Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War by David L. Lightner, Hardcover | Barnes & Noble
Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War

Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War

by David L. Lightner

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Despite the United States’ ban on slave importation in 1808, profitable interstate slave trading continued. The nineteenth century’s great cotton boom required vast human labor to bring new lands under cultivation, and many thousands of slaves were torn from their families and sold across state lines in distant markets. Shocked by the cruelty and extent


Despite the United States’ ban on slave importation in 1808, profitable interstate slave trading continued. The nineteenth century’s great cotton boom required vast human labor to bring new lands under cultivation, and many thousands of slaves were torn from their families and sold across state lines in distant markets. Shocked by the cruelty and extent of this practice, abolitionists called upon the federal government to exercise its constitutional authority over interstate commerce and outlaw the interstate selling of slaves. This groundbreaking book is the first to tell the complex story of the decades-long debate and legal battle over federal regulation of the slave trade.

David Lightner explores a wide range of constitutional, social, and political issues that absorbed antebellum America. He revises accepted interpretations of various historical figures, including James Madison, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Abraham Lincoln, and he argues convincingly that southern anxiety over the threat to the interstate slave trade was a key precipitant to the secession of the South and the Civil War.

Editorial Reviews

James M. McPherson

“An important book—one that will take a significant place in the scholarly literature on the antislavery movement and the coming of the Civil War.”—James M. McPherson, Princeton University

Kermit Hall

Slavery and the Commerce Power fills a major crack in interpretive arguments over Lincoln, the nature of the Constitution, the slave trade, and the coming of the Civil War. This book will be a standard in each of these areas, and no one interested in any of them can ignore Lightner’s interpretations.”—Kermit Hall, president, State University of New York at Albany

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Yale University Press
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Edition description:
First Edition
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6.13(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)

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Slavery and the Commerce Power


Yale University Press

Copyright © 2006 Yale University
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-11470-6

Chapter One

A Continual Torment

He trudges along a mountain trail. Perched amid the tassels of a flowering chestnut tree, a red bird sings. It is June and the woods are filled with the sweet scent of blossoming azalea and mountain laurel. He wades the frothing waters of a brook. In his free hand he carries a stick. With it he smashes every flower within his reach. As he crosses the brook, he strikes at bubbles. Discarding the stick, he reaches down to pick up a stone, then throws it with all his might at the red bird. When the bird flies away unscathed, he shakes his fist and curses. His companions chortle at his helpless rage. He has reason to be angry. He must keep pace with the others, for he is linked to them by a handcuff and a heavy chain. He must walk twenty miles or more every day. Each step takes him farther away from his birthplace of Norfolk, Virginia. He will walk all the way to Mobile, Alabama. There he will be sold. He misses his mother. He will never see her again. He is eight years old.

She is happy when her husband is gathering his stock, for at such times he is rarely absent from their North Carolina home for more than a few days at a stretch. But she is saddened when the time comes for him to assemble his gang and march them off, for then she knows that many weeks must pass before he will return from the long, dusty journey southward and the protracted search for buyers willing to pay what he needs to turn a profit in the face of stiff competition from his many rivals in the trade. She wishes he would give it up but doubts he ever will. "I'm afraid, my dear husband," she writes to him when he is far away, "you and your friend Carson will keep up negro trading as long as you can get a negro to trade on." He replies that he has only eighteen left to sell and then he can come home. He says that he knows of another trader who has fifty that he must dispose of before he can hasten back to the bride whom he married only ten days before he left home. "We both," he declares, "are toiling for our wives and their little ones." He has a cousin, Betsy Ann, who admires his adventurous travels. She hopes that he will bring back nice presents, and jokes that he should send suitors both for herself and for his sister Sarah. He writes back with a joke of his own. Marriage, he says, "is a long shot and a bad chance without a show of some negroes and beauty-both of which is lacking with Sarah and unfortunately for you you lack the negroes."

He describes the journey that he and a friend have made from Louisville to St. Louis aboard the steamboat Lebanon. He says that nothing interesting happened, unless one considers it interesting to be delayed by sandbars emerging from the unusually low water. Still, he goes on to remark that the vessel's cargo had included a dozen slaves strung together in chains "like so many fish upon a trot-line." He marvels that the slaves sang songs, cracked jokes, played cards, and danced to the strains of a fiddle, despite the fact that, as he puts it, "they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where." It shows, he muses, that "God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb." Fourteen years later, he writes to the friend who had accompanied him and recalls the shackled slaves that they had seen aboard the Lebanon. "That sight," he says, "was a continual torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border." He admits that his friend, who is now the owner of many slaves, has the lawful right to possess them. He recognizes, he says, "your rights and my obligations, under the constitution, in regard to your slaves. I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet." He adds, however, that it is not fair for his friend to assume "that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the Union."

In these vignettes, we glimpse the reactions of three individuals to the workings of the interstate slave trade. Their responses vary sharply because each of them has an entirely different relationship to the traffic in human beings. The first vignette portrays a victim of the traffic, the second a beneficiary of it, and the third an outsider who only looked on uneasily.

The furious boy who slashed at the bubbles and blossoms was John Parker. In making the long trek from the upper South down to the booming Gulf states, he followed a path that was trod by hundreds of thousands of other enslaved boys and girls and men and women during the antebellum decades of the nineteenth century. At the end of the wretched journey, however, fortune was to smile upon John Parker far more than it did most of the African Americans whose lives were touched by the slave trade. He escaped the harsh fate of those who toiled from dawn to dark in the cotton fields, or the still harsher lot of those who grew and harvested sugarcane. Instead, he was bought by a sympathetic master, who eventually permitted him to acquire the skills of an iron molder, to hire himself out for wages, and at last to buy his freedom. He then moved to the free state of Ohio, where he established a foundry and manufactured machinery of his own invention. There he also became heavily involved in the interstate transportation of slaves. He did not carry slaves from one place of bondage to another, however, but from slavery to freedom. Time after time, in the dead of night, he rowed across the Ohio River to the Kentucky shore and returned with fugitives. He then passed them on to other conductors of the Underground Railroad who would spirit them northward toward safety in Canada.

The beneficiary of the slave trade was Harriett Jarratt, the wife of a trader. Neither Harriett nor her husband Isaac saw any irony in lamenting the temporary interruptions of their domestic life that were an unavoidable part of Isaac's occupation whenever he departed for the lower South with a coffle of slaves whose closest personal ties were being sundered for ever. Although Isaac prided himself on being a hardworking entrepreneur who was doing his best to provide for his dependents, he did at last yield to his wife's pleas and promised to retire from slave trafficking. While journeying southward one last time in order to collect some monies still owed him, he wrote to reassure her, saying, "I was candid and never will make another negro trading trip without your approbation unless a kind Providence should frown upon my labors and make it actually necessary that I should leave home to make a support for my family. In that case I would resort to any Honest calling."

The final vignette features a man who had no personal involvement in the interstate slave trade but merely observed it incidentally while preoccupied with his own dreams of personal betterment. His name was Abraham Lincoln. He was in his early thirties when he saw the slaves aboard the Lebanon. He might have marveled less at their seemingly happy demeanor had he known that traders often demanded such behavior and punished anyone who did not comply. William Wells Brown, a former slave who had once been hired out to a trader, recalled that it was his duty, before potential purchasers were allowed to enter the trader's pen at New Orleans, to see that the slaves were engaged in such activities as singing, dancing, and playing cards. "I have often set them to dancing," Wells recalled, "when their cheeks were wet with tears." Thus what Lincoln interpreted as God tempering the wind to the shorn lamb was more likely a matter of the shorn lambs being forced to gambol in the midst of a gale.

But if Lincoln was not fully informed about the character of the slave trade, he certainly recognized its inhumanity. This was not his first encounter with it. Born in 1809, he had spent the first seven years of his life in Kentucky. During most of that time, his parents' cabin fronted on the Cumberland Road linking Louisville to Nashville. It is likely that among the early impressions of his boyhood was the sight of traders leading their ragged captives past the cabin door. From Kentucky his parents moved the family to Indiana and then Illinois. In his early manhood, Abraham was hired on two occasions, the first in 1828 and the second in 1831, to carry goods by flatboat down the Mississippi to New Orleans. On those journeys he must have gazed upon some of the many slaves who were being taken down the great river, and when he reached the Crescent City he may have seen some of them standing upon the auction blocks. Exactly what he saw must remain a matter of conjecture, as there is no way now of verifying the testimony of his cousin John Hanks, who, when interviewed after Lincoln's death, said that when he and Abraham were in New Orleans, "we Saw Negroes Chained-maltreated-whipt & scourged. Lincoln Saw it-his heart bled-Said nothing much-was silent from feeling -was Sad-looked bad-felt bad-was thoughtful & abstracted-I Can say Knowingly that it was on this trip that he formed his opinions of Slavery: it ran its iron in him then & there-May 1831. I have heard him say-often & often." It is apparent that well before he was anything more than a fledgling lawyer and minor politician in Illinois, Lincoln had already seen enough of slavery and the slave trade to feel an aversion to them. By 1855, when he wrote the letter saying how much he had been tormented by seeing the slaves aboard the Lebanon, his antislavery sentiment had hardened into firm conviction. Now he lamented that his slaveowning friend, like so many other white southerners, acknowledged that slavery was an evil yet would countenance no opposition to it. "The slave-breeders and slave-traders, are a small, odious and detested class, among you," Lincoln wrote, "and yet in politics, they dictate the course of all of you, and are completely your masters, as you are the masters of your own negroes." As to where he himself now stood, he said, "That is a disputed point. I think I am a whig; but others say there are no whigs, and that I am an abolitionist."

By the time it touched the lives of John Parker, Harriett Jarratt, and Abraham Lincoln, the interstate slave trade had swelled from minuscule beginnings into a vital feature of the southern economic system. Because a slave is by definition a human being who can be bought and sold, there was slave trading in colonial America as soon as there was slavery itself. Some of that trading transferred slaves from one colony to another. The Revolution turned the former colonies into states. As soon as there were states, there was movement of slaves across state lines. The amount of such movement increased gradually from a trickle to a torrent. In the 1780s significant numbers of slaves already were migrating from Maryland and Virginia into what were soon to become the states of Kentucky and Tennessee, and some were being taken farther southward and westward. By 1800 slaves in the Chesapeake were learning to fear the "Georgia men," who offered slaveholders ready cash in exchange for the Negroes whom they carried off to the rice swamps of Georgia and South Carolina. In later decades, Georgia and South Carolina would become net exporters rather than importers of slaves, as first the Gulf region of Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and then the still more remote frontiers of Arkansas and Texas became the principal destinations of the long-distance slave trade.

In the last decade of the eighteenth century about one out of every twelve slaves of the Chesapeake was carried off to Kentucky or elsewhere, and in the first decade of the nineteenth century the proportion taken away reached one in ten. Then, in the second decade of the nineteenth century the share of Chesapeake slaves carried off across state lines leaped to one in five. One reason for the surge in out-migration from Maryland and Virginia after 1810 was the federal law banning the importation of slaves from outside the United States that went into effect in 1808. From then on, white settlers on the southern frontier could look only to the older states rather than Africa as their ultimate source of human chattels. Other factors also were important. The acquisition of the Louisiana Territory and the subsequent forced eviction of native peoples opened a vast new region to settlement. Along the lower reaches of the Mississippi River, the climate and soil conditions were suited to sugarcane, the production and processing of which employed 36,000 slaves by 1830 and more than 125,000 by 1850. Still more important, the mechanization of spinning and weaving created a ready market for raw cotton, which could be supplied cheaply once improved versions of the cotton engine or "gin" provided an efficient means of separating seed from fiber. Those technological innovations made short-staple cotton a viable cash crop throughout much of the lower South. A vast expansion of cotton cultivation began there, unleashing an immense demand both for land and for slaves. The latter demand could be met only by transferring vast numbers of African Americans from slavery's older, more northerly strongholds. Slave migration in the 1820s dwarfed that of all previous decades, and in the 1830s it reached levels that would never be matched again, not even in the renewed surge of the 1850s.

Most of this mass movement of enslaved peoples went unrecorded at the time, but some idea of the scale of it can be deduced from the numbers of slaves residing in each state as reported in the federal censuses of 1790 through 1860. If it is assumed that the rate of natural increase of the slave population (that is, the excess of births over deaths) was similar throughout the South, it is apparent from a glance at the census data that the slave population of the upper South states grew more slowly than natural increase should have allowed, while that of the lower South states grew more rapidly. The deficit or surplus in each state is a rough measure of the net exportation or importation of slaves, although adjustments must be made to try to take into account both the legal importation of Africans before 1808 and the illegal smuggling in of Africans after 1808. (The latter adjustment is particularly problematic, as statistics on smuggling are hardly more than wild guesses.) This method of computation was used in a crude manner even in antebellum times. It has been refined using sophisticated quantitative techniques by modern historians, including Michael Tadman, who calculates that more than a million slaves passed from the exporting to the importing states between 1790 and 1860. Tadman estimates the slave movements out of the exporting states during each census period as follows:

1790-99 49,511 1800-09 65,791 1810-19 123,386 1820-29 154,712 1830-39 284,750 1840-49 183,902 1850-59 250,728 Total 1,112,780

It is important to realize, however, that the interstate slave trade accounted for only a part of that vast migration. It was common, especially in the earlier decades, for a planter to transfer his base of operations from the upper to the lower South, bringing with him his entire labor force. Moreover, once a planter had resided in the lower South long enough to prosper, he often made one or more return trips to the upper South in order to buy more slaves. It is impossible to know exactly what proportion of the slaves did not move with a master but instead fell into the hands of the speculators, that is, those purely commercial middlemen who bought slaves in one state, carried them away to another state, and sold them there.


Excerpted from Slavery and the Commerce Power by DAVID L. LIGHTNER Copyright © 2006 by Yale University. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

David L. Lightner is Professor of history, Department of History and Classics, University of Alberta. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta.

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