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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 like people.

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But even the most creative nostalgists for the Old South struggled to justify the slave trade. Nearly half a million Africans were brought to North America in the two centuries before Congress abolished the external slave trade in Over the next fifty years, around twice that 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.

During the boom years of the internal slave trade, from the s to the s, 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.

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The other two thirds—more thanpeople—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 The external trade had been replaced by a vicious commodification of human beings that was both novel and horribly familiar.

The company forced hundreds more into overland coffles, driving enslaved people a thousand miles to the brutal landscapes of Mississippi and Louisiana. But Rothman, a professor of history at the University of Alabama, confounds the stereotype of the slave trader as scrappy outsider. Each of these men parlayed the buying and selling of human beings into enormous wealth, and none paid a social penalty for doing so. This business model brought challenges as well as opportunities.

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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. 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.

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We might assume that this sort of move from trading to finance was an innovation of twentieth-century corporate America. The economies of the lower South were volatile, so Franklin gravitated toward bankers and merchants with partners in the North and in Britain.

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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 firm also became a pioneer of vertical integration.

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Inas the internal trade reached its peak, the firm launched its third slave ship, the Isaac Franklinwhich could carry more than enslaved people at a time from their lives and loved ones in the upper South to the fresh horrors of Louisiana and Mississippi.

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.

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In recent years a debate has erupted about the relationship between slavery and American capitalism. A 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. Others insist that cotton, sugar, and slavery along with the labor system that sustained them were eclipsed in economic importance before by a vast internal market linking the Northeast to the West, underwritten by free labor.

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Rothman is circumspect on these matters, though his analysis breaks more toward the second interpretation. But why did these men dissolve their business intwo decades before the Civil War? 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.

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.

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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 inwith 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.

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Where there was money to be made, and where government and individuals declined to intervene, capitalism made every depravity possible. 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, inFranklin became engaged to Adelicia Hayes, thirty years his junior and the daughter of a local lawyer and enslaver.

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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. 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 ly imagined. Jones-Rogers is not the first historian to qualify this claim. In Thavolia Glymph cautioned against seeing white women as powerless and assuming that patriarchal oppression generated solidarity between white women and enslaved people. 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.

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. 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.

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In retrospect, the reduction of source material suffused with trauma and nuance to a simple poll seems impossible. 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.

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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.

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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. But the knowledge that white women had a central part in the perpetuation of slavery offers its own challenges to future historians. Best of The New York Review, plus books, events, and other items of interest.

Nicholas Guyatt teaches American history at Cambridge.

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This Issue November 18, Robert Kuttner. Bringing the Supply Chain Back Home. Ruth Margalit.

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