The men who made slavery big
At the same time, however, Armfield acted the consummate professional at his Alexandria headquarters. He offered patrons and anti-slavery activists a visit and a drink when they appeared in his offices, and he claimed he always stayed within the law, tried to expose criminals who kidnapped free blacks and sold them into slavery, and looked after the welfare of the people he bought and sold the best he could. Likewise, when slavers weren’t happy with their purchases, as sometimes happened, Franklin generally preferred to make an exchange or even provide a refund rather than risk a lawsuit. It could cost him money in the short term, but Franklin believed that having a reputation among whites for honest and reliable transactions would be good for the business.
The real key to Franklin and Armfield’s success, in fact, lies in this carefully cultivated reputation, as it brought with it the confidence of the business world, especially banks and bankers. Most slave traders were looking for quick cash sales, and Franklin was perfectly happy that customers paid slaves in cash. But he also understood that a slave trading company known for its reliability and volume was a slave trading company capable of accessing debt capital that would yield more broadly over time.
As the business grew in size and fame, Franklin established lines of credit with banks from New Orleans to New York City, which gave him confidence that even in a difficult economic crisis, he could always, as he puts it, “get money when there was no other.” The trader can get a dollar. With this assurance, Franklin could sell slaves from the Lower South to customers on credit, sometimes in exchange for negotiable commercial paper, and sometimes in exchange for mortgages on the very people he was selling, thus forcing the slaves to found the financing their own sale. He kept some of the paper and collected the debts he represented when they fell due, and some he sent back east, where Armfield and Ballard turned it into cash to be fed back into the markets of purchase for more slaves.
The company thus trapped slaves in an endless financial loop, as confining in its own way as the ships that transported them and the prisons that caged them. And Franklin, Armfield, Ballard and the legions of merchants, planters, bankers and others who acted as their accomplices have made profits every step of the way.
More than anyone in their industry before them, Isaac Franklin, John Armfield, and Rice Ballard showed how to get extremely wealthy through the process, and other men were watching. Although the three partners for the most part left the slave trade in 1836, dozens of large slave trading companies followed and built on the model they started, leading the trade for another 30 years, until that the civil war finally put an end to slavery and the slave trade.
The capital that the slaves had generated, however, would never return to its producers.