How was the southern cotton-based plantation system born? In this episode, Brian & Lyman discuss both the United States's ban on the international slave trade and the domestic slave economy that thrived in its wake.
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L: You’re listening to the Episode 6 of Migration Nation with Lyman Stone and Brian Hudson, a Podcast about the history of migration in America.
B: I’m a social studies teacher and Lyman’s an economist. For this episode, we’re continuing our exploration of enslaved migration in the United States, picking up where we left off last time around 1800.
L: And in this episode, we’re going to get to the institution of slavery most Americans are more familiar with: cotton-centric, exclusively southern, and politically contentious.
B: Yeah, and that political side is tricky. In fact, this episode will mostly avoid the politics, because we’re going to talk mostly about the slave trade, both domestic and internationally. We’ll talk about the territorial expansion of slavery, and its final abolition, in the next episode.
L: This episode will also include a lot of digressions that may surprise readers, but I’ll leave the specifics to be revealed. Suffice to say, even if you know a lot about slavery and the slave trade, you’ll be interested in some of the more peculiar things we found while researching this episode.
L: So when we pick up this story, we have to talk about the agricultural basis of the plantation slavery system: cotton. And here I have to make something really clear. I’m a cotton trade analyst for the USDA. But this podcast does not represent USDA views on cotton. So while I do know a lot about cotton because of my work, this Podcast does not reflect USDA’s views on the history of cotton, or slavery, or migration, or anything.
B: So that disclaimer aside, we can get into the story of how an effort to reduce labor needs ended up vastly increasing the demand of enslaved labor. When the Connecticut-born Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin in 1793 less than a year after first being exposed to cotton cultivation, his device that was supposed to reduce the need for labor-intensive de-seeding of cotton ultimately drove a vast increase in the need for labor-intensive picking of cotton.
L: So a little background here. The industrial revolution in England was overwhelmingly driven by manufacture of cotton textiles. Before the United States began growing cotton, the raw materials came from India, Turkey, Egypt, and some Caribbean colonies. But cotton processing required lots of labor to remove the seeds.
B: And sure, you could use enslaved labor for that, but that was generally a much less profitable deployment of that labor than other colonial crops like sugar. So cotton continued to mostly be produced in areas with large cotton-growing peasant populations, like India.
L: But then a new cotton variety was developed in the coastal islands of South Carolina. So-called Sea Island cotton had very long fibers and was easy to de-seed. Unfortunately, it only grew in coastal areas. So it made big business for Savannah and Charleston, but also competed there with other profitable crops like rice and indigo. Some shorter-fiber cotton (called upland cotton) was grown inland, but not that much. As of 1790, the United States produced just over 3,000 bales of cotton, miniscule compared to other global suppliers.
B: And most of that is probably the high-quality, long-fiber Sea Island cotton, right?
L: Right, because shorter-fiber cotton isn’t really that economically viable compared to other crops, because the de-seeding took tons of labor.
B: So when Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin to remove seeds from cotton, more than just making cotton economical, he made shorter fiber or upland cotton profitable.
L: And that is why this matters for migration. Upland cotton can be grown, well, up-land, not just on “Sea Islands.” It can be grown anywhere with a long, warm growing season and sufficient water. So the invention of the cotton gin doesn’t just make cotton cultivation more profitable, it makes it more mobile.
B: And that means migration.
L: Right. By 1860, the United States is producing about 4 million bales of cotton a year, and is half or more of the globally traded cotton. Given that the core of the industrial revolution was in textile products, this means that American cotton by 1860 was practically the foundation of the global economy.
B: Which I guess means slavery was practically the foundation of the global economy.
L: So, true story, there’s a book out recently called Empire of Cotton that actually makes exactly that claim: that slavery is the basis for global capitalism. It’s an interesting read, whether you agree or not.
B: The boom in cotton production after 1793 made cotton production more geographically mobile, and more profitable. So cotton production grew rapidly. However, to make more cotton, you’ve gotta have more people to plant and pick it. And for southern plantation owners, that means enslaved people to plant and pick it. Which begs the question: where did those new enslaved laborers come from?
L: Well, throughout the 1750s, 60s, and early 70s, the British Colonies brought in about 6,000 enslaved people per year, on average, as we’ve discussed. During the 1780s and early 1790s, that number fell to under 4,000.
B: Which could reflect the fact that there wasn’t really a strong economic case to be made for a huge expansion of the enslaved labor force, right? Cotton wasn’t viable yet, while natural population increase could probably supply enough labor for rice, tobacco, and indigo, which were mature industries.
L: Right. But then in the mid 1790s, the rate at which enslaved people were brought into the United States picked up dramatically. From under 3,000 in 1790, about 5,700 enslaved people per year arrived from 1795 to 1800. From 1800 to 1807, that number rose to an average of about 9,000 per year. In 1807, probably about 17,000 enslaved people were brought into the United States.
B: Holy cow. So, yeah, right after the cotton gin, we see an uptick in new enslaved arrivals. But that seems like a really sharp rise in 1807.
L: Well, that’s partly because of the rapid increase in cotton cultivation. But it has another reason too.
B: Oh, right: the ban on the slave trade. The constitution prohibited Congress from banning the slave trade before 1808 as a concession to southern interests, while still enabling an eventual total ban, reflecting the somewhat more anti-slavery sentiments of many of the founders. Plus, even many people who supported slavery nonetheless thought the transatlantic slave trade based on kidnapping Africans and transporting them to a new continent was unacceptable. Some opposed the slave trade because such kidnapping was seen as immoral, even if maybe slavery of the already-kidnapped was not viewed as immoral. Even Thomas Jefferson, who kept enslaved people, called the slave trade “the execrable commerce.” Others opposed the slave trade because they were worried that it would lead to a too great and too rapid increase in the black population.
L: Finally, a third and particularly cynical group may have supported the slave trade ban because they knew that cutting off the supply of enslaved immigrants would boost the price of any enslaved people within the country. So for people who hoped to sell their slaves, rather than people looking to buy, banning the slave trade was really about banning the competition.
B: And as terrible as it is, that competition is really what we want to talk about.
L: Yeah, because when the international slave trade is criminalized, the domestic slave trade really heats up.
B: That domestic slave trade was huge. There’s debate about how much enslaved migration between states is due to enslaved people migrating alongside their masters versus being sold to a different master. Estimates range from 10% of total enslaved migration to 60%.
L: But whichever it is doesn’t necessarily matter that much. Even if enslaved people migrated with their masters, it was usually from areas where buying a new slave was cheaper to areas where such a purchase was more expensive, because the price of an enslaved person was closely correlated with the value of local agricultural productivity, whether it was tobacco, cotton, rice, indigo, or sugar. So if a slave-owner moved from less profitable areas like Virginia to more profitable areas like in Mississippi, he was also moving from an area of lower slave prices to higher slave prices, which might induce him to sell some slaves anyways, hoping that the higher profitability of remaining slaves would help him still make equal or greater profit, while the slave sale revenues paid off some debts or costs of migration.
B: Of course, being sold to a different master in a more “profitable” area was a horrible fate for enslaved people. It meant separation from family, often worse working conditions, a grueling trip in chains, and the new master may be harsher, or, even if not, may feel a need to show the new slave who’s boss early on. This “domestic slave trade” understandably traumatized generations of enslaved people, which some scholars have argued led future free blacks to be wary of migration generally. Whether that’s true or not, the domestic trade left such an imprint on culture that to this day we keep idioms like being “sold down the river,” referring to sale down the Mississippi River to deep south cotton plantations or, worst of all, Louisiana’s sugar plantations.
L: Yeah and the ports most notable for that idiom, and some of the largest people-selling points in the nation, were Newport, Kentucky and Louisville, Kentucky. With an unsuitable climate for cotton but an established enslaved population due to tobacco cultivation, Kentucky, like Virginia and Maryland, became a major people-selling state.
B: And again, we’re not calling these states “importers” or “exporters” because import and export is what you do to commodities, not people. But when you mention those states, it makes me wonder: which states sold the most enslaved people, and which states bought the most? I mean given that Louisiana had such high mortality, they’ve got to be a big buyer, right?
L: Right. In every period, Louisiana is a big buyer. And in every period, Virginia is a big seller. But that’s the only consistency. In the 1790s and 1800s, states like New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania show up as big people-selling states. Many slaveowners could see that emancipation was coming in their states, and figured they would cash in while they could.
B: Which suggests that the northern emancipation laws didn’t actually free very many people in most cases.
L: No, not very many at all. By the 1820s, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, South Carolina, and Kentucky are all major people-selling states. Now in the 1790s, Kentucky and South Carolina had been major people-buyers, so this is a pretty rapid shift. Notably, both states had major crops that didn’t require as many slaves: tobacco in Kentucky, rice in South Carolina.
B: So the buying states in the 1820s have got to be the big cotton states, right? That’ll be Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi.
L: Right. Those states buy probably a net of 100,000 people during the 1820s; in gross it’s certainly more than that.
B: Wow. So that’s easily the same scale as the international slave trade.
L: By the 1850s, about 300,000 enslaved people will be sold across state lines in a decade.
B: Wow. It took 75 years for the British colonies to buy 300,000 enslaved people from abroad. It took the antebellum south just 10 years.
L: Right. The domestic slave trade was easily as large as the international trade. And keep in mind, the bit about people being squeamish about kidnapping people to sell them into slavery… yeah that didn’t stop South Carolina in the early 1700s. Nor did it stop the Southern states from foisting extremely aggressive centralized Federal fugitive slave laws on the northern states.
B: Which, before we skip past this, it’s worth noting that the number of enslaved people who escaped to free states was substantial, but never on the same scale as the slave trade. From 1800 to 1860, probably only about 100,000 enslaved people total escaped to free states or Canada and were not recaptured. Most of those came earlier in the period, before stricter fugitive slave laws and increasingly severe slave-state repressive tactics made it harder to escape to freedom.
L: Meanwhile, somewhere between 300,000 and 1.5 million people were sold across state lines over the same period. As valiant as the efforts of the Underground Railway were, it was never, ever going to be enough to substantially offset the tide of the slave trade.
B: And that tide was rolling ever westward.
L: But maybe before we look at slavery’s expansion, a couple of footnotes about the institution of slavery that most listeners probably probably don’t know.
B: Yaaay footnotes!
L: They’re really good ones!
B: Oh I know, just messing with you. Someone’s gotta lighten the mood.
B: So the first key footnote we wanted to mention relates to the legal framework for the domestic slave trade. It turns out that some people in slave states found the domestic slave trade as offensive as they found the international slave trade.
L: Which makes sense given that the domestic slave trade was, in fact, really awful.
B: But you may be surprised to hear that in South Carolina, for example, debates over the domestic slave trade led to a cycle of bans and repeals that kept South Carolina’s position in the domestic slave trade volatile up until the 1820s. For example, there were debates on banning South Carolina’s participation in the domestic slave trade in 1804, 1807, 1812, and in 1816, they actually did ban the domestic slave trade, though they repealed the ban in 1819.
L: Seriously? I’m honestly shocked.
B: They weren’t alone. Georgia restricted sales of enslaved people into the state in 1816, then banned even immigration of enslaved people in 1817. However, these laws were poorly enforced, with thousands of enslaved people brought into the state during the ban. It would be repealed in 1824. Even in areas highly dependent on enslaved labor bought elsewhere, like Mississippi and Louisiana, sporadic bans on the domestic slave trade did occur. In 1822, Mississippi banned sales, though slaveowning migrants could bring enslaved laborers with them. Louisiana required that those buying enslaved people across state lines provide a certificate attesting that the enslaved person had no criminal history.
L: Wait, even Louisiana got in on restricting the domestic slave trade? That seems weird.
B: Well, although there was some condemnation of the domestic slave trade on moral grounds, the main concern was about controlling enslaved populations. The domestic slave trade made enslaved people really unhappy, obviously, and so introduced another risk and pressure to the already volatile institution of slavery.
L: Oh, so they saw the domestic slave trade as fomenting revolt. That makes sense. I’d revolt too if somebody sold my family down the river.
B: Yeah. And then in the buying states, they often worried that their enslaved populations were too large, and could overpower them. Here, the worry is kind of like a Saint Domingue slave-revolt type worry: many slave owners wanted to encourage slaveholding, but not too much.
L: This state’s too free, this state’s too slave… but this state is juuuust right.
B: Uh, sure. The Goldilocks Principle of enslaved populations. But the point is, while many states did restrict the domestic slave trade, it was rarely because they morally opposed the practice on a really meaningful level. It’s because the domestic slave trade created new revolt risks.
L: Of course, as we mentioned, we can say the same about the ban on the international slave trade, which brings us to our second curious footnote.
B: I don’t think revolt risks played a huge part in the 1807 ban…
L: Well no, probably not. But the 1807 ban didn’t actually end the slave trade in the United States. It just ended the legal slave trade.
B: So sure, after the 1807 slave trading bam, there’s going to be evasion, but surely the coasts are easier to police than state boundaries were.
L: They were, but it was still a challenge. Estimates of the number of enslaved Africans illegally forced to migrate to the United States range from 50,000 to over 300,000. I think that 250,000 is the best bet, if you include Texas.
B: Holy cow! That’s basically as many as during slavery’s rise!
L: Yep. So yeah, about that ban on the slave trade…
B: Apparently policing the coasts is really hard?
L: Well, yeah, it was. But there’s more to it than that. For example, many enslaved people sold to Texas or Louisiana were brought there from Virgina or South Carolina by ship. This ship could also sail out to international waters, buy some enslaved people from a ship that was legally allowed to carry slaves, then slip back into U.S. waters and show up in its destination with something like its registered cargo. They could even match the number of slaves supposed to be carried if any of the enslaved people aboard died along the way, or if they stopped at any smaller, out-of-the-way ports en route.
B: Okay, so slave traffickers are clever, but still, getting hundreds of thousands of people smuggled in that way seems… well, they were really determined.
L: Of course they were. Slave traders could buy a slave for $30 in the African markets and sell him for $1,000 in New Orleans. Yes, they’d pay for the shipping costs and face risk of capture by British patrols, and probably lose some margin to middle-men and gray markets and bribes, but still, the profits to be made were enormous.
B: When you say bribes, is there evidence that American officials were involved in this on any large scale?
L: Regarding bribery, I’m not sure. But state and Federal officials did something worse.
B: Okay, do you just spend your days thinking up ominous ways to introduce the disturbing facts you dredge up out of history? I mean really, it’s like you go out of your way in search of not just the bad, but the bad and weird.
L: Look, people think they know this part of history. And our stated goal was to---
B: To show people the nuance and detail, to get beyond the generalities. I know. Okay. So what’s the “something worse” that government officials did.
L: Why, sold enslaved Africans smuggled into the country, of course.
B: (sputtering) W-What?
L: Yeah, so just a little thing, but the ban on the slave trade specified that any “contraband” found, that’s enslaved people, would be dealt with according to the state laws of the state nearest the waters in which the contraband was found. So, if you were enslaved on a slave ship that got caught off Cape Cod, lucky you, you may be free! But if you were enslaved on a slave ship that got caught in the Gulf of Mexico… tough luck, you’ll be dealt with according to Louisiana state law, and Louisiana state law says yeah, you’re a slave, so we’re going to sell you like a slave. Oh, and the government gets to keep the revenue from your sale.
B: So far from being rescuers, U.S. navy vessels interdicting slave ships in the areas they were most likely to be found, southern coastal areas, were just another middle-man in the slave trade.
L: Yup. Which, personally, I think is way worse than some bribery and graft here and there.
B: Ya think?
L: Anyways, with those two tangents about about domestic trade restrictions and government profiteering from the slave trade addressed, I think that’s about all for this episode.
B: So that’s all for episode 6 of Migration Nation. Thanks for listening in, and we hope you’ll join us again, despite the despair-inducing topic. If you’d like more information about what we’re doing here, or would like to offer us your support, join us on the web at migrationpodcast.com, where you can find transcripts of our episodes, bonus nerdy materials from Lyman and me, and even a look ahead at episodes we have in the works.
L: For today’s episode, we wanted to point listeners to some of the resources we found particularly helpful. For today’s episode, I found invaluable information at Slavery in the North, an online project documenting the historical place of, well, slavery in the north. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture’s “In Motion: The African American Migration Experience” website was also a really helpful tool, so check it out if you want more information.
B: Also, a couple business notes: we have been really excited with the response we’ve gotten to the show so far. But there are a couple things we want to note. First of all, like I said, we do have a website! And it has blogs with more information, comment sections, and our contact info: so check that out!
L: Also, you can follow us on social media. Migration Nation on Facebook, migrationcast on Twitter, or follow me personally on Twitter at @lymanstoneky.
B: Plus, you can email us at email@example.com.
L: Which you might want to do if we get something wrong! Speaking of, we got something wrong about the South Carolina story last week. The Yamassee people were actually allies of South Carolina in the earlier Tuscarora War, and they often caught and sold enslaved natives of other tribes to South Carolina. The Tuscarora War ended in 1715. The Yamassee War started shortly afterward, and led to the Yamassee being destroyed, dispersed, or enslaved as well: but I erroneously combined the Yamassee and Tuscarora tribes and wars in the last episode. So, there’s that.
B: Also, finally, if you like this podcast, there’s one thing we really need from you: reviews on iTunes. iTunes is the largest Podcast provider, and reviews help us get found by the iTunes store’s algorithm. So please, rate and review!
B: We hope you’ve enjoyed learning about the early years of American migration with us! Until next time, this is Brian and Lyman at Migration Nation, saying “Something something something”