The best books from the last ten years on the domestic slave trade

Joshua D. Rothman Author Of The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America
By Joshua D. Rothman

Who am I?

I have taught history at the University of Alabama since the year 2000, and I have been working and writing as a historian of American slavery for more than twenty-five years. It is not an easy subject to spend time with, but it is also not a subject we can afford to turn away from because it makes us uncomfortable. Slavery may not be the only thing you need to understand about American history, but you cannot effectively understand American history without it. 


I wrote...

The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America

By Joshua D. Rothman,

Book cover of The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America

What is my book about?

The three men at the center of my book ran the largest and most important domestic slave trading firm in American history. By tracing the stories of their lives and careers, as well as those of some of the thousands of people they trafficked, I am also able to tell the broader story of the domestic slave trade itself. I explore the evolution over time of a cruel business that sat at the heart of American slavery, was central to American economic development, and made fortunes for its practitioners while devastating the lives of millions of enslaved people. While the domestic slave trade is something often imagined as a sideshow of American life before the Civil War, in fact it was everywhere. Its legacies remain to this day.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is readers supported. When you buy through links on our website, we may earn an affiliate commission. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home

By Richard Bell,

Book cover of Stolen: Five Free Boys Kidnapped Into Slavery and Their Astonishing Odyssey Home

Why this book?

Because the buying and selling of enslaved people was enormously profitable and entirely legal in the United States before the Civil War, even free Black people lived in fear that they might be kidnapped, sold illegally as slaves, and never heard from by their friends and families again. Though many Americans are familiar with the experience of Solomon Northup, as relayed in his memoir Twelve Years a Slave and the film of the same name, Richard Bell demonstrates how kidnapping was widespread in the nineteenth century and how thin the line could be between freedom and slavery.


The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation

By Daina Ramey Berry,

Book cover of The Price for Their Pound of Flesh: The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation

Why this book?

That enslaved people were considered commodities is no secret. But in this book, Daina Ramey Berry demonstrates how enslaved people were attached to monetary prices throughout their entire lives. Indeed, enslaved people were in the market even before they were born, and they remained in the market even after they had died. But Berry reminds us that enslaved people themselves understood that their “soul value,” and not their supposed economic value, defined who they really were.


An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America's Domestic Slave Trade

By Alexandra J. Finley,

Book cover of An Intimate Economy: Enslaved Women, Work, and America's Domestic Slave Trade

Why this book?

The domestic slave trade business was operated predominantly by white men, but the labor of Black women was critical to making it profitable. Here, Alexandra Finley recovers the stories of Black women who fed and clothed the enslaved in pens and jail, who kept the houses of slave traders, who were commodified for purposes of sexual slavery in the so-called fancy trade, and who sometimes even lived as the concubines and “wives” of traders. Putting enslaved women and their work at the center of the story yields an entirely new angle of vision on the trade.


Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade

By Maurie D. McInnis,

Book cover of Slaves Waiting for Sale: Abolitionist Art and the American Slave Trade

Why this book?

As the domestic slave trade became more expansive alongside the growth of the cotton economy, it attracted the increased ire of antislavery activists in the United States and England alike. Using sketches and paintings of the slave trade made by British artist Eyre Crowe in the 1850s as an entry point, Maurie McInnis explores the landscape of the slave trade in major American cities such as Richmond and New Orleans. In the process, she also opens a fresh window onto the world of transatlantic abolitionism.


The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860

By Calvin Schermerhorn,

Book cover of The Business of Slavery and the Rise of American Capitalism, 1815-1860

Why this book?

Much of the recent outpouring of books on the domestic slave trade is an outgrowth of revived debates about the historical relationship between slavery and capitalism in the United States. Calvin Schermerhorn draws that connection as tightly as any historian in recent memory, tracing the financial innovations generated by the trade and following the money around the country and across the Atlantic as a foundation for American economic growth was built on the backs of hundreds of thousands of enslaved people trafficked against their will.


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in slaves, Virginia, and women?

5,215 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about slaves, Virginia, and women.

Slaves Explore 55 books about slaves
Virginia Explore 57 books about Virginia
Women Explore 303 books about women

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like Finding Charity's Folk: Enslaved and Free Black Women in Maryland, The Known World, and Twice Condemned: Slaves and the Criminal Laws of Virginia, 1705-1865 if you like this list.