III. Sales Proceeds of Commercial and Court Sales

The separation of family members at court sales took place for an instrumental reason: to generate greater sales proceeds. As Judge Ruffin emphasized in Cannon v. Jenkins, the duty of those who conducted court sales was to sell for the highest prices they could obtain, and, as Judge Ruffin put it, “Most commonly the articles sell best, singly.” A higher price was the goal of individual sale, and one of the results of individual sale was of course a greater incidence of family separation. There is no evidence that family separations were a conscious goal of those who conducted the sales. However, historians of racism have shown that one element of antebellum Southern racism was the belief that family ties mattered little to slaves. Thomas Cobb, for example, had little regard for the ability of slaves to maintain family ties; his proposal to protect slave marriages from disruption at court sales probably had more to do with abolitionist pressure than his own humanitarian sentiments. In his slave law treatise, Cobb wrote that “[f]idelity to the marriage relation they do not understand and do not expect, neither in their native country nor in a state of bondage.” He had a similarly dim view of slaves' parenting skills. He observed that “unless the child in some way interferes with the comfort or wishes of the parent, the negro has no disposition to control his waywardness or his vices.” Tadman has demonstrated that although slaveholders occasionally professed reluctance to separate families and claimed that they avoided doing so, their actions and ideology worked to the opposite result. He has estimated that the extent of family “separations was such that one out of every five marriages of Upper South slaves would have been prematurely terminated by the [interregional] trade; if other interventions by masters are added the proportion rises to about one in three.” Regarding children, Tadman concludes that “the [interregional] trade would have separated about one in three of the exporting region's slave children (under fourteen years) from their parents.” Tadman estimates that “local sales and other actions by masters would have raised this proportion to about one in two.”

In Part IV of this Article, I will consider how the law worked to insulate court sales from critical scrutiny by making the results seem necessary and unavoidable. But before getting to that matter, I will, in this Part, test the proposition that individual sales generated higher prices than group sales. Then I will compare the proceeds of court sales with commercial sales proceeds.

Like Judge Ruffin and the Kentucky justices who directed court agents to sell slaves singly, some South Carolinians also believed that sellers would realize greater proceeds by selling slaves individually. In 1824, Nathaniel Coggeshall wrote from Darlington District to his wife, who was in Colchester, Connecticut. Coggeshall's long and confusing letter described his financial difficulties. He was both a creditor and a debtor, and as his own creditors pushed him for money, so he prodded his own debtors, but without great success. Coggeshall explained to his wife that he could realize $400 from the sale of some slaves in the town of Marlborough. Coggeshall noted that he “could get that sum for them and not seperate [sic] the Husband from the Wife and Children”; but Coggeshall also indicated that “if I would seperate [sic] them I could get more.” Just why he would get more if he separated the married couple or how much more he would receive, Coggeshall did not explain. But his letter clearly indicated that he understood that individual sale would increase the amount he would receive from the sale.

Two decades later, James Henry Hammond, of Richland District, South Carolina, also understood that the separation of slave family members would yield higher sale prices. Hammond was a fiery and disturbed politician who represented the Palmetto state in the House of Representatives during the 1830s, was governor during the 1840s, and was a United States senator until he resigned his seat following Lincoln's election. In 1846 or 1847, Hammond wrote to a neighbor from whom Hammond hoped to purchase a gang of fifty-nine slaves. Hammond offered $15,000 and explained to his neighbor, “I rated them at about 10 per cent under the negro trader's prices and at 10 per cent less than they would bring I think if sold separately as the trader sells.” Regarding separation, he hastened to add that “this of course you would not think of doing nor would anyone who was not a monster--or a negro trader.” Tadman cautions against taking too seriously Hammond's expression of solicitude for slave families. Hammond's “association of traders with monsters,” Tadman argues, “was no more than an attempt at blackmail for the purpose of gaining a price advantage.” Blackmail is too strong a word, but Tadman has demonstrated that Hammond, despite his protestations about monstrous traders, willingly participated in numerous separations of slave families. Tadman is therefore right to suggest that Hammond was not entirely trustworthy. Hammond, then, offers another example of Southern discourse at odds with practice. He sought to purchase the slaves for a lower price by offering his neighbor the assurance that he would respect family ties if he became the purchaser. He hoped to persuade his neighbor that the solicitude he would show the slaves if he purchased them would make up for the discounted sales price. Whether or not Hammond was lying about his intentions, he and his neighbor, like Coggeshall, understood that separate sale would yield higher prices.

Empirical data regarding slave sale prices that I have drawn from court-sale records in South Carolina support Judge Ruffin's, Chief Justice Boyle's, Coggeshall's, and Hammond's expectations that individual sale of slaves would yield higher prices. Figure 1 presents price data for court sales. This graph presents data for the sale of 1681 slaves between 1823 and 1861 at sheriffs', equity court, and probate sales in four different South Carolina districts, as counties were then called. This figure illustrates an important difference between individual and group sales at court sales. The graph very clearly depicts the difference between average sale prices for slaves sold individually and slaves sold as part of groups. The upper curve, with data points represented by filled triangles, depicts the average annual sale price for slaves sold individually. The lower curve, with filled squares as the data points, presents the average sale price for each slave sold as part of a group of two or more slaves. For each year, the average sale price for individuals is higher than the average price for slaves sold in groups. The curves are distinct, with no overlap between them. Both curves display a general upward trend during the antebellum period. Over the thirty-eight years the graph depicts, the average price for each slave sold as part of a group was 57.8% of the average price for slaves sold individually. That is, when buyers bought slaves in groups, on average they paid 42.2% less for each slave than the average price paid for a slave sold individually.


Exactly why the average price per slave for those slaves sold in groups was lower than the average price for slaves sold individually is not a simple question to answer. There are some obvious explanations, though. To the extent that the difference in price represents rational behavior by sellers, the slaves sold individually must have possessed traits that made them more valuable to the buyers. That is, the slaves sold were worth more because they were, for example, younger (but not too young), healthier, injury free, skilled, and obedient. As well, nearly two-thirds of those sold as part of a group were family fragments, most often a mother with young children. The young children must have kept the average prices of those sold in groups lower than individual prices. If sold individually, the sale price of these young children would be less than the price of older slaves, and so their presence also helps to account for the lower average price per slave of those sold in groups. Taken together, these factors push the two price curves of Figure 1 closer together. But these factors cannot push the curves all the way together unless the antebellum belief that separate sale of slaves yielded more money was in error. That is, unless the economic impetus behind the requirement of separate sale was mistaken, there must remain some distance between the individual and group sales curves, even after correcting for the different qualities of the slaves sold.

After examining bills-of-sale data for the sales of mothers and their children in New Orleans, economist Laurence Kotlikoff concluded that the average prices of slaves sold as part of a group were lower than individual sale prices. The New Orleans bills-of-sale data were sufficiently rich to allow regression analysis for a variety of factors that may have affected slave prices, and Kotlikoff specifically determined that the prices of mothers sold with children were lower than the aggregate prices of mothers and children sold separately. That is, the separate sale of children apart from their mothers yielded more money than selling the family members together as part of a group. Kotlikoff assumed that lower transaction costs of the group sale resulted in the difference in prices. Although the individual sale prices for a mother and her children might have been higher when they were sold separately, he assumed that the costs of conducting a series of sales rather than just one sale offset the higher prices. The implication is that with individual sale of family members in New Orleans, sellers would not realize greater proceeds as compared with group sale of those same individuals.

There is another way to view Kotlikoff's finding. His analysis demonstrates that buyers were willing to pay more for slave mothers sold individually and to pay more for slave children sold separately from their mothers. Although Kotlikoff attributes the price differential to unspecified transaction costs, the differential may instead be direct evidence of the buyers' preference for slaves without family ties. Put differently, the destruction of a slave mother's family tie to her children made her seem more valuable to a buyer. Like fitness, good temperament, skill, and warranty, the absence of family ties pushed the sale price of slaves upward.

Of course, separate sale could not have made all slaves more valuable. In Lawrence v. Speed, the 1811 case in which plaintiffs contested the sale of the slave mother Ruth together with her two-or three-year-old son David, Kentucky's Chief Justice Boyle explained that “[i]f the child had been sold separately from its mother, it is pretty certain its value would have been greatly diminished …. [I]f the mother had been first sold, it is not improbable that her value might have been lessened in the estimation of purchasers.” Chief Justice Boyle implied that Ruth and David together might have fetched a higher price than they would have separately. This, in today's jargon, is a “human capital” argument. The basic insight is that happier slaves would work more effectively, and that slaves not torn from their families would be happier. The Kentucky chief justice did not actually conclude that their sale together had benefited the estate; he simply refused to overturn the sheriff's decision to sell Ruth and David together in the absence of stronger proof that their separate sale prices would have been higher. The possibility that the slaves' combined sale price might have been higher was a result at odds with Chief Justice Boyle's general view that slaves sold singly yielded higher prices.The solicitude that Chief Justice Boyle showed for very young slave children, like the protection that Alabama's, Georgia's, and Louisiana's statutes sometimes offered to young children, may thus have been consistent with the interests of those who enjoyed the proceeds of sales. The seemingly humane gesture was cost free. Conversely, for older slave children and their mothers, for slave fathers, and for related adults, the protection of slave family ties would have come at a cost to everyone who shared in the sales proceeds.

Because sellers of slaves could achieve higher returns from the sale of slave families by breaking filial ties, higher incidence of individual sale meant greater sales proceeds. Judge Ruffin understood that except for some exceptional cases, individual sale yielded more money at court sales, and this would have been true for any seller of slaves--whether an agent of the courts or a commercial trader. Commercial slave sellers also knew this. In 1835, Ethan Allen Andrews visited Franklin & Armfield, the Alexandria, Virginia slave trading firm that, according to historian Frederic Bancroft, sent “1,000 to 1,200 slaves a year to the Southwest” and operated the “most flourishing slave-pen in the United States.” Armfield's assistant gave Andrews a tour of the slave-pens, where slaves awaited their sale. When Andrews inquired about the separation of slave families, the assistant “assured [Andrews] that they were at great pains to prevent such separation in all cases, in which it was practicable, and to obtain, if possible, whole families.” The assistant described to Andrews a transaction in which Franklin & Armfield “had purchased, from one estate, more than fifty, in order to prevent the separation of family connections; and in selling them, they had been equally scrupulous to have them continue together.” “In this case, however,” Andrews reported, “they had sacrificed not less than one or two thousand dollars, which they might have obtained by separating them, as they would have sold much better in smaller lots.” That is, the firm expected that separate sale would have yielded more money. Tadman, in discussing a conversation Andrews had with Armfield, suggests that the firm exaggerated the extent of the firm's devotion to slave family integrity in order to impress Andrews, although Tadman does note that “[m]aking a major exception for the trader's separation of siblings, there is probably a large measure of truth in what Andrews was told.” Whatever the veracity of the firm's assurances about the preservation of slave families, they did accurately convey to Andrews that the preservation of family ties reduced sales prices and cost the firm money. Put differently, Franklin & Armfield kept prices on the lower curve of Figure 1 by selling slaves in groups.

Nonetheless, Franklin & Armfield forewent greater sales proceeds not because of their dedication to slave families, but because the disruption of slave families would have hurt their firm's reputation. To his surprise, Bancroft found records of slave shipments suggesting that Franklin & Armfield did keep a considerable number of families together, and Bancroft concluded that “these [slave-sale shipment] manifests give unexpected evidence of a substantial basis for the good name that this firm possessed.” Bancroft noted that

[t]heir business was strictly legal, and to establish it firmly and make it highly remunerative, as they had done, they realized that they must conduct it on a plane that would appeal to the farmers and planters from whom they wished to buy, as well as to those whom they desired to sell.

As Tadman put it, the traders understood that “in order to be respectable one should not appear to be too willing to separate families.” So, Franklin & Armfield exchanged the value that they might have realized through greater sales proceeds for greater goodwill with the slaveholders from whom they bought and with the buyers to whom they sold. Their strategy was successful; Armfield alone profited nearly $500,000 in 1834, the year before Andrews visited.

Franklin & Armfield and their traders, like Judge Ruffin in North Carolina, Hammond and Coggeshall in South Carolina, and Chief Justice Boyle in Kentucky, understood that they sacrificed higher sale prices when they preserved family ties. Franklin & Armfield's traders made this sacrifice in order to enhance the goodwill that sellers and buyers of slaves felt toward the firm. Either the dictates of humanity or the desire to appear humane influenced Franklin & Armfield to keep intact some of the slave families that were not disrupted by commercial sale. Even so, Tadman has shown that the extent of slave family disruption was very high in the interregional slave trade, in which Franklin & Armfield were key players. Despite the protestations of respectable Southerners like Franklin & Armfield, the strictures of humanity or pressures toward respectability that kept some parts of families together were weak, though not nonexistent, at some commercial slave sales, particularly at local sales.

At court sales of slaves, the pressures of humanity and respectability were nearly nonexistent. Unlike Franklin & Armfield, the agents of law who conducted court sales operated according to a general rule that they should break, rather than preserve, slave family relationships. Agents of law maximized return by sundering family ties and by selling a majority of slaves singly. Fiduciary duty drove out all considerations other than the maximization of price. Law cleared the path for the economic motives that sentimental or reputational concerns sometimes blocked. The higher proportion of single sales--which was up to three times greater than at commercial sales--coupled with the higher prices available for individual slaves meant that the overall yields at court sales would exceed the comparable return at noncourt, local sales. Court officials, then, not only conducted a majority of slave sales, but also conducted sales in a way that maximized the destruction of slave families. Court sales were devastatingly efficient mechanisms for the liquidation of capital investment in slaves.