The Ledger & the Chain
The Masterminds of America’s Domestic Slave Trade
Joshua D. Rothman
At the National Museum of African American History, there is a brief mention of the slave traders Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard, who in the 1830s came to dominate the domestic slave trade in the United States. Yet little has been written about slave traders. But as dark as the account of men who traded in human lives may be, we cannot fully understand our history without coming to terms with how slave traders insinuated themselves into a central place in American society and commerce, and into the formation of the nation.
That is the complicated and troubling history that Joshua Rothman examines in The Ledger and the Chain. In this brilliant and original book, he examines the lives and the motivations of three men who chose to dedicate their lives to a brutal business. By following the paths that Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard pursued, he shows how fully they were integrated into the social and commercial life of their time, even though history has pointedly attempted to ignore them.
Among the most devastating observations is that, monstrous though their work was, society readily tolerated them and enabled their enterprise. By letting their financial interests prevail over any sense of decency, Americans allowed slave traders like Franklin, Armfield, and Ballard to flourish, to amass vast wealth, and to became essential to the functioning of capitalism in this country. As The Ledger and the Chain makes plain, slave traders were essential actors in the economy of the 19th century and the implications can still be felt. Getting to know who they were is part of getting to know ourselves.