In 10 October 1840, the brig Uncas departed Alexandria, Virginia. After a brief trip upstream to Washington D.C., the ship headed for Mobile. It was playing the coastwise slave trade, carrying 68 enslaved people to be sold in the lucrative slave markets of the Deep South.
Among these were 26 men and women who had been sentenced to death, but whose sentences had been commuted to transport and sale in foreign parts. The story of this group would last more than two decades ran like a thread through the culture of slave capitalism in the United States.
The last decade or so has seen as something of a transformation of the study of slavery in North America. Greater attention now seems to be focused on the slave system with the United States after the importation of slaves was made illegal in 1807-8. One focus of recent research has been to refute the myth that slavery was an inefficient system, and thus one that was likely to disappear on its own. On the contrary much recent scholarship, such as that found in Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told (2014) and Walter Johnson’s River of Dark Dreams (2013), that slavery was quite profitable in addition to being obscenely brutal.
In Williams’ Gang, Jeff Forret presents a fascinating and meticulously researched cross-section of the system of internal slave commerce that arose in the United States during the Jacksonian Era and after. As the United States expanded westward, the demand for slaves expanded with it. Legally debarred from importing merchandise from foreign parts, traffickers in human bodies acted as middlemen, exploiting disequilibria in priced between northern states (principally Maryland and Virginia) and the Deep South.
The central figure in Forret’s narrative is just such a middleman, the slave traded William H. Williams, whose notorious slave jail (the Yellow House) constituted the epicenter of human misery in Washington D.C. Located within sight of the U.S. Capitol (a fact noted with repugnance by abolitionists), the Yellow House served as a holding area for slaves awaiting sale, often for transport the Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, or even to Texas.
The central element of the story is Williams’s attempt to ship 26 enslaved people, condemned to death for crimes ranging from theft to assaults on whites, for sale. Virginia law permitted the commutation of death sentences for slaves to sale and transportation but stipulated that their destination must be outside of the country. The fact that such a procedure testified not to the humane sentiment of slave owners but rather to the state’s concern that the owners of condemned slaves should not suffer economic damage.
In the course of their transportation, the Williams ran afoul of officials in New Orleans, who cited a law in Louisiana forbidding the importation of slaves convicted of crimes into the state. Williams claimed that he intended to take the slave to Texas (then a foreign country) for sale, and that he had only meant to transit Louisiana to access travel via the Red River to points west. This claim made a certain amount of sense, since shipment of the slaves to the port of Galveston would have taken them far from the markets to which they were destined, but Williams had done enough prior business in Louisiana that it seems unlikely that he could have been unaware of the law.
Forret presents a wide-ranging account, dealing not only with the vicissitudes of the seizure and detention of the slave in New Orleans and the legal struggles surrounding them, but also with the role and practices of slavery in Washington D.C. and its environs, the growth of abolitionism in the Jacksonian era, the role of the slave system in electoral politics, and the place of slavery in American jurisprudence.
Forret’s book is remarkable for two reasons in particular. First, his manner of telling the story gives the reader something approximating a core sample of American society in the 1840s. This allows one to get a feel for the ways that slavery fit into the texture of American life in its economic, political, and broadly social dimensions. Forret has provided a coherent and wide-ranging narrative that can function both as an introductory text for those unfamiliar with the topic and as an advanced study of various areas of American society.
Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that the narrative is based on an incredibly wide range of sources. It is often the case that historical case studies of this kind begin with a substantive, coherent piece of evidence that functions as a central strand onto which the rest of the narrative is woven. A good example of this is Dan Abrams’s Lincoln’s Last Trial where the central basis of the story was the handwritten transcript of a trial and the rest of the evidence wound around it.
Forret makes clear from the outside the paucity of direct, systematic evidence that we possess about Williams and his dealings. He then proceeds to show exactly how much can be accomplished via a diligent and wide-ranging acquaintance with sources from a variety of collections and subject areas. Forret tells a compelling and important story set out in a model of scholarly thoroughness.
There are many interesting dimensions in this book, not the least of which was the symbolic importance of the position of slavery and slave trading in the capital of a country who defining characteristic was meant to be the pursuit and preservation of human freedom. The image of groups of manacled slaved paraded through the street of the capital of liberty was jarring and not lost upon many in Congress and elsewhere.
Even so, the power of slavery was considerable and by no means on the wane. There was every reason to believe that westward expansion would give slavery an ever-increasing degree of power, particularly given the fact that slaves could be included (at the rate of three-fifths of a white person) in calculations for representation. Thus slave states retained outsized influence in the early republic, as can be seen from the fact that seven of the first fourteen presidents were from Virginia.
For better or worse, the story of American society is of the increasing preponderance of industrial capitalism as defining feature and motor of development. But there was a time when slavery was integral to the development of this system. The history of capitalism cannot be disentangled from its imbrication with slavery. In this valuable study, Forret makes clear the degree to which slavery was normalized within the capitalism of the early republic without losing track of the humanity of enslaved people and the ways that the slave economy functioned to degrade them.
Photograph courtesy of paukrus. Published under a Creative Commons license.