An 1836 antislavery broadside depicting the offices of the slave-trading firm Franklin & Armfield in Alexandria, Virginia

Library of Congress

‘Franklin & Armfield’s Slave Prison’; detail from an 1836 antislavery broadside depicting the offices of the slave-trading firm Franklin & Armfield in Alexandria, Virginia

In the decades after the Civil War, when white southerners created the mythology of the Lost Cause, they depicted slavery as a benign institution that uplifted and protected a childlike people. But even the most creative nostalgists for the Old South struggled to justify the slave trade. For Mary Norcott Bryan of North Carolina, who in A Grandmother’s Recollection of Dixie (1912) spun tales of the “friendly relation that existed between master and slave,” a visit to the auction block in New Orleans was a painful memory. “The slave market I did not like,” she wrote. “That was really the only objectionable thing about slavery, the being bought and sold.” Another enslaver, Letitia Burwell of Virginia, rhapsodized in her 1895 memoir over the “mutual affection existing between the white and black races” in the South. But the “class of men in our State who made a business of buying negroes to sell again farther south” were a breed apart: “These we never met, and held in horror.”

Nearly half a million Africans were brought to North America in the two centuries before Congress abolished the external slave trade in 1808. Over the next fifty years, around twice that number of African-Americans were moved from the states of the upper South and the Atlantic seaboard to the expanding cotton belt, and the enslaved population of the United States nearly quadrupled. Any hope that the ban on the external trade might curb or reverse slavery’s spread was dashed by this internal trade, which allowed slavery to metastasize from Georgia to Texas. The historian Ira Berlin aptly termed this gigantic movement of people a “second Middle Passage,” and recent studies have revealed its terrible contours with fresh clarity. In the process, historians have presented convincing evidence for slavery’s deep entanglement with the development of American capitalism.

During the boom years of the internal slave trade, from the 1810s to the 1850s, the buying and selling of human beings became essential to the exploitation of the southern interior. As the federal government removed tens of thousands of Indigenous people from the lower South, sugar and especially cotton became suddenly and astonishingly lucrative. To secure this windfall, enslavers living in the upper South and along the seaboard moved south and west, forcing their slaves to accompany them. But only around a third of the Black people who endured the second Middle Passage traveled alongside their existing enslavers. The other two thirds—more than 600,000 people—were bought and sold at the slave pens and auction blocks that Mary Norcott Bryan found so distasteful. The external trade had been replaced by a vicious commodification of human beings that was both novel and horribly familiar.

Joshua Rothman’s powerful new book, The Ledger and the Chain, excavates the “routine brutalities” of the internal slave trade by focusing on a single firm, Franklin & Armfield. Established in 1828 by Isaac Franklin of Tennessee and John Armfield of North Carolina, Franklin & Armfield connected enslavers in the upper South looking to sell with enslavers in the lower South looking to profit from the boom in cotton and sugar. Franklin & Armfield was not the first business to prosper from trading human beings, but it became the most successful slave-trading enterprise in antebellum America. With offices in Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, the firm rose to prominence in the early 1830s alongside the lower South’s plantation complex.

Every year Franklin & Armfield cast hundreds of African-Americans into the holds of slaving ships on journeys from the Virginia coast to New Orleans. The company forced hundreds more into overland coffles, driving enslaved people a thousand miles to the brutal landscapes of Mississippi and Louisiana. The firm’s career was relatively brief—it was dissolved in 1841—but it made fortunes for its owners and devastated the lives of thousands. Its success depended not only on the ruthlessness of its partners but also on a series of financial and logistical innovations that put Franklin & Armfield at the cutting edge of American capitalism.

In the opening pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe introduces Mr. Haley, a slave trader with “that swaggering air of pretension which marks a low man who is trying to elbow his way upward in the world.” John Armfield and Isaac Franklin—along with Rice Ballard of Virginia, who joined the firm in 1831—were certainly on the make. But Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, confounds the stereotype of the slave trader as scrappy outsider.

The partners of Franklin & Armfield were scions of respectable families. Armfield, who coordinated the purchase of human beings at the firm’s Alexandria headquarters, bought what one observer described as “the handsomest and most desirable residence” in the District of Columbia. Ballard—who presided over the firm’s detention facilities in Richmond and its purchases of enslaved people there, and occasionally oversaw their sale in the lower South—was made a patrol judge at the Natchez Jockey Club (a sign of social power in Mississippi) and a colonel in the militia. Franklin, who juggled the firm’s sales and credit in Natchez and New Orleans, retired each summer to his huge plantation in Tennessee. Each of these men parlayed the buying and selling of human beings into enormous wealth, and none paid a social penalty for doing so.


In fact, the partners of Franklin & Armfield took pains to distinguish themselves from smaller traders, insisting that they provided a reliable and humane alternative to the excesses and corner-cutting of local operators. Armfield even welcomed members of the public who wished to tour the firm’s premises in Alexandria. In one of the book’s many disconcerting passages, Rothman tells of the 1835 visit of Ethan Andrews, an antislavery activist from Connecticut. “John Armfield understood how to welcome people like Andrews,” Rothman writes. “Though they were not in the market for slaves, they got a sales pitch nonetheless.” Armfield was so confident of the security of the business—at least from the interference of northerners—that he arranged for his assistant to lead Andrews through the facility, briefly allowing him to look upon the thirty or forty enslaved people currently held in the yards. Then Armfield offered his guest refreshments and assured him of the firm’s bona fides. Andrews saw Armfield’s charm for what it was: a calculated distraction from the gruesome realities of his business. But he still enjoyed the company of his “engaging” and “graceful” host.

Franklin & Armfield promised to relieve lower South planters of the inconvenience and risk of transporting enslaved people across vast distances. This business model brought challenges as well as opportunities. Franklin & Armfield operated before Samuel Morse introduced the telegraph in 1844, and so the partners had to coordinate their complex transactions via letters or their own long journeys between far-flung outposts. The enslavers of the lower South would become some of the richest men in America, but they presented themselves to slave traders (and to merchants and bankers) as perpetually pinched. The business of producing commodities for sale in distant markets was inherently uncertain, even as the returns to white people from enslaved labor were frequently enormous. Franklin & Armfield, then, had to manage the logistical challenges and financial risks of moving their captives from one end of America to the other, as well as the self-pitying parsimony of its customers in New Orleans and Natchez.

When lower South enslavers agreed to buy from the firm, they rarely offered specie; most sales were made with paper money or bills of exchange. Few banks on the cotton frontier were well known (or trusted) on the other side of the Appalachians. The historian Calvin Schermerhorn has described American banknotes in this period as imposing a “tax on distance”: eastern banks and businesses were certain to impose heavy discounts on the value of notes issued by western banks. And yet Franklin & Armfield needed to recycle the proceeds from selling enslaved people in Louisiana and Mississippi to purchase more in Virginia or North Carolina. Franklin, the firm’s driving force, quickly recognized that slave trading was only partly about the commerce in human beings; it was also about the movement of money, and a successful firm would need a financial services arm. We might assume that this sort of move from trading to finance was an innovation of twentieth-century corporate America. In fact, it was at the heart of Franklin’s vision for his firm, and central to Franklin & Armfield’s success.

Franklin’s initial plan was to sell enslaved people on credit, at hefty interest rates, though ultimately he lacked the enormous reserves of capital necessary to make this arrangement profitable. As he came to understand the limits of the firm’s reach, Franklin chose instead to ingratiate himself with the merchant and banking classes of New Orleans—a strategy that was time-consuming and made his own reputation central to the firm’s prospects, but that gave Franklin access to robust financing.

The economies of the lower South were volatile, so Franklin gravitated toward bankers and merchants with partners in the North and in Britain. This gave him privileged access to bank drafts, bills of exchange, and other financial instruments that would hold their value when remitted to his associates in Virginia. The business of slave trading was rooted in the South, but it was these national and transatlantic links in the credit chain that allowed Franklin & Armfield to become so successful.

The firm also became a pioneer of vertical integration. Instead of leasing slave pens and buying passage for enslaved people on commercial vessels, the partners of Franklin & Armfield bought their own jails in Alexandria and Natchez and even founded a shipping line. In 1835, as the internal trade reached its peak, the firm launched its third slave ship, the Isaac Franklin, which could carry more than 250 enslaved people at a time from their lives and loved ones in the upper South to the fresh horrors of Louisiana and Mississippi. The firm chose not only to name the ship after its lead partner but also to pay for Franklin’s image to be carved and attached to the prow as a figurehead. Here and elsewhere, The Ledger and the Chain brilliantly captures the grotesque collision of dehumanization and sentimentality that shaped the worlds of Franklin and his associates.


On the larger issue of Franklin & Armfield’s importance, the book is more opaque. In recent years a debate has erupted about the relationship between slavery and American capitalism. A previous generation of scholars presented slavery as precapitalist or even feudal; most now agree that enslavers drew upon the tools of capitalism to create one of the largest slave societies anywhere on earth.

The more contentious question is how to measure slavery’s contribution to the inequities of the modern American economy. Some have presented slavery as “the birthplace of America’s low-road approach to capitalism,” as Matthew Desmond put it in an essay for The New York Times’s 1619 Project. Others insist that cotton, sugar, and slavery (along with the labor system that sustained them) were eclipsed in economic importance before 1860 by a vast internal market linking the Northeast to the West, underwritten by free labor.

Rothman is circumspect on these matters, though his analysis breaks more toward the second interpretation. He tells us little about the northern banks and firms implicated in the internal slave trade’s explosive growth—save for observing near the end of the book that by the 1850s northern capitalists had concluded “that the slave trade was an abomination.” Readers inclined to think that slavery’s footprint was regional rather than national will find encouragement in Rothman’s hint that the excesses of the slave trade produced their own corrections: Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard had “furthered an industry that helped provoke its own annihilation.”

But why did these men dissolve their business in 1841, two decades before the Civil War? The firm had weathered the Panic of 1837, the biggest economic crisis in American history to that date; by winding up Franklin & Armfield they allowed other operators to seize the markets they had cornered. The answer is revealed slowly throughout Rothman’s book. For all their innovations and cruelties, Franklin and his partners simply could not make their business independent of their own reputations and relationships. A firm that rested on the denial of Black humanity could never master the trick of becoming truly impersonal in a world of white buyers, sellers, and financiers. This left the partners of Franklin & Armfield in perpetual motion from one part of their empire to another, traveling along rutted roads to merchant houses and banks and slave pens, always bemoaning their lot. “I have made a slave of myself for the benefit of others,” wrote Isaac Franklin in 1833 during a particularly bumpy moment in the firm’s history. The astonishing self-absorption that powered this insight eventually led Franklin and his partners to conclude that the slave trade was no longer for them.

Franklin & Armfield may have trailed other American businesses of its era in size and longevity, but its approach to finance and logistics was disconcertingly forward-looking. The firm behaved as badly as it was allowed to, and its partners quickly realized that the only limit on its cruelty was their ability to finance it. The Ledger and the Chain opens on the outskirts of Natchez in 1832, with Franklin throwing into a ravine the corpses of more than a dozen enslaved people who had fallen victim to cholera. When their bodies were discovered the following spring, a public outcry led the Natchez board of selectmen to ban slave trading within the city limits. Franklin simply moved the firm’s “pen and showroom” a mile to the east, and its operations continued without interruption. Where there was money to be made, and where government and individuals declined to intervene, capitalism made every depravity possible.

In 1834 Franklin paid $575 for Lucinda Jackson, a young enslaved woman he intended to rape. While he traveled between Natchez and New Orleans over the next five years, he kept her at his Tennessee mansion of Fairvue, where she dreaded his summer residencies. Then, in 1839, Franklin became engaged to Adelicia Hayes, thirty years his junior and the daughter of a local lawyer and enslaver. As Franklin took his new wife north for their honeymoon, he asked an old friend to disappear Lucinda and the child she had borne him. (When the friend delivered them to another slave trader, he explained the circumstances with grim concision: “The tale must not get out on the old man.”)

To paraphrase the historian Jennifer Morgan, the commerce in human beings was the purest expression of slavery’s central outrage: the alienation of reproduction from kinship. Black women could be separated from their children at a moment’s notice; as human beings were dragged into coffles and slave ships, the most basic premises and promises of society were undone. Adelicia Hayes had no qualms about the slave trader she was marrying, but Franklin was clearly anxious about “the tale” that might emerge if his new wife understood him in full.

He needn’t have worried. Adelicia was neither naive nor morally burdened over any of slavery’s obscenities, and after Franklin’s death in 1846 she became a shrewd and hardnosed custodian of his legacy. Initially she accepted the terms of Franklin’s will—an annual payment of $10,000, an enormous sum at the time. When she married again, she made her new husband sign a prenuptial agreement that transferred ownership and control of her property to her father (to protect her own interest), and she demanded more of Franklin’s estate from his executors. Before long she had secured Franklin’s vast plantation in Louisiana, which he had named Angola. Adelicia and her husband built a new mansion there to complement the one on their plantation in Tennessee. After the Civil War, Angola became the site of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, an early outpost of the racist penal system that succeeded slavery.

Rothman dismisses the idea that Adelicia was a cipher for her second husband’s greed. Instead, he persuasively presents her as stretching the gender constraints of the white South, finding openings that enabled her not only to benefit from slavery but to actively defend it. During the Civil War, as Louisiana was overrun by Union troops, Adelicia managed to exempt her Louisiana cotton crop from a Confederate order to destroy it, and then to persuade Union officials to escort the bales to New Orleans for a lucrative sale overseas. She used the courts repeatedly to turn a considerable fortune into an enormous one; in this sense, she was easily the equal of her late husband.

What should we make of enslavers like Adelicia Hayes? The antebellum South was fiercely patriarchal; even the most enterprising or unscrupulous women operated under prejudices and legal debilities devised and maintained by white men. Within enslaving households, white women were racially privileged but disadvantaged by their sex. The intricacies of this situation have fascinated historians for decades, with scholars weighing the power of whiteness in the South against that of gender. Stephanie Jones-Rogers’s They Were Her Property enters this debate with a determination and clarity that will surely shake the field. Dismissing the idea of southern white women as “passive bystanders” in the work of enslaving Black people, Jones-Rogers demands that we recognize these women as “co-conspirators” in slavery and the longer history of white supremacy in America.

Jones-Rogers, an associate professor at UC Berkeley, builds her argument around two major insights: white women were not solely confined to the plantation household, and they had a good deal more agency and autonomy in buying, selling, and disciplining enslaved people than we have previously imagined. In the 1980s a pioneering generation of historians incorporated the “plantation mistress” into American women’s history, tallying the effects of patriarchy on the lives of white women. The doctrine of coverture placed a wife under the legal control of her husband, who expected his spouse and daughters to manage the household and oversee the welfare of a plantation’s enslaved population. In The Plantation Mistress (1982), the historian Catherine Clinton juxtaposed slavery with a “parallel oppression” that trapped even elite white women. In the Old South, she wrote, “Cotton was King, white men ruled, and both white women and slaves served the same master.”

Jones-Rogers is not the first historian to qualify this claim. In 2008 Thavolia Glymph cautioned against seeing white women as powerless and assuming that patriarchal oppression generated solidarity between white women and enslaved people.* But Jones-Rogers’s book is the most comprehensive attempt so far to capture the range of white women’s agency within the slave system. Each chapter of They Were Her Property presents a striking vantage on women’s direct role as enslavers. Rejecting the view that these women were prisoners of the plantation system or confined to the household, Jones-Rogers follows them to courts, markets, and even the auction block. Using many of the strategies employed by Adelicia Hayes—prenuptial agreements, the protection of enslaved property from a husband’s control, the use of chancery courts (in which married women had standing) to resolve property disputes—these women were diligent and energetic in their efforts to profit from human bondage.

This bracingly revisionist account is made possible partly by Jones-Rogers’s sources. The classic histories of the “plantation mistress” drew on letters and diaries of female enslavers, as well as their memoirs and reminiscences from the post–Civil War period. Long before the Confederacy’s defeat (and the subsequent fashioning of the Lost Cause myth), southern white women presented themselves as uniquely burdened by their concern for enslaved people. The daughter of a leading Mississippi planter, writing in 1887, declared that “the mistress of a plantation was the most complete slave on it.” Most historians have acknowledged the self-serving nature of these accounts, but immersion in this material has sometimes produced a discomfiting sympathy. In Within the Plantation Household (1988), Elizabeth Fox-Genovese insisted that slaveholding women “emerge from their diaries and letters as remarkably attractive people who loved their children, their husbands, their families, and their friends and who tried to do their best by their slaves.”

Jones-Rogers breaks the spell of these sources by considering two further bodies of material. First, she mines legal records and court transcripts, allowing us to see southern white women tenaciously upholding their rights to property in human beings. Second, she considers what Black people themselves had to say about slaveholding women, both in nineteenth-century published narratives and in the thousands of pages of testimonies given by formerly enslaved people in the 1930s to the Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). The WPA evidence is notoriously hard to work with, given the distorting effects of memory and the preoccupations and prejudices of the white writers who carried out the interviews.

Previous work on female enslavers has used those testimonies sparingly (if at all), save for an often-cited (but never published) study from the 1970s, which claimed that more than half of the formerly enslaved interviewees who mentioned a plantation mistress offered a “positive” assessment, around a third offered a “negative” one, and the rest had “mixed” feelings. In retrospect, the reduction of source material suffused with trauma and nuance to a simple poll seems impossible. Jones-Rogers, for her part, listens carefully to the testimony and brings the reader extraordinary stories suggesting that enslaved people knew things about their mistresses that white women’s letters and diaries would never reveal.

They Were Her Property is a book filled with suffering and cruelty. Jones-Rogers is unflinching as she narrates the things white women did to enslaved people, from punishments and physical abuse to reneging on promises to manumit individuals or unite families. But she also shows us how African-Americans became close observers of the moods and practices of enslavers, and of the complex and often precarious economic arrangements that underpinned the maintenance and expansion of plantations. “Enslaved people developed a keen understanding of their value in the market,” she writes. They also learned how to approach a mistress about the possibility of buying their freedom or the freedom of a loved one, determining the time and the price that might sway their enslaver. Lunsford Lane of North Carolina spent years saving enough money to buy his freedom, but still had to coax his mistress into agreeing to the transaction. Smokey Eulenberg of Missouri watched with horror as his mistress sold his mother to another female enslaver, but recalled the joy he felt when his mother simply “wouldn’t go—so they had to call it off.”

The stories Jones-Rogers tells about these negotiations for freedom rework the arguments of that earlier generation of scholarship, which presented white women as intermediaries between slaves and their enslavers. Here, white women emerge as independent economic actors, and enslaved people manifest an attentiveness and economic savvy that maximizes their slim prospect of freedom.

In her conclusion, Jones-Rogers notes that female enslavers “took part in economic activities that historians of slavery have either overlooked or alleged never happened.” White women bought and sold Black people, took a particular interest in disciplining them, and buttressed the institution of slavery in numerous ways. They Were Her Property finds considerably more agency and autonomy for the “plantation mistress” than previous scholarship that fixed her as a prisoner of circumstance. But the knowledge that white women had a central part in the perpetuation of slavery offers its own challenges to future historians. If patriarchy was the glue holding together that earlier body of scholarship, white supremacy is the dominant theme of Jones-Rogers’s startling corrective. Historians will continue to debate the relative weight of racial, gender, and class privilege in narrating the histories of slavery, but for now Jones-Rogers has supplied a devastating answer to a question posed in 2008 by Glymph: “If rich women in the Cotton Kingdom had gained equal rights with their men, how likely is it that they would have agitated for their slaves’ emancipation?”