Published by EH.NET (July 2004)
Robert H. Gudmestad, A Troublesome Commerce: The Transformation of the Interstate Slave Trade. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2003. xii + 246 pp. $59.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-8071-2884-8.
Reviewed for EH.NET by Jonathan Pritchett, Department of Economics, Tulane University.
In his new book entitled, A Troublesome Commerce, Robert H. Gudmestad defines a slave trader as “a man who bought slaves in one state and sold them in another on a regular basis as the sole or principal source of his income” (p. 4). This relatively narrow definition of a slave trader would have appealed to many contemporary white southerners. After all, from their viewpoint, a slave trader provided a necessary and useful service. He supplied labor to the planters of the lower South, and provided a ready market for surplus or disobedient slaves in the upper South. Some owners, however, would have found it difficult to reconcile the financial benefits of the trader with his harmful effects on the slaves. For owners actively engaged in the market, distinguishing their actions from those of a trader could prove difficult. For white southerners, the “difference between a private citizen and a slave trader was that the former was relying on just motives whereas the latter was acting from personal gain and the love of money” (p. 151). By imputing motives to the market participants, white southerners could maintain a distinction between slave traders and themselves.
The westward migration of slaves during the antebellum period took two basic forms: planter migrations and the interstate slave trade. Although all forms of forced migration threatened the stability of enslaved families, the interstate trade was a greater threat than planter migrations. Presumably, planters took all of their slaves with them on their westward migrations, mitigating the disruptive effects on slave families. Traders, however, preferred to purchase slaves with characteristics valued by buyers in distant markets. Such selective purchases were typically done one slave at a time, often times severing marital and family ties. Because of its disruptive effects on families, the slave trade made an easy target for abolitionists and other critics of slavery and the South. As Gudmestad argues (in chapter 7), the early attempts to distance themselves from the slave trade were eventually abandoned in the years prior to the War, as white southerners became increasingly belligerent in their defense of the institution of slavery.
Gudmestad finds a number of interesting conflicts and contradictions regarding the reputations of traders. Because of the threat of sale, planters in the upper South may have exaggerated the worst aspects of the trade as a method of controlling their labor force (p. 44). Upon learning he was to be sold, however, the slave was more likely to resist the trader or to possibly run away. Consequently, traders used concealment, deception or surprise in their efforts to acquire a slave (p. 45). In an effort to gain sales, traders might have advertised their willingness to purchase criminal slaves from owners wishing to dispose of them. While helpful in the upper South, such a reputation in the lower South would have hurt them when they tried to sell the slaves. Some owners in the upper South refused to sell their slaves to interstate traders, possibly to avoid social sanctions from their church or their neighbors. This reputation would be costly, however, if it resulted in lower market prices for their slaves (p. 70). Even the traders sought social acceptance by drawing a distinctions between themselves and smaller, itinerant traders. From their viewpoint, only this latter type of speculator “destroyed families, escorted coffles, sold diseased slaves, concealed the flaws of bondservants, and corrupted whites through speculation. All others who bought and sold slaves, even if they did so on a full-time basis, were innocent” (p. 167).
Historians will be familiar with the methodology employed by Gudmestad. The author provides numerous quotations from contemporary observers of the slave trade and provides his own interpretation of their meaning (subject to the obligatory qualifications). Economists, however, will be disappointed by the absence of quantitative analysis. For example, Gudmestad argues that “Maryland slaveowners gained a reputation for having two prices for their bondservants, one for private citizens and a higher one for traders. They gladly hiked up prices by a third or a half in order to separate speculators from their money” (p. 13). Statements such as these lend themselves to quantitative analysis, yet none is forthcoming.
Another example where economic analysis might be useful deals with profitability and the reputation of slave traders. Although traders were taxed, licensed, and regulated by city and state governments, there were no effective barriers to entry or exit. The market was competitive and, in long-run equilibrium, traders should have earned normal rates of return. However, social disapprobation would have discouraged otherwise qualified individuals from becoming slave traders. The restriction in labor supply would have increased the wages of those remaining in the profession, in a manner analogous to a compensating wage differential. If slave traders had a bad reputation, then the measured rate of return to slave trading should have been higher than those in other professions.
A final example of useful economic analysis concerns the trader’s reputation for selling criminal, sick, or injured slaves in the markets of the lower South. Some traders engaged in fraud when they concealed these flaws from unsuspecting buyers (p. 95). For most buyers considering a purchase, the distrust was evident from their close physical examination of the slaves (p. 97). Although some traders practiced fraud, others worked hard to acquire reputations for fair business practices in order to encourage repeat sales. According to one trader, dealing in “Trash and defective” slaves was “never permanently profitable” (p. 154). The business reputations of traders would have been reflected in the prices of their slaves. If buyers in the lower South were distrustful, then the imported slaves sold by traders would have commanded lower prices than those of slaves sold locally at auction. Recent research indicates that the opposite was true. Traders selected higher valued slaves for shipment to the lower South in order to satisfy the buyers in that market and their slaves typically sold for higher prices.
A Troublesome Commerce is a valuable contribution to the growing body of research on the interstate slave trade. Much of this literature represents an attempt to understand the psyche of those engaged in the trade. Economic analysis would be a valuable complement to the traditional methodology used by Gudmestad. Profits and prices provide useful information about market participants, even with regard to the reputations of slave traders.
Robert H. Gudmestad is an assistant professor of history at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.
1. The classification of the buying trips made by planters is problematic. Rather than deal with traders, some planters from the lower South traveled to the upper South (or exporting states) to purchase their slaves. (Such buying trips were sometimes necessary because of the legal restrictions of the trade.) Because at least one transaction occurred, current researchers (and the slaves themselves) would classify the buying trips of planters as an extension of the interstate slave trade. No doubt that contemporary planters, seeking to distance themselves from the trade, would have been appalled by this classification. As a consequence, Gudmestad considers the buying trips of planters as a separate type of forced migration.
2. Jonathan B. Pritchett and Richard M. Chamberlain, “Selection in the Market for Slaves: New Orleans, 1830-1860,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, 108 (May, 1993), pp. 461-473.
Jonathan Pritchett is chair of the department of economics at Tulane University. He is the author of “Quantitative Estimates of the United States Interregional Slave Trade, 1820-1860,” Journal of Economic History, 61 (June 2001), pp. 467-475 and “The Interregional Slave Trade and the Selection of Slaves for the New Orleans Market,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 28 (Summer, 1997), pp. 57-85.