[Marxism] The Children of Manifest Destiny

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Jan 23 05:46:56 MST 2016

WSJ, Jan. 23 2016
The Children of Manifest Destiny
Andrew Jackson drove a convoy of chained slaves. It was known as a ‘coffle.’

By Ned and Constance Sublette
Lawrence Hill, 754 pages, $35

In 1834, the slave trader Isaac Franklin wrote to a colleague that “the 
old Lady and Susan”—a pair of slaves—“could soon pay for themselves by 
keeping a whore house. . . . It might be . . . established at your place 
[in] Alexandria or Baltimore for the exclusive use of the [concern] and 
[its] agents.” Such a blunt acknowledgment of the sexual exploitation of 
enslaved women was unusual but not unique in the antebellum South, as 
Ned and Constance Sublette make clear in “The American Slave Coast,” an 
often heart-wrenching descent into one of the darkest corners of 
slavery’s history.

Slavery’s defenders hypocritically claimed that emancipation would lead 
to rampant “miscegenation,” although race mixing was extremely rare in 
the free North but ubiquitous in the South, where the rape of enslaved 
women was a way of life. Hundreds of thousands of mulattoes were the 
physical proof: in 1860, they made up at least 13% of the nation’s black 
population. The Sublettes quote the South Carolina diarist Mary Boykin 
Chesnut, who dryly observed in 1861: “Like the patriarchs of old our men 
live all in one house with their wives & their concubines, & the 
Mulattoes one sees in every family exactly resemble the white children—& 
every lady tells you who is the father of all the Mulatto children in 
every body’s household, but those in her own, she seems to think drop 
from the clouds.”

There was no such crime as rape against a slave: A slave owner had full 
right to do whatever he wished with his property, “and sexual use was 
part of the portfolio of privileges,” the Sublettes write. The authors 
note that, beyond the opportunity for unrestrained sexual activity, “the 
existence of a market in young people created a financial incentive for 
slaveowners to intrude into the reproductive lives of enslaved women.” 
At least some plantations seem to have employed “breeding men” as studs, 
or “stock Negroes.” The Sublettes quote a former Louisiana slave, 
Lueatha Mansfield, who in old age told an interviewer that if a slave 
owner “saw a fine woman or man on another plantation, he would buy him 
or her for breeding purposes in order to continue to have good able 
workers. If he didn’t bring them on the same farm, he would arrange for 
them to breed from each other.”

Evidence of systematic breeding remains anecdotal, however. The 
Sublettes found no evidence of plantations devoted explicitly to 
breeding. They point out that such a system would make no economic 
sense, since “human beings grow too slowly to raise them as a 
cash-producing monocrop.” But, they conclude, “that doesn’t mean slave 
breeding didn’t take place on a broad scale, only that it wasn’t 
practiced as an isolated profession.” They segue to the much more 
expansive proposition that, especially after the curtailment of the 
overseas slave trade in 1808, “antebellum slavery was in the aggregate a 
slave-breeding system.” This may be true in the most general sense, but 
it is an oversimplification that does not really illuminate, implicitly 
making slaves’ reproduction everywhere seem congruent with a calculated 
process of controlled breeding.

To make their case, the authors devote most of their book to a lengthy 
and often digressive account of slavery’s entire history in North 
America. They begin with 16th-century slave trading and move on to the 
arrival of the first African slaves in Jamestown and the development of 
slavery in the Chesapeake region and in Barbados. Their broad exposition 
includes the creation of a legal regime to define the status of imported 
Africans; the slaveholding of some of the Founding Fathers; the slave 
trading of Andrew Jackson (he was the only president to have personally 
driven a “coffle,” or convoy, of chained slaves); and the ideology of 
Manifest Destiny, which inspired Americans with a vision of the nation 
as a transcontinental power and in its specifically Southern iteration 
included the spread of slavery all the way to the Pacific Ocean. These 
subjects may well be familiar to readers versed in the larger history of 

Fortunately, the Sublettes’ usually crisp prose keeps their narrative 
moving at a comfortable pace, while their boundless curiosity sometimes 
leads to unexpectedly interesting places. They offer enlightening 
discussion of slavery’s intersection with early newspapers, in which ads 
for slave sales and runaways were a significant source of revenue. They 
show the ways in which transferable credit and experimental paper money 
were used to facilitate slave sales at a time when little specie was 
available in the colonies. They also provide an excellent account of the 
political rivalry between South Carolina, which supported the 
importation of cheap slaves from Africa to feed the port of Charleston 
and its profitable slave pens, and Virginia, which wanted to end the 
foreign slave trade because it increased the value of her own “surplus” 

The Sublettes make clear that slavery was, in effect, the South’s 
version of the American dream: More slaves equaled more wealth and 
higher status. The four million enslaved in 1860 were not merely a labor 
force, the authors observe; “they were the South’s capital stock,” worth 
between $2 billion and $4 billion in mid-19th century terms and perhaps 
10 times that amount in today’s dollars. Emancipation thus left the 
South economically supine after the Civil War. As the Sublettes 
concisely put it: “The security for hundreds of millions of dollars in 
debt walked away, leaving the obligations valueless, the credit 
structure imploded, . . . and the planters owning worthless land.” As 
valuable as it is to be reminded of such facts, more fine-grained 
examinations of the business of slavery will be in found in “River of 
Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom” (2013) by Walter 
Johnson and “The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of 
American Capitalism” (2014) by Edward E. Baptist.

Unfortunately, the individual experiences of enslaved women and their 
families tends too often to get lost in the Sublettes’ larger scheme of 
history. What is more, they pay little attention to the effect on men of 
the exploitation on the women in their lives. Men were either forced to 
acquiesce (or even watch) while their wives and daughters were raped by 
whites or savagely punished for daring to try to protect them. When we 
hear the voices of enslaved women, or face their plight directly, 
however, the Sublettes’ narrative really comes alive.

Most of the victims still remain nameless, such as a mother who was 
interviewed by a curious congressman at Isaac Franklin’s slave pen, in 
Washington, D.C., in 1829. The woman, the congressman reported, had 
given birth to “eight or nine” children by her free husband, but each 
one had been sold away by her owner when the children had reached the 
age of 10 or 12. The woman having passed the age of fertility, she too 
was now being put on the market. Her fate is unknown, but her sale no 
doubt contributed its mite to Franklin’s immense fortune as the most 
successful slave trader in America in his day. When he died in 1846, he 
left his wife an estate valued at more than $700,000 in contemporary 
terms, along with a vast plantation, known as “Angola,” in Louisiana. 
The plantation site, the Sublettes note, is today occupied by the 
Louisiana State Penitentiary, where its inmates, 76% of whom are black, 
perform unmechanized field labor not much different from that done by 
their ancestors in slavery days.

—Mr. Bordewich’s most recent book is “The First Congress: How James 
Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented 
the Government.”

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