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A Troublesome Commerce

The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade

248 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / no illustrations

Southern History

  Paperback / 9780807129227 / November 2003

In the early years of the peculiar institution, the international slave trade overshadowed the smaller and more sporadic interstate trade in human chattell. But when Congress outlawed the international trade in 1807 and agriculture in the Chesapeake states declined, the practice of selling slaves from one state to another quickly expanded. In this revealing study, Robert H. Gudmestad provides an in-depth examination of the growth and development of the interstate slave trade during the early nineteenth century, using the business as a means to explore economic change, the culture of honor, master-slave relationships, and the justification of slavery in the antebellum South.

As Gudmestad shows, selling slaves for profit presented a significant problem for southerners because it violated their traditional beliefs about slavery — primarily that slaves benefitted from the system and were generally happy with their fates. As the interstate slave trade grew, so did its visibility. Stories of slaves’ escape, suicide, murder, and mutiny, and the barred jails, cuffed chains, and brandished weapons that made up the material culture of the trade testified openly to the brutality of trafficking and, in turn, of slavery. Many southerners, especially in slave-exporting states, questioned whether greed was consuming the “paternalistic” master-slave relationship and corroding the virtue of slavery. Lower South residents worried that they were importing rebellious slaves and struggled to control and define the interstate slave trade. Slaves themselves influenced opinion by exerting their humanity in large and small ways.

Gudmestad demonstrates how slave traders sought to overcome these concerns by changing their operating methods. They concealed the parts of the trade that most offended southerners — such as kidnapping and the separation of families — and portrayed themselves as the providers of a rare but necessary service. They also blamed the North and its harsh credit system for the existence of speculation. Yet over time, Gudmestad explains, these tactics failed. Faced with the incongruity of maintaining their paternalistic beliefs about slavery even while capitalistically exploiting their slaves, southerners coped by disassociating themselves from the slave trade and shifting responsibility for the harsh realities of slavery to the speculators.

In tracing the transformation of this troublesome commerce into a southern scapegoat, Gudmestad also charts the changes that occurred concurrently in southern notions about slavery and southern identity. This provocative work proves the interstate slave trade to be vital to the making — and understanding — of the paradoxical antebellum South.

ROBERT GUDMESTAD is an assistant professor of history at Colorado State University and author of A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade.

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