The United States ended its participation in the transatlantic slave trade on January 1, 1808, but Congress still allowed the domestic buying and selling of slaves. In 1835, one congressman declared the District of Columbia “the principal mart of the slave trade of the Union.” Slaves were involved in the construction of the U.S. Capitol and almost all public buildings in D.C. before the Civil War. As the economy grew, so did the demand for slaves. For most slave traders, it was a lucrative business, with profit margins of around 20% or more. One of the most successful slave traders was William H. Williams, who sold thousands of slaves and maintained the notorious Yellow House, a prison where he held his captives until they were sold.
In his meticulously researched and superbly crafted Williams’ Gang: A Notorious Slave Trader and His Cargo of Black Convicts, historian Jeff Forret chronicles the convoluted and tragic misadventures of Williams, who purchased 21 men and six women from the Virginia State Penitentiary in 1840. Although many of these people had been convicted on flimsy or circumstantial evidence, they were considered felons and sentenced to be executed. However, rather than following through with their sentences, the governor had the power to sell them with the promise that they would only be sold out of the country. Williams purchased them and took them to New Orleans, the largest of the Southern slave markets, on his way to Texas (not yet a U.S. state). The problems began when Williams was arrested for breaking a law that forbade the introduction of enslaved convicts into Louisiana—and the resulting legal issues continued for 29 years. This narrative takes us through a world of legal wrangling that held no concern for enslaved people other than for their value as property.
In addition, Forret explores in detail the financial, governmental and societal structures that allowed slavery to flourish, as well as the personalities who aided and challenged the prevailing system. Some did both: Francis Scott Key owned slaves but abhorred slavery and represented slave owners, enslaved people and free black people in court. He was also influential in getting his brother-in-law and friend Roger B. Taney named to the Supreme Court, where he is best known for his role in the 1857 Dred Scott case.
This is a vivid and absorbing account of the exploitation of human beings whose suffering meant profit for others, all of which is part of our nation’s history.