The Men Who Turned Slavery Into Big Business

The domestic slave trade was no sideshow in our history, and slave traders were not bit players on the stage.

An illustration of shackles with a chain made of dollar signs
Adam Maida / The Atlantic

Isaac Franklin spent part of Christmas Day 1833 assessing his company’s operations and making plans for the future. Writing from New Orleans to one of his business partners in Virginia, Franklin took a few moments out of his holiday to report that he had rented a new showroom in the city from which he would soon start making sales, and that sales up the Mississippi River at the company’s branch in Natchez, Mississippi, were going swimmingly.

Franklin had just come from Natchez, and he was happy to relay the news that he had seen “first rate prices and profits,” realized nearly $100,000, and likely outdone all of his competitors put together. He was also collecting outstanding debts from customers to whom he had extended credit, and he promised that he would soon send along some money, though he told his partner that he ought to consider rustling up additional funds from his banking connections if he could. Franklin wanted “four hundred more slaves this season,” and keeping the supply chain steady did not come cheap.

Franklin and his business partners, John Armfield and Rice Ballard, were the most important domestic slave traders in American history. Through their company, commonly known as Franklin and Armfield, they moved roughly 10,000 enslaved people out of Maryland and Virginia for sale in Mississippi and Louisiana. They transformed the domestic slave trade by demonstrating how white men could make it their profession, not just something they might do as a temporary means of earning extra cash. And they did it not only through remorseless violence but also by taking maximum advantage of the fact that enslaved people were considered both laborers and financial assets that could be integrated into the money markets and credit networks of early American capitalism.

In 1808, Congress banned the importation of enslaved people from overseas, but a domestic slave trade flourished in the United States during the first 60 years of the 19th century. From 1800 to 1860, more than 1 million enslaved people were forcibly moved across state lines, shifting American slavery’s center of gravity steadily southward and westward as slaveholders relentlessly pursued greater profits from cotton and sugar production.

Slave traders bore responsibility for executing the bulk of this massive forced migration, providing a labor force that made them indispensable to slavery’s expansion and thus to the broader economic development of the country. As conduits for the financialization of enslaved people and their movement across the country, men such as Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard facilitated the systematic extraction of capital from Black labor and Black bodies that circulated around the country and around the world, and that benefited nearly everyone but the enslaved themselves. Their business, which I explore in my forthcoming book, The Ledger and the Chain, utterly belies any notion that slavery sat at the margins of American society.

The domestic slave trade was no sideshow in our history, and slave traders were not bit players on the stage. On the contrary, the trade and its operators were pervasive in American life before the Civil War. They played vital roles in shaping the demographic, political, and economic contours of a growing nation, and we ought not fool ourselves into thinking we have left that past behind. In truth, we still live in the world that Franklin and Armfield’s profits helped build, and with the enduring inequalities that they and their industry entrenched.

In 1828, Franklin, a native of Tennessee, and Armfield, a native of North Carolina, signed “articles of co-partnership,” formalizing a business arrangement to work together as dealers in enslaved people. Both had been slave traders for a number of years before they joined forces, but they had in mind a different kind of operation than either had been involved with before. Investing the modern equivalent of roughly half a million dollars between them, they rented a three-story townhouse with an attached walled compound in Alexandria, Virginia, where Armfield purchased, accumulated, and stashed enslaved people. From there, he sent them to New Orleans, usually by ship down the Atlantic coast, into the Gulf of Mexico, and up the mouth of the Mississippi River. Franklin received the shipments there, sold some of the captives in the city, and sent the rest upriver by steamboat to the company’s sales facility and showroom in Natchez.

Franklin and Armfield brought on Rice Ballard, a native of Virginia, as a third partner in 1831. The company stationed him in Richmond, where he worked out of a private jail, purchasing more enslaved people and sending them down the James River to Norfolk, where they were added to the vessels dispatched by Armfield as they headed south.

Within just a few years, Franklin and Armfield was the largest domestic slave-trading operation in the United States, and larger than any operation before it had ever been. The company ran daily advertisements in multiple newspapers announcing that it had “cash in market” and would buy “any number of LIKELY NEGROES.” It had in its employ a small army of purchasing agents and subagents, who bought slaves across more than 20,000 square miles of Maryland, Virginia, and the District of Columbia. It shipped 1,000 to 1,500 enslaved people to the lower South every year, mostly on one of three brigs that composed a private fleet owned by the company. After unloading their cargo, those brigs often brought cotton, sugar, and other commodities back for delivery to merchants from New York to Virginia, opening still another revenue stream for the company. Gross receipts for Franklin and Armfield came to the modern equivalent of millions of dollars annually, measured simply by inflation. Measured as a share of GDP, they came to several hundred million dollars.

Franklin and Armfield succeeded in part because of timing. The first five or six years of the 1830s brought the biggest economic boom the United States had ever seen, and the core of that boom lay in the land, slave, and cotton economy of the lower South. The region’s white population increased by nearly 1 million in the 1830s, encouraged by federal policies that forced Indian nations off the best cotton land on the continent and by banks that flooded the lower South with easy credit and cheap loans. Demand for slaves skyrocketed accordingly, and during the 1830s, slave traders moved about as many enslaved people via the interstate trade as they had in the previous two decades combined. Though Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard might have done well whenever they went into business together, it is unlikely they could have done better than to have started their endeavor precisely when they did.

The company succeeded, too, because its operators concealed the brutality that served as the foundation of their business with efforts to build sterling public reputations. In their correspondence, the partners often referred to themselves as “robbers” and “pirates,” reveling in a kind of roguishness derived from being engaged in an industry that everyone understood was more than a bit dirty and had no room for sentimentality. In their eyes, enslaved people were merchandise, marketable commodities useful solely to the extent that they could be exploited for profit. Franklin and Armfield routinely separated enslaved families; disposed of enslaved people who had died from disease under cover of darkness, lest potential customers shy away from purchases; kept whips and rifles handy to control those they imprisoned and trafficked; and always kept an eye out for young enslaved women who could bring a premium on the market as “fancies” whom white men might want to rape.

At the same time, however, Armfield acted the consummate professional at his Alexandria headquarters. He offered customers and antislavery activists alike a tour and a drink when they appeared in his offices, and he claimed that he always stayed within the boundaries of the law, tried to expose criminals who kidnapped free Black people and sold them into slavery, and looked after the well-being of the people he bought and sold as best he could. Similarly, when slaveholders were unhappy with their purchases, as sometimes happened, Franklin typically preferred to make an exchange or even provide a refund rather than risk a lawsuit. That might have cost him money in the short term, but Franklin believed that having a reputation among white people for straight and dependable dealing would redound to the company’s benefit.

The real key to Franklin and Armfield’s success, in fact, lay in that carefully cultivated reputation, because it brought with it the confidence of the business world, especially banks and bankers. Most slave traders sought quick cash sales, and Franklin was perfectly happy for customers to pay for enslaved people with cash. But he also understood that a slave-trading company known for reliability and volume was a slave-trading company able to gain access to borrowed capital that would pay off more handsomely over time.

So as the company grew in size and renown, Franklin established credit lines with banks from New Orleans to New York, which provided assurance that even if tough economic times came around, he could always, as he put it, “get money when no other Trader can obtain a Dollar.” With that assurance, Franklin could sell enslaved people in the lower South to customers on credit, sometimes in exchange for negotiable commercial paper, and sometimes in exchange for mortgages on the very people he was selling, thus forcing the enslaved to ground the financing of their own sale. He held on to some of the paper and collected the debts it represented when they came due, and some of it he transmitted back east, where Armfield and Ballard turned it into cash to be pumped back into purchasing markets for more slaves.

The company thus trapped enslaved people in an endless financial loop, as confining in its own way as the ships that transported them and the prisons that caged them. And Franklin, Armfield, Ballard, and the legions of merchants, planters, bankers, and others who acted as their accomplices realized profits at every step.

More than anyone in their industry before them, Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard demonstrated how to become extremely wealthy from the process, and other men were watching. Though the three partners mostly left the slave-trade business in 1836, dozens of large slave-trading companies followed and built upon the model they pioneered, carrying out the trade for another 30 years, until the Civil War finally put an end to slavery and the slave trade alike.

The capital enslaved people had generated, however, would never come back to its producers.