slaves' wishes sold 'worthy' slaves, could officially be regarded as falling short of the standards of the white South. With the selling of such slaves there was the potential for ritual outrage against the slave trade and the trader. There could be distaste too for supposedly 'criminal' and 'unruly' slaves who were sold to the trader, and antebellum whites could petition and pass ordinances and laws in connection with the movement of 'unruly' slaves. But at the same time every slaveholder knew that he or she was not the sort who would unnecessarily sell 'worthy' slaves.

In practice slaveholders could get along very happily with virtually all traders—because they could tell themselves that they did not break antebellum conventions in selling to him, because the trader brought sellers great economic advantages, and because clients took the view that (although traders sometimes had to deal with the awkward aspects of slavery), for the most part the trader too worked within the rules of southern white society, and indeed allowed that society to flourish. In the long-run of southern white history there is, however, still a great reluctance to face up to the pivotal role of the trader in the development of the South.