The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America

Basic. Apr. 2021. 512p. ISBN 9781541616615. $35. HIST
Between 1800 and 1860, slavers transported roughly one million Black people within the American South and between states. Award-winning author Rothman (history, Univ. of Alabama; Flush Times and Fever Dreams) brings to life the enormity of the lucrative interstate and intrastate merchandising of brutalized Black bodies as instruments of capital and exchange in an American commerce bottomed on instruments of torture like the shackle and whip. He reconstructs the lives of Isaac Franklin (1789–1846), John Armfield (1797–1871), and Rice Ballard (1800–60), principals of the largest U.S. slave trading business: Alexandria, VA–based Franklin & Armfield. This wide-ranging and meticulously documented study interweaves biography, family dynamics, business contours and networks, and local and national developments to show how slavery and capitalism were always intertwined. Rothman carefully details how the success of Franklin & Armfield was aided by innovations in technology, infrastructure, information, and finance. To conclude, he underscores how these actions facilitated slave trafficking, leading to the permanent separation of families.
VERDICT Explaining how trafficking in slaves advanced private and public priorities as it produced great wealth and promoted national growth, Rothman displays the ever-present and impoverishing cost to the enslaved. A must-read account that sheds light on the interdependence of slavery and capitalism in the United States.
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