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About the Author
Calvin Schermerhorn is associate professor of history in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University.
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The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815â"1860
By Calvin Schermerhorn
Yale UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2015 Yale University
All rights reserved.
Soul Drivers, Market Makers
African-descended Virginians tied together and marching reluctantly through the Virginia countryside in the early months of 1818 embodied a central if tragic act in the human drama of U.S. commercial development. At least twenty-seven souls in a coffle driven by horsemen traveled southwest from Petersburg, a port town of seven thousand residents, to Raleigh, North Carolina, where they would turn right and head west. Their passage was part of a process of modern development, the antecedents of which had uprooted over 20 million Africans, 12 million of whom were embarked on Atlantic passages, the survivors landing in the Americas. Descendants of those forced migrants were embarking on another passage, this one south by southwest to the newest, most robust frontier of global staple crop production. That was the lower South. For the captives, it was an abrupt departure from the lands in which their ancestors' bones were buried and the worlds in which they dwelt with their concerns.
The slaves' burdens were heavy and their road was long. On rutted paths leading from Petersburg, girls and women, boys and men were among a caravan of people, wagons, and horses. Some were already sick. Others were disoriented as they walked to Mississippi for resale. In migrating droves or coffles, men were bound by the hands, often with iron shackles that etched bloody rings on the wrists. Dick and other adults were tied to one another with a heavy rope or chain, women as well as men. Tom and Aggy, husband and wife, accompanied each other. Both were from Prince George County, Virginia, like the men who now owned them. Children and anyone unable to make the twenty-mile daily march were hauled in horse carts. Little China rode in one, perhaps with Lucy, who was too old or perhaps too ill to march many days under her own power. Little China's memories of Virginia would fade in a sea of cotton. Most of the coffle members' lives would end there. John Curtis and Jane plodded along as well but would be sold before the others reached Mississippi.
Each coffle contained a diverse assemblage of human beings whose chronicles of sorrow resounded down the generations. In those days and nights on the road, immediate distresses presented themselves in the forms of chills from fevers, lack of proper clothing, damp or wet ground on which they occasionally rested, thirst and gnawing hunger, and the sharp sticks or stones that too often jutted up from the dirt road through a worn-out boot sole or a calloused bare foot. Yet in the recesses of their consciousness, they were also taking along their ideas of family, their worldviews, their repertoires of literature and ideas, their theologies, and their hopes, each one fatigued and refigured by the North American geography through which they walked. The faces of those bound together on foot registered the heartbreak of separations from loved ones and the anguish of a forced march. It was a thousand miles to Natchez, Mississippi. Inclement weather and stingy provisions complemented the dread of not knowing where or into whose hands one might fall. Armed strangers on horses led and followed the procession, their shadows outlining the fears and anxieties of the travelers. Yet a central component of a new market was taking shape in the troubled space between the captives' miseries and their owners' aspirations.
The men driving the coffle viewed the procession in terms that contrasted starkly with those of the forced migrants. Francis Everod Rives led his enslaved countrymen out from Petersburg in the early months of 1818. The twenty-six-year-old Prince George County resident was a member of a wealthy Virginia family and had served in the state militia during the War of 1812, stationed at Norfolk. In 1818 he partnered with his fellow Prince George County residents Peyton Mason Sr. and Peyton Mason Jr. The trio invested in bondspersons in their corner of an expanding and expansive republic and expected great returns from moving them to sites of sale. They called their enterprise Peyton Mason and Company.
Their wealth had been built over the generations in plantation agriculture, which conferred on their generation perhaps more social status than economic stability. Prince George County was situated on the south bank of the James River east of Petersburg, a port that had served the colonial tobacco trade. That tobacco culture gave way to grain during the American Revolution, but the African-descended families in slavery had flourished. In the colonial and early national period, the value of slaves was influenced by the prices of the commodities they produced. But in the young federal republic that market was changing. In the Chesapeake, grain cultivation required fewer workers than tobacco. Slaveholding agriculturalists found themselves in possession of a surplus of bondspeople at just the moment their countrymen were demanding slaves on a distant cotton frontier. Rives's enterprise shows little sophistication and no elaborate theory of the firm, but the business of slavery was one of the most knowledge-intensive in the Americas.
The development of American capitalism hinged on an economy of knowledge. Success as an interstate slave trader meant leveraging knowledge of local and distant markets and mastering the complexities of negotiating prices of human beings with other human beings. Slave traders' abilities to accumulate, manage, and deploy intangible assets were at least as important as the flesh-and-blood commodities they drove to market, the men they hired for security, the wooden vehicles that took them there, the steel weapons with which they guarded the captives, and the financial paper that changed hands in the transactions. Successful slavers were nimble in response to changing conditions of markets, technology, and routes of travel, from which they sought to gain competitive advantages.
Peyton Mason and Company was a self-financed venture and one that took advantage of a slave market that faced the North American interior rather than the seaboard and Atlantic markets. Rives and his partners pooled capital and knowledge from eastern Virginia, but they needed to sell one coffle before investing in more slaves. They lacked a corporate organization and the ability to grow beyond the means of the trio of principals. To trim costs, Rives demanded that bondspeople walk rather than board ships. Unlike corn, hemp, or tobacco crops, slave traders' movable property traveled well and, in crude terms, largely hauled itself. That lengthened travel time but limited reliance on third parties such as jailors, shippers, and merchants acting as consignees in distant ports. Rives and the Masons acted as their own accountants, researchers, purchasers, transportation and sales agents, and, most important, bankers. Their business model was brutally straightforward.
Isolating bondspeople and moving them from one regional slave market to another was profitable. Enslaved people sold for much higher prices in the lower South—at that moment about twice as much in Natchez, Mississippi, as in Petersburg, Virginia. Yet the seduction of easy profits obscured a business awash in perils. Runaways, money, and the environment formed a constellation of hazards, and what seemed like a good transaction today might prove to be harmful tomorrow. But as his horse gently trotted the west-leading roads, Rives could figure that at about twenty miles per day his enslaved property increased in value approximately 1.5 percent daily as the distance closed to where the Natchez Trace met the Mississippi River. That was if his perishable human goods made it to market.
Rives's success depended on his ability to compel people to march away from their homelands. Some refused to comply. Before leaving Virginia, Dick escaped and was recaptured. He was later sold out of a jail in Southampton County, a cold consolation for someone seeking to avoid the overland passage to the West. Others faltered. John Curtis was sold along the way too, but his new owner would return him for the defect of "being diseased." Rives and his partners sold a woman and her child in Williamsborough, North Carolina, as they traveled south through Raleigh. Perhaps, like Curtis, she was in no condition to move farther or else caught the eye of a local buyer.
Overland travel was plodding and circuitous. A land rich in resources also had abundant obstacles for anyone seeking to pass through the Appalachian Mountains. Roads were often overgrown with vegetation, and wagons had to pass ways blocked by fallen trees, washed out by winter freshets, or cracked from hard frosts that thrust stones to the surface. Roadside camping was standard. The flood of migrants also on their way west tended to bivouac, throwing up makeshift tents if possible. A country inn or tavern—scarce and correspondingly expensive in the Appalachians—might yield a hot meal for the horsemen at the head of the coffle. More frequently, locals earned money by renting shelter and selling chickens, eggs, vegetables, and other provisions for the road-weary stream of humanity passing through. Captives consumed rudimentary fare, insipid and lacking in nutrition. It would not do, slave traders reasoned, for bondspersons to consume any potential profits in the form of nourishing meat or bread when cheaper substitutes were available. They slept under the clouds and stars.
There were few national highways in the South, and those were often indistinguishable from a well-beaten path out of a port town. The national road leading west from Hagerstown, Maryland, was little more than a gravel-filled ditch. The routes Rives's caravan traveled were intermittently crammed with farmers, preachers, visitors, and letter carriers, some on horseback, some in carriages, and many others on foot. Herds of sheep, swine, or cattle ambled by them. One sojourner traveling with his family and slaves from Norfolk, Virginia, to Alabama in 1818 recorded "bad Roads" leading out from Prince Edward County. "Cart turned over," he recorded, but "no damage of consequence" other than a broken axel and being "low spirited" in consequence of his mother-in-law's suffering an illness.
Some locals recoiled at the traffic. Congressman John Randolph of Roanoke, an early opponent of the interstate slave trade, complained of slave traders' coffles on the road passing through Salem, Virginia. In 1818 he wrote to a fellow congressman that the road through his district "is thronged with droves of these wretches & the human carcase-butchers, who drive them on the hoof to market." The scene brought to mind the British abolitionist Thomas Clarkson's 1786 essay on the transatlantic slave trade. "One might almost fancy oneself on the road to Cal[a]bar," Randolph quipped, comparing southern Virginia to the notorious West African slaving port in the Bight of Biafra.
Federal internal improvements sped the interstate slave trade. They helped reorient it too. In the 1810s federal and state sponsorship of post roads and turnpikes made overland travel less time-consuming, tedious, and expensive than it had been before. It could not have seemed that way from the rude paths Rives and his coffle traveled. Roads leading out of Petersburg, and indeed most American roads, were often nothing more than packed dirt trails, muddy in summer, icy in winter, and ill-marked. Since 1792, citizens had petitioned Congress to establish post routes, and Congress acted to authorize the Postmaster General to establish post roads. Such dirt paths connected otherwise isolated villages, and private companies constructed wooden plank roads and turnpikes. Travelers allergic to tolls often beat paths around toll stations called shun-pikes. In the 1810s southern roads built under the direction of the Post Office and War Department connected riverine ports to entrepôts and cities. Between 1816 and 1820 miles of federal post roads increased nationwide by nearly half, from 48,976 miles serving 4,260 post offices to 72,492 miles serving 4,500 post offices. The benefits were tremendous: "There is scarcely a town, however retired," crowed Baltimore's Niles' Weekly Register in 1818, "whose inhabitants cannot converse with the inhabitants of the most remote and distant places of the union, with the same facility as with those of an adjoining town, through the medium of the post-office."
After reaching Fayetteville, North Carolina, Rives's group wound their way westward, crossing in and out of South Carolina as they followed stagecoach routes. Along those roads, they followed many free migrants pursuing opportunities in the newly acquired territories in the West. It was not easy going for any traveler. In late winter and early spring, members of the coffle were subject to icy temperatures at night, and the winter of 1818 would be remembered as cold. The coffle passed through Warm Springs, North Carolina, where the French Broad River cuts through the Appalachians in Tennessee.
As members of the coffle continued to fall ill, Rives and his partners cut their losses by selling them. Jane was one. Her buyer would return her in the fall, claiming that she was "subject to fits," seizures or epilepsy. Her symptoms were probably caused by cysticercosis transmitted by means of pork tapeworms. Meat animals like hogs and cattle, "capital on the hoof," driven along arteries of trade, were vectors of disease. The pork tapeworm was spread to humans in undercooked infected pork and among people in a fecal to oral route. Sanitation was poor along the roads and paths the coffle traveled. All classes of migrant relieved their bodies along the roadside, and not a few streams from which water was drawn were infected. Pork tapeworm symptoms would not show for months as the tapeworm larvae grew to adulthood in the small intestine. Rives and his partners refunded Jane's purchase price when they drove a second coffle along a similar route. Her recovery was unlikely.
The Tennessee border presented no obstacle to Rives's enterprise. It was no crime to carry enslaved human beings into Tennessee, and it would be several more years before the Tennessee legislature contemplated hauling up legal restrictions to the interstate slave trade, however ill-enforced they would be. In the overland slave trade, white skin was the only passport Rives and his partners needed, but in actual appearance the faces of Euroamerican travelers tended to be sunburned to a patina nearly indistinguishable from those of nonwhites. As they traveled deeper into the southern interior, roads linking post offices grew sparse.
Military road projects complemented post roads but tended to cut through Indian lands. At the beginning of the 1810s, the United States built a road for wheeled vehicles along a horse path through the Creek nation. That route served an artery of trade connecting coastal Georgia to the Old Southwest, a highway for slave traders. Some Creek or Muskogee citizens welcomed the road, which helped take their slave-grown commodities to market. Some of their Cherokee neighbors had already built plantations staffed with African-descended bondspersons, and many Native American slaveholders were linked to Anglo-Americans by ties of kinship and trade. But, on the whole, roads that united Euroamericans divided Native Americans, and the federal road through Georgia exacerbated tensions among Creeks, who contended that federal roads were avenues of tyranny and pernicious violations of sovereignty. It was one of several.
Jackson's Military Road was designed as a major artery of trade. It linked Columbia, Tennessee, on the Duck River to Madisonville, Louisiana, on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain. From its southern terminus New Orleans was accessible by boat. Rives's coffle marched part of the route, which was coextensive with the Natchez Trace between Columbia and Tupelo, Mississippi. The procession of enslaved Virginians would pass army wagons and the occasional engineering group building bridges and widening the path. Congress appropriated the money to build the popular military road, which in the words of War Secretary John C. Calhoun—who still supported federal internal improvements—would "bind this Republic together." In 1819 Calhoun explained that road and canal projects, "highly useful for military operations," were "equally required for the industry or political prosperity of the community." All understood that commercial uses were at least as important as security ones. An army officer working on the road through Alabama in 1819 wrote home to Virginia: "I can with a few hundred dollars capital speculate to a great advantage by going on some fifty or a hundred miles in advance and entering some of the land that this road will pass through." He predicted that "in less than twelve months it will be one of the greatest thoroughfares in the United States." Technology would upend such optimism. Steamboats and river or port improvements would prove more beneficial to farmers and planters seeking to take crops to market, but migrants and slave traders were avid users of such projects.
Excerpted from The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815â"1860 by Calvin Schermerhorn. Copyright © 2015 Yale University. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
ONE Soul Drivers, Market Makers, 10,
TWO "The most notorious of the Baltimore Negro-buyers", 33,
THREE Sweet Dreams and Smuggling Schemes, 69,
FOUR Bank Bonds and Bondspersons, 95,
FIVE "The Slave-Factory of Franklin & Armfield", 124,
SIX Chains of Violence, 169,
SEVEN Machines of Empire, 204,