The American Slave Coast is a big book, both physically (over 700 pages including citations) and conceptually. From the colonial period to the postbellum, the authors Ned and Constance Sublette cast slavery, and the slave-breeding industry, as the center of American history. It’s a provocative and nightmarish thesis, so distant from conventional ideas about America’s history that it feels like a dispatch from an entirely different time and place. If America had lost the Cold War, maybe this is how kids would be learning the nation’s story.
There’s an important fundamental difference between the history of slavery in the United States and a “history of the slave-breeding industry,” as The American Coast is subtitled. Slavery, in simplest terms, was unpaid labor. Slaves were shipped from Africa to the American South, where they cultivated tobacco and picked cotton and served owners but didn’t get paid and couldn’t leave. Slowly, reformers and abolitionists chipped away at the institution, first banning the Transatlantic trade, then fighting a civil war to eliminate human bondage. Freeing the slaves destroyed the South’s pseudo-feudal economy, ending the region’s economic dominance. That’s the story.
But to think about American slaves merely as coerced and unpaid laborers is to misunderstand the institution. Slaves weren’t just workers, the Sublettes remind the reader—they were human capital. The very idea that people could be property is so offensive that we tend retroactively to elide the designation, projecting onto history the less-noxious idea of the enslaved worker, rather than the slave as commodity. Mapping 20th-century labor models onto slavery spares us from reckoning with the full consequences of organized dehumanization, which lets us off too easy: To turn people into products means more than not paying them for their work.
One of the central misconceptions the Sublettes seek to debunk is the subordination of American slavery to the transatlantic trade. Conceptually locating the center of the slave trade offshore is good for America’s self-image, and it’s an old line. The Sublettes quote Southern slavers who blamed English firms for forcing the barbaric mode of transportation on America. In schools, the 1808 ban on capturing and shipping slaves is taught as part of the end of slavery, but the Sublettes re-frame it as simple protectionism: Domestic producers wanted to lock out foreign competition.
Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined.
In fact, most American slaves were not kidnapped on another continent. Though over 12.7 million Africans were forced onto ships to the Western hemisphere, estimates only have 400,000-500,000 landing in present-day America. How then to account for the four million black slaves who were tilling fields in 1860? “The South,” the Sublettes write, “did not only produce tobacco, rice, sugar, and cotton as commodities for sale; it produced people.” Slavers called slave-breeding “natural increase,” but there was nothing natural about producing slaves; it took scientific management. Thomas Jefferson bragged to George Washington that the birth of black children was increasing Virginia’s capital stock by four percent annually.
Here is how the American slave-breeding industry worked, according to the Sublettes: Some states (most importantly Virginia) produced slaves as their main domestic crop. The price of slaves was anchored by industry in other states that consumed slaves in the production of rice and sugar, and constant territorial expansion. As long as the slave power continued to grow, breeders could literally bank on future demand and increasing prices. That made slaves not just a commodity, but the closest thing to money that white breeders had. It’s hard to quantify just how valuable people were as commodities, but the Sublettes try to convey it: By a conservative estimate, in 1860 the total value of American slaves was $4 billion, far more than the gold and silver then circulating nationally ($228.3 million, “most of it in the North,” the authors add), total currency ($435.4 million), and even the value of the South’s total farmland ($1.92 billion). Slaves were, to slavers, worth more than everything else they could imagine combined.
At the same time, slave owners could not afford to rest. “Rebellions existed wherever there was slavery, in every era,” the Sublettes write, “because everywhere, always, the enslaved were at war with their condition.” Owners counted them as capital, but slaves were living laborers, too, with their own rosy myth: When the spell of indenture was lifted—an event they imagined often—their power would be gone, and they would be left running for their lives. Call it The Haiti Nightmare. In 1775 and again in 1812 the British offered freedom to slaves who fought against their owners. Spanish and British threats to colonial and then national independence were understood as threats to slavery; black Spanish soldiers in Florida, decked out in full military regalia, were particularly unsubtle. Preserving slavery was a central motive in the American colonies’ fight for independence.
Americans first learn about slavery as children, before adults are willing to explain finance capital or rape. By high school, young adults are ready to hear about sexual violence as an element of slavery and about how owners valued their property, but there’s no level of developmental maturity that prepares someone to grasp systemized monstrosity on this scale. Forced labor we can understand—maybe it’s even a historical constant so far. Mass murder too. But an entire economy built on imprisoning and raping children? One that enslaved near 40 percent of the population? Even for the secular, only religious words seem to carry enough weight: unholy, abomination, evil.
The Civil War, as part of the American myth, cleanses the nation of this evil. The nation tore itself apart, but in the end slavery was gone, the country re-baptized in an ocean of fraternal blood. It’s a compelling, almost Biblical narrative, with Abe Lincoln looming like an Old Testament patriarch. But, as the Sublettes make clear, the full renunciation of slavery never really happened. White Americans didn’t want a revolution; in the North, they wanted to suppress the secessionists and maintain national continuity, which meant continuity with the slave power. A reader need only recognize the surnames of slavery profiteers—like “Lehman,” as in “Brothers”—to see that we never truly broke this continuity.
The country’s great narratives, from independence to manifest destiny, the authors suggest, are all better understood as maintenance work on history’s most sinister asset bubble.
The nation’s failure to break with the slaver class is best embodied in the figure of Nathan Bedford Forrest. An orphan by 17, Forrest built a fortune on inequity. As a wealthy planter, slave dealer, speculator, racist, and murderer, he was a classic “self-made” American of the mid-19th century. As a Confederate cavalry commander, Bedford ordered the massacre of hundreds of black Union soldiers at Fort Pillow. But when the South surrendered, the war criminal Forrest received a presidential pardon. When Forrest’s fellow Tennessee volunteers formed a paramilitary organization dedicated to white terror, they turned to the former lieutenant general for leadership. The “Wizard of the Saddle,” as Forrest was called, became the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
The book directly addresses personal beliefs and behavior of presidents and other founders, but not as mere disturbing factoids that reveal heroes as villains. The authors indict the American ruling class as a whole, and in so doing they recast the fathers as, first and foremost, members of their class. The Sublettes don’t draw a line between political and economic history; legislation and state policy emerges directly from slaver class interest. America has always been run by millionaires, and by the time of secession, two-thirds of them lived in the South, with human beings composing most of their wealth.
To see the founders as first and foremost slavers is to see them as evil, but not necessarily in an epic or dynastic sense: The slaver class was paranoid and mean, petty and small. Contrary to the myths of American meritocracy, the country elevated the worst while terrorizing, torturing, and murdering the best. George Washington is introduced as the hapless jailer of Ona Judge, a 22-year-old slave of his wife Martha who escaped and “managed to avoid falling prey to the attempts at re-capture that George Washington attempted against her until he died.” The country’s great narratives, from independence to manifest destiny, the authors suggest, are all better understood as maintenance work on history’s most sinister asset bubble.
From rapist Jefferson who gave away his own daughter as a wedding present, to Andrew Jackson driving slaves shackled at the neck for Spanish gold, to Ben Franklin personally selling slaves on consignment as a newspaper publisher, to James Polk overseeing his brutal plantation from the floor of Congress, to young Woodrow Wilson at his father’s side while the latter preached the Christian virtue of white supremacy, there’s no end to the vicious degradation of Africans as America’s very foundation.
The idea that America is therefore doomed to uphold the legacy of slavery has gained mainstream credibility of late. Ta-Nehisi Coates has become the country’s most-recognized intellectual just as his work on slavery reparations and ongoing white predation has pushed him toward this sort of pessimism about the national project. It’s possible to pay reparations, and it’s possible to change signs and re-name buildings and print new money and issue posthumous pardons, but would such a place call itself America? This type of symbolic purge comes after a revolution where the flag burns, not after incremental reforms that magically redeem it.
One of the book’s most striking examples of America’s slave-centric history is the National Anthem. Francis Scott Key is best remembered as the song’s author, but he was also Washington, D.C.’s rabidly white-supremacist district attorney in the 1830s, where he prosecuted abolitionists for pamphlet possession and let anti-black mobs run wild. He also co-founded the American Colonization Society, which encouraged the self-deportation of free black people. In his younger days, Scott Key had been, in addition to a racist, an amateur poet. We take the Anthem from his War of 1812 poem “Defense of Fort McHenry” but we usually leave out the verse about slaughtering the slaves to whom the British had offered freedom for allegiance:
No refuge could save the hireling and the slave
From the terror of night or the gloom of the grave
Oh, say, does that star spangled banner yet wave
It sounds like a 1960s parody, a pointed joke from a time when anti-Americanism was an American political position. But it’s not—it’s the original. It’s not a historical quirk that Americans pledge allegiance to slavery before every baseball game, not any more so than the slavers’ names on our monuments and money, our schools and street signs. The class that rules America was built on securitized bondage, and, as history teachers declare with strange pride, there hasn’t been a revolution since. Just as Scott Key pledged, as long as that star-spangled banner waves, there will be no refuge.