by Orissa Arend

Slavery is a central fact of American history, not a sidebar. That is exactly where this well-researched 700-page tome puts it. The American Slave Coast looks at U. S. history from earliest colonial times through emancipation, the making of the United States from the point of view of the slave trade. It is also the history of money in America.

Forced labor, morally deplorable as it was, was not the worst aspect of slavery. Even more horrifying and just as integral to the slave society was the completely legal torture, rape, forced breeding, and the separation of families. And it wasn’t just that these were legal; they were enabled by huge financial incentives. They were the glue that made the whole system work. This big book is an excruciating read, but its lessons need to be thoroughly understood. Authors Ned and Constance Sublette divide slavery into two phases: 1619-1808, importation, and 1808 until the Civil War (1861), the phase of slave-breeding and the domestic slave trade.

Martin Luther King, Jr. put it well in his 1967 “Three Evils of Society” speech: “Again we have deluded ourselves into believing the myth that capitalism grew and prospered out of the Protestant ethic of hard work and sacrifice. The fact is that capitalism was built on the exploitation and suffering of Black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both Black and White, both here and abroad.”

The American Slave Coast describes the appalling reality of “an economy in which people were capital [as well as labor], children were interest, and women were routinely violated.”

The slave-breeding machine chewed up Black families, the strongest unit of social cohesion and resistance to slavery. And yet the enslaved struggled against their condition all along and never accepted their captivity. Slaves were captured, bound naked in chains, nameless, ripped from families, and branded with the logo of their owner. Yet slave traders couldn’t remove African heads in which culture and knowledge resided.

The First Phase: 1619-1808

The Sublettes stress the major conflict between slave-breeding Virginia and slave-importing South Carolina for the control of the market that supplied slaves to an expanding nation. It took Virginia between 60-100 years to become a slave society. South Carolina began as one. “Carolina was founded by slave traders. It was created to be a slave-owner’s heaven. Bring in a slave, get 150 acres free. Slaves had no rights at all.” Carolina’s utopian vision was the pursuit of individual profit by any means necessary.

First came the problem of what to do with the Indians. Carolinians paid Native American warriors with consumer goods to annihilate each other. “As in Africa, slave raiding in greater Carolina was done by the natives. The traders armed their Indian allies and bought the slaves they captured. . . Tribal groups became well-armed colonial clients, racing toward each other’s destruction.” Carolinians trafficked between 30,000 and 50,000 Native Americans off to slavery.

Virginia had a different challenge. They had more than enough slaves and needed to get rid of trouble makers. The most profitable thing for Virginia planters to do was to sell young people to traders for shipment south.

New England had slavery in the colonial years, but unlike Virginia, it never became a slave society in which all social and economic relations revolved around slavery.

The Sublettes put a new spin on some of our history. For example: “The War of Independence from Britain not only did not intend to end slavery, but was fought in part to protect slavery from the growing power of British abolitionism.” It posed a constant potential for slave insurrection because slaves might fight against the slave-owning patriots for their liberty.

The Constitution: The South favored voting based on wealth. The three-fifths clause made that structural to the new nation. It didn’t mean that slaves were three-fifths human – the Constitution was nowhere near that charitable. Politically, slaves were zero percent human. Slaves were money. So this was an accounting gimmick to rig the national vote on behalf of slaveholders – a way of basing voting power on wealth – but only one kind of wealth: slaves. “If you’re going to base representation on property in the form of people,” a Massachusetts delegate bristled, “why not also base it on ownership of horses and cattle?”

The second amendment to the Bill of Rights, the “right to keep and bear arms” in order to have “a well-regulated militia”: In the South a militia was the same as a slave patrol. The Bill of Rights did not lay a hand on slavery even though the Fifth Amendment provided that “no person” could be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The Sublettes contend that “Southern slavery democratized the divine right of kings. . . A plantation owner . . . on the grounds of his plantation . . . was the head of a royal family where his word was law. Every man of property was a little king, with the power to order sexual reproduction or summary execution. . . The South’s down-home kings had the Constitution at their back, with a Bill of Rights that safeguarded their slave patrolling militias from being disarmed by abolitionists up North. . . “

Newspapers: “From the beginning of newspapers in America, the forced-servitude business was a steady part of their revenue stream.” American newspapers and slavery helped grow each other. A case in point was Benjamin Franklin’s Pennsylvania Gazette which brokered slave sales. Franklin, the only one of the “founding fathers” to have been an indentured servant, owned slaves for 30 years or so.

Thomas Jefferson gets some heavy scrutiny: “With Notes of the State of Virginia Thomas Jefferson definitively established himself as a founding theorist of White supremacy in America.”

The way to end slavery was to spend 25 years shipping all Blacks back to Africa. “Confiscate all African American children from their mothers and ship them off to thrive or die: that was Jefferson’s vision of a final solution for the Negro problem.”

The second phase of slavery: 1808 – the Civil War

Thomas Jefferson’s 1808 prohibition of the African slave trade was a big win for elite Virginians. Their breeding industry and the U. S. expansion now drove the interstate slave trade. And the South had only two choices: It could watch the vast wealth of its oligarchy disappear or it could commit fully to a two-caste system, the perpetually free and the perpetually enslaved.

Andrew Jackson enslaved about 150 people at the time he was elected president and had been a slave trader. Slave traders were despised. Planters were respected. Jackson was a kind of a bridge, expanding Jeffersonian democracy to poor White men. Jacksonian democracy implicitly promised to poor whites that they might someday become slave owners. He invested them in White supremacy. “Jacksonian democracy promoted White caste solidarity at the expense of black personhood.”

The Sublettes look closely at New Orleans during this second phase of slavery. The New Orleans market specialized in selling difficult-to-dispose-of “vicious” slaves to sugar plantations, high priced craftsmen, skilled domestics, and sex slaves (called “fancy girls”). Riverboat gamblers could pimp fancy girls by renting them out on long-term concubine contracts until “she is cast off as a useless worthless thing.” (Quoted from New Orleans As it Is, an anonymous 1850 booklet.)

Slave traders enjoyed a surfeit of sex slaves. New Orleans was both the nation’s largest slave market and the leading city for prostitution. The two were linked. “The heavier the slave trade got, the lewder New Orleans grew.”

The discovery of gold in California in the mid- nineteenth century transformed the world economy. Slavery was locked out of the Gold Rush. The new money didn’t go south; and it proved to be the death knell for the archaic modality of agrarian capitalism or holding wealth in the form of slaves. But the South had no way out.

The Civil War

The Civil War remade the basis of American money. The four million enslaved in 1860 were not merely a labor force; they were the South’s capital stock.” Should slaves be liberated, there would be “no more counting children as interest. No more multigenerational wealth accumulating from reproduction of enslaved humans to be passed on as legacies to slaveowners’ children. No more paying debts in a bad year by cashing out and selling adolescents: the liquidity of the financial system vanished when ownership of the human capital was transferred from landowners to the laborers themselves.”

President-elect Abraham Lincoln wrote to Alexander Stephens, the declared vice president of the Confederacy that he had no intention of abolishing slavery where it existed, only of prohibiting its spread to other territories. But slavery was a Ponzi scheme and to stop its expansion would have been to end it. Lincoln began the Civil War by insisting that it was not a war about slavery but to preserve the Union.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 transformed the meaning of the war. This second phase of the war was a war on slavery. It was a game changer and a shock to Confederates. Black men could now enlist and fight. By war’s end about ten percent of the U. S. Army was black. A negotiated outcome was no longer a possibility. “Slave-owners’ wealth had crumbled to dust. . . The U. S. economy was no longer on the negro standard. Not only were the slaves emancipated; so was American money . . . The end of the slave-breeding industry was crucial to the remaking of American money.”

But the elite were still elite and they still had their land, their education, their family webs, their control of local institutions, their business and political contacts and cheap black labor. The formerly enslaved got little more out of Reconstruction than an assigned surname.

The Emancipation Proclamation at last made abolition official U. S. policy, so that liberty no longer meant liberty for slavery, and, as the Sublettes write, “Everybody knows what happened to Lincoln.”

Lincoln’s assassination carried a number of benefits for former Confederates who might reasonably have expected to hang for treason. President Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, who had been drunk at his vice-presidential swearing-in six months earlier, was a pro-Union White supremacist. He was uninterested in prosecuting Confederates or helping freedmen.

This is where the Sublettes’ narrative ends, leaving the reader to ponder some important truths and how they relate to today: The social, financial, and political institutions of antebellum slavery were structured to maximize profits for a small elite. They existed at the cost of everything else in the society, “including the most basic notions of humanity. . .No matter how bad we thought slavery was,” the Sublettes write, “it was even worse.”

Orissa Arend is a mediator and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans. You can reach her at

The New Orleans Tribune

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