Before the Civil War, New Orleans Was the Center of the U.S. Slave Trade (Excerpt)

Historians in the News
tags: slavery, New Orleans, history of capitalism

Excerpted from The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America by Joshua D. Rothman. Copyright © 2021. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Waiting for the slave ship United States near the New Orleans wharves in October 1828, Isaac Franklin may have paused to consider how the city had changed since he had first seen it from a flatboat deck 20 years earlier.

The New Orleans that Franklin, one of the biggest slave traders of the early 19th century, saw housed more than 45,000 people and was the fifth-largest city in the United States. Its residents, one in every three of whom was enslaved, had burst well beyond its original boundaries and extended themselves in suburbs carved out of low-lying former plantations along the river.

Population growth had only quickened the commercial and financial pulse of New Orleans. Neither the scores of commission merchant firms that serviced southern planter clients, nor the more than a dozen banks that would soon hold more collective capital than the banks of New York City, might have been noticeable at a glance. But from where Franklin stood, the transformation of New Orleans was unmistakable nonetheless.

The pestilent summer was over, and the crowds in the streets swelled, dwarfing those that Franklin remembered. The change in seasons meant river traffic was coming into full swing too, and flatboats and barges now huddled against scads of steamboats and beneath a flotilla of tall ships. Arranged five or six deep for more than a mile along the levee, they made a forest of smokestacks, masts, and sails.

Coming and going from the forest were beef and pork and lard, buffalo robes and bear hides and deerskins, lumber and lime, tobacco and flour and corn. It was the cotton bales and hogsheads of sugar, stacked high on the levee, however, that really made the New Orleans economy hum. Cotton exports from New Orleans increased more than sevenfold in the 1820s. Pouring down the continental funnel of the Mississippi Valley to its base, they amounted by the end of the decade to more than 180 million pounds, which was more than half the cotton produced in the entire country. Nearly all of Louisiana’s sugar, meanwhile, left the state through New Orleans, and the holds of more and more ships filled with it as the number of sugar plantations tripled in the second half of the 1820s.

The city of New Orleans was the largest slave market in the United States, ultimately serving as the site for the purchase and sale of more than 135,000 people. In 1808, Congress exercised its constitutional prerogative to end the legal importation of enslaved people from outside the United States. But it did not end domestic slave trading, effectively creating a federally protected internal market for human beings. As Franklin stood in New Orleans awaiting the arrival of the United States, filled with enslaved people sent from Virginia by his business partner, John Armfield, he aimed to get his share of that business.

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