Until the Civil War settled the issue once and for all, conflict raged
between the northern
and the Southern traditionalists, with Southerners fiercely defending
their right to own human beings. Abolitionists contended that the domestic
trade was vital to slaverys survival and exemplified the worst aspects
of a totally corrupt system. Slaves, they argued, were inefficient workers
because they lacked any positive incentives to work well. Plantation monoculture
led to soil exhaustion and therefore slave-based agriculture was hopelessly
unprofitable in the Upper South. The abolitionists believed that the slave
system was kept alive in the Upper South only through the supplementary
incomes gained from trafficking in humans to professional Negro speculators and
from deliberately breeding and rearing people for sale.
Alvan Stewart proclaimed that the domestic trade was so important that
ending it would break open "the great door to the slave Bastille."
Without the long-distance market: "The slaves of Maryland and Virginia
would eat up their masters, and the masters must emancipate in self-defense to save themselves from destruction." As for the Deep South, Stewart
"[In Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi] there is such havoc annually
by death among the slaves of the great planters . . . that in less than
seven years, if no slave could be imported into those southern regions,
one half of the plantations would lie uncultivated for want of slaves.
The abolitionists viewed white Southerners as inhumanly callous and so
deeply corrupted morally that in return for the traders cash they
were happy to break up families and send individuals on long-distance
forced migrations to an assuredly terrible fate.
Those who benefited from the domestic slave trade developed rationalizations
to justify their activities. Throughout the years of the trade and for
decades thereafter, pro-slavery propagandists maintained that owners only
reluctantly - when under financial duress - resorted to selling their slaves
and breaking up families. There is ample evidence available to refute this proposition. Traders bills of sale suggest that no more than 5 percent
of their "stock" were acquired at debt, probate, or other court-mandated
sales. Rarely were the owners staving off imminent financial crisis
when they sold to the traders. They were, in fact, further increasing
Records also give the lie to another major claim propounded by slave-trade
apologists - that the people they sold were most often recaptured runaways
or "criminals" being punished for their transgressions. These
groups comprised only a very small portion of the trade. Runaways were
nearly always male, while the trade was made up of roughly equal numbers
of men and women. The bodies of fugitives and "criminals" would
have borne the scars of the lash, and traders would have regarded them
as extremely risky buys.
Many owners lived under the delusion that they treated their bondspersons
well and were loved and respected by them. They clung to this belief by
embracing an absurd rationalization: black people, they claimed, were
emotionally shallow and, unlike whites, did not have strong attachments
to their families. The history of the slave trade lays bare the mythmaking
that made up the "plantation legend."
In the end, the abolitionist position on the slave trade was essentially
correct about its size and about the character of its participants. At
the same time, they greatly overestimated the problem of the planters
debts. By buying into the myth that most sales were made to ease the owners
financial problems, they underestimated the slaveholders voluntary participation
in the trade. The abolitionists also exaggerated the extent of systematic
breeding among the enslaved.
Slaveholders took great interest in the growth of their "stock"
of people. But there does not seem to be any significant evidence to support
an abolitionist claim that the selling states developed a system of specialist