I. Individual Sale of Slaves by Courts

Antebellum courts routinely sold a great many slaves. Courts conducted one-half of all slave sales in South Carolina, for example. Courts were probably involved in similarly high proportions of sales in the other slave states. There were three principal types of court sales: sheriffs', probate, and equity-court sales. The most frequent circumstances that led to these sales were debt and/or death. Sheriffs' sales accounted for forty-five percent of all South Carolina court sales of slaves; probate for forty percent; and equity court sales for the remaining fifteen percent.

A very large fraction of the slaves whom courts sold were offered for sale individually rather than as part of family or other groups. Sale books indicate that fifty-two percent of the slaves sold at court sales were sold individually. That is, slaves who were sold one-by-one comprised just over one-half of all the slaves whom South Carolina sheriffs, probate officials, and masters in chancery--to whom I will collectively refer to as law's agents--auctioned on the courthouse steps. Nearly sixty percent of the slaves sold individually were males. The entries in the sale books contain very little information regarding individual slaves--usually just names, sales prices, and the buyers' names. However, one can safely assume that many of the males selected for individual sale were in their teens and twenties: “prime” males in the trade jargon. Thus, individually auctioned slave men--all of them sons, some husbands, and some fathers-- comprised twenty-nine percent of all the slaves whom courts sold.

My empirical findings regarding the incidence of individual slave sales in South Carolina coincide with conclusions of James W. McGettigan regarding probate sales in Boone County, Missouri. McGettigan gathered data for 1078 slave sales; most were sales of decedents' estates, although McGettigan does not offer an exact figure. McGettigan found a very high proportion of individual sales, including those of children. Thirty percent of the slave sales that McGettigan examined were single sales of children younger than fifteen years old. McGettigan does not report the total fraction of all slaves who were sold individually, but the very high proportion of sales of individual children suggests that the inclusion of slaves older than fifteen would push the percentage of individual sales near or above fifty percent. The Boone County data that McGettigan collected show that in Missouri, as in South Carolina, the pattern at court sales was for a great proportion of slaves to be offered individually for sale.

Not surprisingly, given this high rate of individual sales, McGettigan found that “[s]lave sales to settle estates frequently resulted in the separation of an entire slave family within the county.” He provides a series of examples of divisions that resulted from probate sales. In 1849, probate officials divided and sold the property of the estate of Joseph Fountain. The court's agents allotted a thirty-seven-year-old slave named Lucinda and her seventeen-year-old son to Fountain's widow; six different buyers purchased Lucinda's six other children, who ranged in age from one to eleven. Such family disruptions were the norm rather than the exception at the Boone County probate sales that McGettigan examined. “[M]ore often than not,” McGettigan observed, “slave families within the county were separated by sales and estate divisions since they became the property of different buyers or heirs.”

My findings regarding slave sales diverge most sharply from Tadman's with regard to the incidence of individual sale at court sales. Tadman emphasizes the sale of slaves in groups--family and otherwise--at court sales. For example, he has argued that slave traders purchased few of their slaves at court sales, because “[t]raders preferred to buy slaves singly (rather than buying the families and mixed age groups often offered at judicial sales).” Tadman believes that one of the reasons that traders bought relatively few of their slaves at court sales is that there were few individual sales of slaves at court sales. “The mixed lots available at judicial sales … were not well suited to the traders' purposes,” he argues. Tadman does not mention and seems unaware that appellate courts expressed a general rule favoring individual sale of slaves at court sales. As well, when he discusses McGettigan's conclusions concerning Boone County sales, Tadman misses an opportunity to observe that the empirical pattern at court sales was very oriented toward individual sales. He demonstrates that the commercial, interregional slave trade very systematically disrupted slave families, but he contrasts the interregional trade with local sales, that is, transactions in which the seller sold to a buyer who remained with the slave in the local area following the sale. Tadman estimates that sixty percent of local sales were court sales. He notes that local sales “were in general not so systematically oriented toward separation as was the interregional trade.” I believe instead that court sales were very systematically oriented toward the disruption of slave families. In this way, court sales resembled the interregional trade, although, as Tadman points out, the results of separation following a local sale need not spell the absolute destruction of filial relationships as, for example, a husband and wife whom different local buyers purchased might still have some chance to see each other.

Individual sale obviously raised the risk that a slave would be separated from family. Given the spareness of the court-sale records, the incidence of individual sale is one of the few variables that I can draw from the sources in order to compare court sales with commercial sales. However, for at least three reasons, incidence of individual sale is an imperfect indicator of actual family separations. First, because a buyer could accumulate a family's fragments through separate purchases of individuals, the incidence of individual sale overrepresents separations. Individual sale always posed the risk of separation, even though no separation actually resulted. The incidence of individual sale was an expression through law of the willingness to disrupt families.

Second, the incidence of individual sale would overrepresent separations-- both actual and possible--in those cases in which slaves had been previously sold away from family or had no living relatives. In such circumstances, subsequent individual sales would not represent family separations, although these sales were separations from familiar faces and friends. Third, the incidence of individual sale also underrepresents family breakup, since division of families into small groups would also disrupt families even if there were no individual sales. Two other variables that I can draw from the court data--the size of groups sold and the incidence of sales of mothers with children or husbands with wives and, sometimes, their children--help to correct this underrepresentation.

How or why sheriffs, probate officials, masters in chancery, executors, and administrators--to whom I will refer collectively as either law's agents, agents of the courts, or officials--decided to sell some slaves individually and others in groups is not explicit in the sale records. As I will discuss below, law's agents were subject to a legal duty to maximize sale proceeds. In addition, the judges who supervised these sales and the persons who shared in the proceeds of these sales believed that selling slaves individually maximized the proceeds from sales. The fiduciary duty to sell for the highest possible price thus translated into a duty to sell slaves individually. From this general rule, there were some departures, which I will also discuss below.

Although courts were systematically oriented toward individual sale, not every court sale of a slave was an individual sale. South Carolina officials sold some slaves in groups in order to preserve what I term family fragments-- an aptly infelicitous term. Women with children but without the children's fathers amounted to 24.3% of all the slaves sold at court sales. These fatherless mother-child groups comprised a slim majority (50.5%) of all those sold in groups. The average size of these family fragments was 3.1, with a median group size of three, that is, a mother and about two children, presumably the youngest. In all, varying constellations of family fragments comprised 32.7% of all the slaves sold. So, just over one-half of the slaves were sold as individuals and just under one-third as family fragments; the remaining slaves--15.5% of the total--were sold in groups or gangs. The court-sale records offer no clues regarding the relationship of slaves within these groups, and some of these slaves probably did share family ties.

Although law's agents did keep family fragments together in South Carolina, no law prevented them from selling each slave individually. Indeed, as I have mentioned, the legal preference was for individual sale. Slave family relationships enjoyed no statutory protection at sales in South Carolina. Laws protecting any type of slave family relationship existed in only three states--Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana. In these three states, statutes protected a limited type of relationship, that of mothers to very young children. The extent to which the statutes in these states actually prevented family separations is unclear, in part because there are no empirical studies and also because two of the statutes explicitly allowed exceptions to the no-separation rule.

Louisiana passed the earliest no-separate-sale legislation. An 1806 statute prohibited sales of children under the age of ten apart from their mothers. However, the statute may not have applied when slaves were seized for debt or to sales associated with the division of a decedent's estate. Decades later, Alabama and Georgia passed statutes that limited the separation of young children from their mothers at court sales, though not at commercial sales. Like the Louisiana statute, the Alabama and Georgia statutes did not protect the relationship of slave fathers to their children nor did they protect family relationships when the children were older than ten. The Alabama Code provided that officials who sought to seize and sell the assets of a slaveholding debtor must include slave mothers along with children under ten years old. The rule was absolute for children under five years old, but there was an exception for slave children between five and ten years old if one of the parties to the legal action produced an affidavit showing that “he believes his interest will be materially prejudiced, by selling the slaves together.” The Alabama Code also provided that “[i]n all sales of slaves under any decree, or order of the chancery or probate court, or under any deed of trust, or power of sale in a mortgage, the slaves must be offered, and, if practicable, sold in families.” However, as with the provision regarding children between five and ten years old, this directive that slaves be sold in families allowed exceptions when an interested party provided the requisite affidavit to the court official in charge of the sale.

Similarly, the Georgia law of 1854 directed that probate sales should not separate children “not exceeding five years of age” from their mothers, but the statute allowed for an exception when “such division cannot in any wise be effected without such separation.” In his 1858 treatise The Law of Negro Slavery, Thomas R.R. Cobb, who was a Georgian, lauded this Georgia law as a model for other states. He also suggested statutory reform that would protect slave marriages at court sales. As he made the suggestion, he minimized the incidence of such disruptions. Cobb wrote that “[t]he unnecessary and wanton separation of persons standing in the relation of husband and wife, though it may rarely, if ever, occur in actual practice, is an event which, if possible, should be guarded against by the law.” But before proceeding to his suggestion for reform, he offered a counterargument in support of the separations of husbands and wives. Against the idea that law might guard against separation, he wrote:

And yet, on the other hand, to fasten upon a master of a female slave, a vicious, corrupting negro, sowing discord, and dissatisfaction among all his slaves; or else a thief, or a cut-throat, and to provide no relief against such a nuisance, would be to make the holding of slaves a curse to the master.

With this assertion, Cobb implied that family separations might have taken place because the slave husband was vicious, insufficiently servile, or a criminal--in other words, that the separated wife and her master were better off without her husband, who deserved his separate fate. Even so, Cobb suggested that “[i]t would be well for the law, at least, to provide against such separations of families by the officers of the law, in cases of sales made by authority of the Courts, such as sheriffs' and administrators' sales.”

Cobb's observation regarding the infrequency of the disruption of slave marriages was a myth in support of the institution of slavery. In the same year that Thomas Cobb published his slavery treatise, another Cobb--Howell Cobb, the compiler of the state's official statutes--offered a more accurate view of the protection that slave families enjoyed at court sales when he testified at a Georgia equity trial regarding the practice of slave selling at court sales. At issue was the manner in which the Houston County sheriff had sold thirty-two slaves in 1828. Howell Cobb testified because he had witnessed the sale, not because he possessed some larger authority by virtue of having published the state's statutes. On appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court, Judge Henry L. Benning summarized Howell Cobb's testimony by stating that Cobb's “attention was called to the sale because the manner of the sale was unusual, and the negroes were not put up in the usual way, but all in a lump.” Judge Benning further explained Cobb's testimony by stating that “[i]t is not usual to put up negroes in families at Sheriff's sales.”

Howell Cobb's testimony set the Georgia law protecting the relationship of young slave children to their mothers in a more accurate context than the myth that Thomas Cobb proffered. The Georgia statute, the similar laws of Alabama and Louisiana, and also the statute that Thomas Cobb proposed in order to protect slave marriages were not redundant legal protection of filial relationships that Southerners would otherwise disturb only rarely or never at all. Preservation of families was not the usual practice at court sales. Instead, the usual practice was the opposite: the disruption of families. The few statutes that prohibited the sale of young children apart from their mothers are evidence not of the general protection that slave families enjoyed at court sales, but are instead evidence of the generally destructive legal force that slave families experienced at court sales.

In his 1993 book, American Slavery, Peter Kolchin mistakenly asserts that “[t]hroughout the South, public sentiment reinforced legislation to discourage the separate sale of very young children.” Insofar as he suggests that legislation existed throughout the South to prohibit or discourage the sale of young children apart from their mothers, Kolchin is wrong. At commercial sales, only the Louisiana statute specifically protected the relationship of young children to their mothers. Regarding the separate noncourt sale of young children in the other fourteen slave states, there was no legislation for public sentiment--if it existed--to reinforce. The statutes of Alabama and Georgia, not enacted until the 1850s, applied to court sales, not to commercial sales. And, as noted above, the Alabama and Georgia statutes allowed exceptions to the general prohibition. Kolchin is therefore wrong about the prevalence of statutes that protected young children. The statutes of Alabama, Georgia, and Louisiana represented a general pattern only to the extent that they revealed the general lack of protection for slave families.

Kolchin also misleadingly suggests that there was strong public sentiment in the South discouraging the separation of young children from families. Of course one cannot poll antebellum Southerners to ascertain public sentiment in the same way that one can determine how many states had laws regarding the separation of family members. Southern discourse did include paternalistic discussion regarding slaveholders' protection of slave families. However, there was dissonance between the discourse and the practice, just as Thomas Cobb's pious writing regarding the infrequency of the disruption of slave marriages conflicted with Howell Cobb's observation regarding the conduct of sheriffs' sales.

Tadman has presented substantial information regarding the separate sale of children and the attitudes of Southern slaveholders with regard to slave sales. Tadman has shown that antebellum slaveholders were less reluctant to sell their slaves than they professed and that too many subsequent historians have uncritically accepted the antebellum Southern discourse regarding reluctance to sell slaves. Tadman has demonstrated that slaveholders were willing, even enthusiastic, participants in the slave trade. With regard to the interregional slave trade, his principal focus, Tadman has shown that the frequency of separate sale increased with the child's age. He has determined “that probably some 2 percent of the trade was made up of children aged 0-7 years, forcibly separated from parents, 7 percent by separations of 8-11-year-olds, and 14 percent by 12-14-year-olds who were sold away from parents.” Twenty-three percent of the interregional trade consisted of children fourteen-years-old or younger. Depending upon where one draws the age line for “very young,” these data may suggest support for Kolchin's assertion regarding public sentiment. However, Tadman has also concluded that the reason for the relatively low percentage of sales of the youngest children was not “sentiment” but rather that these children's “level of independence and work output did not yet justify” their separate sale or purchase. In all, Tadman has shown that “the tendency was overwhelmingly toward breaking up families for speculative profit.” He explains that “[e]conomic self-interest combined with profound racism to make this practice possible.” This racism included a view of blacks as intellectually and emotionally incapable of sustaining lasting family ties. A less misleading way to restate Kolchin's assertion regarding public sentiment and the separation of young children, then, would be to say that the relatively low demand for the separate sale of the very youngest children reflected the correspondingly low demand among buyers for such young slaves.

Notwithstanding the limited formal protection of mother-child relationships in the statutes of three of the fifteen slave states, and contrary to the suggestion that public sentiment favored family integrity, the legal preference and practice at court sales throughout most of the South were for individual sale of slaves. Forty years ago, Kenneth Stampp concluded that “[i]n ‘execution sales,’ except for mothers and small children, family ties were ignored whenever it was beneficial to the debtor.” Stampp's observation was true for not just execution or sheriffs' sales, but for all court sales. However, the disruption was more pervasive than Stampp suggested. The limitation on family disruptions that Stampp mentioned-- “whenever it was beneficial to the debtor”--almost always applied. Those who conducted court sales regarded separate sale of slaves as generally beneficial to the debtor. At court sales, the usual practice was to sell slaves singly. As Edward W. Phifer noted in his 1962 study of Burke County, North Carolina, “Auction sales at the courthouse door … were unaffected by sentimental considerations.” Family preservation was not the norm, disruption was. Individual sale was not in any way an exceptional practice.

In 1830, Judge (later Chief Justice) Thomas Ruffin of the North Carolina Supreme Court offered instruction regarding the preference for individual sale. Judge Ruffin, who was one of the United States's most important legal minds in the first half of the nineteenth century and who wrote a number of influential opinions regarding slavery, wrote in Cannon v. Jenkins that “[t]he Court does not favor sales by executors in large masses.” But Judge Ruffin's view was stronger than merely not favoring group sales of slaves: He instructed that “[m]ost commonly the articles sell best, singly; and therefore they ought, in general, to be so offered.” In Cannon, the “articles” in question were four slave brothers, the oldest of whom may have been eight, with the youngest being twin four-year-olds. The administrator of the decedent's estate had sold the four boys together--“in a lump” was the phrase that Judge Ruffin, like Howell Cobb, used--and the beneficiaries of the estate argued that had the boys been sold individually, the total sales price would have been higher.

Judge Ruffin upheld the sale, because the price was sufficiently high, but he took time to make clear that he disapproved of the administrator's decision to sell the boys as a group. He noted that “it is the duty of the executor to get the most he can” and acknowledged, with evident racism, that “[i]t would certainly have been harsh to separate these four boys, and sever ties which bind even slaves together.” But, Judge Ruffin explained with his next sentence, “it must be done, if the executor discovers that the interest of the estate requires it; for he is not to indulge his charities at the expense of others.” The interests of the beneficiaries of the sale were clearly superior to the preservation of slave family ties in Judge Ruffin's starkly frank view. Although he wrote that “the Court would not punish him for acting on the common sympathies of our nature, unless in so doing he hath plainly injured those, with whose interest he stands charged,” his didactic message was that executors, administrators, sheriffs, and others who sold slaves at court sales should divide families before sale. Judge Ruffin understood that “[s]ometimes, indeed, as much, or more, can be had, when the property is disposed of in one, than in more parcels, as in the instance of a family of slaves, when the children are of tender years.” But Judge Ruffin warned that “he, who conducts such a sale, does it at his peril, and must answer for the true value, where the price has been materially affected by the mode of sale.” The safest course for someone who conducted a court sale of slaves, therefore, was to break up slave families and sell singly.

Judge Ruffin thus made clear in 1830 that the default mode for court sales of slaves in North Carolina was to be individual sale. Enforcement of this rule would be according to the usual common-law method of assessing personal liability against the seller who departed from the general rule. For example, when a New York or Massachusetts sheriff botched a sale--not a slave sale, obviously--the sheriff would be personally liable for the amount that should have been restored. As Judge Ruffin indicated, a seller who sold slaves in one “parcel” did so “at his peril” and, if the proceeds were less than what could have been gotten through individual sale, then the seller “must answer for the true value.” This was the form of Cannon v. Jenkins. The plaintiffs were the legatees of William Cannon, who would have received the additional proceeds had the four slave boys been sold separately. Charles Jenkins conducted the sale, and the legatees of Cannon sued not Jenkins, but his estate, for he, too, was dead. Were he liable in life for the reduced amount of the sales proceeds, then his estate would remain liable to those who should have enjoyed the proceeds. By assessing personal liability against administrators, executors, sheriffs, masters in chancery, probate officials, and any others who conducted judicial sales, judges and chancellors enforced the rules regarding how such sales should be conducted.

The rule that slaves should be sold singly was the same in Kentucky, as the justices of the court of appeals agreed in their 1811 opinion in Lawrence v. Speed. In his opinion for the court, Chief Justice Boyle observed that “it cannot be denied to be in general true that it is the duty of the sheriff to sell separately property which is divisible in its nature, and that he would be responsible for any injury done by a violation of his duty in this respect.” According to “its nature,” slave property was divisible, and the issue that the justices faced in Lawrence was whether the Mercer County sheriff should have separated a slave woman, Ruth, from her son, David, who was between two and three years old. The sheriff had levied on four slaves who were part of a decedent's estate; whether the four--Joseph, Milly, Ruth, and David--were a family, the opinion does not divulge. The Chief Justice recounted that “Joseph and Milly were first severally sold,” with Joseph being sold for $115.50 and Milly for $293.00. After the sale of Joseph and Milly, $250 to $300 of the debt remained unsatisfied, and the sheriff chose to offer Ruth along with her son David. He sold the pair for $400, which satisfied the debt and returned some cash to the decedent's estate. The plaintiff's complaint was that after selling Joseph and Milly, the sheriff might have satisfied the balance of the debt by selling either Ruth or her son, but that he need not have sold the two of them. Although the plaintiffs sought to have the sale declared void and wanted to recover the slaves themselves, Chief Justice Boyle emphasized in his opinion that their remedy would be limited to the recovery of money from the sheriff himself.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld the manner in which the sheriff sold the slaves, but Chief Justice Boyle also suggested that if the sale of the mother alone would have satisfied the debt, then the sheriff should have sold her apart from her son. Like Judge Ruffin, Chief Justice Boyle seemed to applaud the sheriff's humanity in preserving the relationship of Ruth and David when he wrote that “[t]he mother and child were indeed physically divisible, but morally they were not so.” But the chief justice also implied what Judge Ruffin had made explicit: if there were certain evidence that the separate sale of Ruth would have satisfied the balance of the debt, then the sheriff's deviation from the norm of separate sale would not have been justified. Lacking that evidence, though, Chief Justice Boyle and his colleagues refused to penalize the sheriff for selling the young boy with his mother. Of course the exact reasons for the justices' decision may have differed from what Chief Justice Boyle explained in his opinion. For example, the justices may have sought to protect young slave children from separate sale, or they may have wanted to protect a fellow agent of the courts from personal liability.

In 1849, the Kentucky Court of Appeals justices issued an opinion in which they clearly stated the positive duty of those who conducted court sales to sell slaves singly. In Lee v. Fellowes & Co., the justices considered an intricate transaction in which the creditors of a firm sought to undo a sheriff's sale of some land and three slaves whom the sheriff sold together as a group. At the time of the sale, the land and slaves were subject to a mortgage, which complicated things. In his opinion, Judge Graham referred to an 1828 Kentucky statute, which directed that property under execution that was subject to a mortgage should be “sold by execution … in the same manner as such property might have been sold if no such incumbrance had existed.” Judge Graham explained that “[i]f sold absolutely, and not subject to the mortgage, it would not be controverted, that the land, and each slave, should have been separately sold, and a sale in gross, in each case, would be set aside.” Whether or not there was a mortgage, Judge Graham expected that the sheriff would offer and sell the slaves separately. He noted that “[a] sale in gross would be often detrimental to the best interests of the debtor and creditor, and ought not to be countenanced, independently of the statute.” So, even in the absence of the statute of 1828, the Kentucky justices would have mirrored Judge Ruffin's argument that because separate sale of slaves would yield the highest prices, that was how sheriffs and others should conduct court sales.

Few commented on the frequency of slave family disruption at court sales. One exception was Thomas Cobb, who, as noted above, denied the frequency of such disruptions. Another was South Carolina appellate court justice John Belton O'Neall. With regard to the disruption of slave families at court sales, Justice O'Neall proposed thoroughgoing--really radical--reform in order to protect slave family ties in his controversial 1848 pamphlet The Negro Law of South Carolina. Justice O'Neall's digest was supposed to have been a compilation of South Carolina law concerning slavery, but he also included criticisms of existing law and suggestions for reform, which earned him sharp disapproval from the members of the South Carolina Legislature's Committee on the Judiciary. Justice O'Neall complained of the easy alienability of slaves and noted that “[i]n consequence of the slight character which they bear in legal estimation, as compared with real estate, (which has itself, in our State, become of too easy disposition), slaves are subjected to continual change.” He explained that this change occurred because“they are sold and given by their masters without writing; they are sold by administrators and executors, and by the sheriff, (and may even be sold by constables).” As a judge, Justice O'Neall had first-hand experience with the prevalence and results of court sales of slaves. “This continual change of the relations of master and slave, with the consequent rending of family ties among them, has induced me to think,” he explained, “that if by law, they were annexed to the freeholds of their owners, and when sold for partition among distributees, tenants in common, joint tenants and coparceners, they should be sold with the freehold and not otherwise--it might be a wise and wholesome change of the law.”

Unlike Thomas Cobb, Justice O'Neall acknowledged that court sales frequently led to the disruption of slave families. Instead of simply proposing that legislatures preserve filial ties directly by prohibiting court officials from separating family members, as Cobb had suggested, Justice O'Neall suggested a more fundamental change in the nature of South Carolina's slave society: serfdom. Annexing the slaves to the land would preserve slave families and also establish the nexus of specific families to particular land as the basis of agricultural production. Along with this suggestion, Justice O'Neall also offered his hope that “[a] debtor's lands and slaves, instead of being sold, might be sequestered until, like vivum vadium, they would pay all his debts in execution, by the annual profits.” Barring that possibility, Justice O'Neall suggested that a judge or chancellor “might be empowered to order the sale of the plantation and slaves together or separately; the slaves to be sold in families.” Justice O'Neall's suggestion implicitly acknowledged that South Carolina's judges and chancellors lacked the power to order or approve sales in gross, and so his suggestion amounted to a call for the inversion of the default rule of separate sale at court sales.

With regard to this default rule, and more importantly, with regard to the general relationship of law and economy in Southern society, Justice O'Neall was out of step. In his monumental study Southern Slavery and the Law, Thomas Morris has shown that in defining slaves as property “the general trend was toward assuring an early alienability in the market.” The capitalist economy of the slave South was too dynamic for Justice O'Neall, and his call to subordinate the economic interests of whites to the family interests of slaves, along with his other reform suggestions, met with a hostile response. Morris notes that Southern “political economists, such as Louisa McCord and J.D.B. De Bow, leading proponents of a laissez-faire market, expressly rejected the idea that slaves should be attached to the soil or be exempt from sale for payment of debts.”

Although the agents of law who conducted court sales retained the final power to decide whether to sell individually, the default rule of individual sale and the threat of personal liability certainly guided their decisions. Sheriffs knew that they would be personally liable if creditors entitled to sales proceeds could show that the sheriffs' decisions to keep members of a family together resulted in a smaller distribution of money to the creditors. In deciding how to offer slaves for sale, sheriffs may have considered the requests of creditors, debtors, other litigants, and any others who may have been entitled to the proceeds. Sheriffs may have relied on their own sense of humanity and may have also responded to the entreaties of the slaves themselves. However, because the legal duty of sheriffs and other agents of the courts who conducted sales was to maximize the return to those who would share the sale's proceeds, and because, as Judge Ruffin suggested and as I will confirm in Part III below, individual sale of slaves likely would generate higher sales returns, the officials' understanding of their legal obligation impelled them to choose individual sale. Ultimately, though, each agent of law had to decide how to sell. As noted above, South Carolina court officials appear to have sold slaves in the manner that North Carolina's Judge Ruffin directed his state's officials to sell. The sale records indicate that for a majority of the slaves whom they sold, the agents of law chose individual sale.