James De Wolf's official congressional biography reports: "Before he was twenty years old [he] became captain of a ship; engaged in extensive commercial ventures, principally trading in slaves, with Cuba and other West Indian islands." He and his brothers fitted out eighty-eight slave-trade voyages between 1784 and 1807. Dealing in slaves was considered a respectable activity, and De Wolf was repeatedly elected to the Rhode Island State House of Representatives, where he served for twenty-five years. He was a United States Senator between 1821 and 1825.
Some of the most illustrious families had financial interests in the slave trade. In Rhode Island, the Browns (the university is named after Nicholas Brown, Jr., whose father and brothers invested in the trade), William Ellery (whose father, William Ellery, Sr., signed the Declaration of Independence), and the Vernons were engaged in the slave trade. In New York, the Van Cortlandts, Schuylers, Beekmans, and Livingstons also profited from the slave trade; in Massachusetts, the Cabot and Lowell families; in Virginia, the famous William Byrd I and Benjamin Harrison, ancestor of U.S. Presidents William Henry Harrison and Benjamin Harrison; and in South Carolina, Henry Laurens, who presided at the Second Continental Congress. John Paul Jones, a hero of the American Revolution, delivered slaves to the Caribbean on at least one occasion.