“The Most Potent Money Power”: Slave Traders, Dark Money, and Elections

“The Most Potent Money Power”: Slave Traders, Dark Money, and Elections

With the 2018 midterm elections approaching, the role of money in politics once again looms large in American political discourse. For many, shadowy super PACs, mega-donors, and dark money stand in stark contrast to the sanctity of the individual voter. Political actors recognize and deploy this, with politicians going to great lengths to avoid seeming beholden to monied interests.[1] This, however, is not a new issue in American politics. Fears of wealth’s influence resonated in the nineteenth century as well, as electoral combatants used accusations of purchased influence to attack their opponents’ legitimacy. Even as the Civil War loomed, such rhetoric helped shape the terms of debates over the Union’s future. We see this with particular clarity in Virginia, as Virginians wrestled with secession during the secession winter. Much as opponents of slavery had long accused the “Slave Power” of wielding undemocratic political influence, those combating secession summoned fears of slave money (particularly that spent in the political arena by slave traders) to undercut disunion’s democratic legitimacy and to bolster the Union.

Slave traders and their political influence had long been an obvious rhetorical target. As the most obviously odious of all the actors within the slave system, they could be (and were) attacked with particular venom. And connection to them and their ill-gotten gains could prove damning. In 1844, Horace Greeley blamed slave traders for Martin Van Buren’s defeat in that year’s Democratic Convention, citing their desire to see Texas annexed in order to increase the prices of the enslaved, while in the 1850s a Stephen Douglas mouthpiece attacked a rival as the “the nigger traders’ candidate for President” for opposing homestead legislation.[2] Linkages to slave commerce—and to the money generated therefrom—was a potent rhetorical tool in the parlance of the antebellum United States.

Slave Auction at the South, 1861. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

In 1860 and 1861, as state conventions assembled to debate secession, the possibility that slave traders’ lucre might influence the course of gained heightened significance. Such fears had considerable credibility even within slave states where Unionist delegates hailing from regions with lower enslaved populations clashed with their counterparts from the plantation belts. In Richmond, Virginia, capital of both the commonwealth and the mid-Atlantic’s slave trade, delegates met for two months within blocks of the city’s slave-trading district and with one eye on their potential influence over the proceedings. Delegates heightened their vigilance as the convention’s Unionist majority endured an outdoor political campaign with mass meetings and demonstrations whipping the city into a frenzy.[3]

Those opposed to secession quickly attributed these mobs to the malign influence of slave traders in a practice reminiscent of contemporary accusations of “astroturfing” and of paid protesters. When, for example, a delegate issued a particularly stirring call for maintaining the Union, a crowd marched on the Mechanics’ Institute where the convention sat in session. Unionists argued that this mass action (which originated near Richmond’s slave jails and auction houses) had clearly been “gotten up by negro traders.”[4] Two weeks later, after secessionists ascended the state capitol and unfurled a Confederate flag, the New York Tribune complained that such mob activity revealed that Richmond’s slave traders had “let themselves loose” upon the city and inaugurated a “Reign of Terror” designed to intimidate delegates.[5]

Virginia State Capitol. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Besides instigating protests, Virginian Unionists were convinced that slave dealers were bankrolling the secession movement in the commonwealth. Elizabeth Van Lew, future United States spy and a relative of the slave jailer Silas Omohundro, fumed in her diary that when slave traders hoisted the Confederate flag in Richmond they proved that they had been “fabricating for years” a plot against the Union.[6] A correspondent of Shenandoah Valley minister and educator George Junkin similarly feared that slave dealers had engaged their “immense capital” in “buying up votes and presses, and paying agents to get up county secession meetings.”[7] A convention delegate concurred in this assessment and, even after an initial two-to-one vote against immediate secession, wrung his hands over the “the powerful influence exerted by the most potent money power, that has ever existed in Virginia… the power of the Traders in negroes.” These, he correctly noted, operated their own bank, and had considerable capital of their own to throw into the secession cause. “The interest of these people,” he feared, “is entirely with the seceded states, and to promote it, they would sacrifice every other interest in the state, without the least scruple.”[8] A well-funded group of single-issue voters, then, threatened the sanctity of the democratically elected convention and to take Virginia to war on their own behalf.

John Minor Botts. Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Virginia’s secession and the onset of war perpetuated claims that Richmond slave brokers had hacked the electoral process using the proceeds of their traffic. John Minor Botts, one of Virginia’s most famous Unionists, complained that “the gamblers and nigger traders of Richmond spent ten thousand dollars” to steal his slot in the convention and thus wield influence within that body. Their campaign succeeded, and their dark money thus secured secession “for the exclusive benefit of the holders and dealers in slaves.”[9] The abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher, meanwhile, shared Botts’s paranoia, arguing that “a conspiracy of slave traders” had “dragooned” Virginia “out of the nation” via a campaign of influence and intimidation that frustrated the will of the people.[10] The Unionist Wheeling Daily Intelligencer put things most pointedly. Richmond’s slave trading class, it argued, had been “the first to embrace Secessionism:” it “contributed the first money,” raised the first flag, and headed “All the processions, by day or night.” “They were,” in short, “the leaders of every Secession enterprise.” These dealers in humanity’s actions, then, were not out of interest in the common good but to defend their own businesses, elevating the good of the few over the needs and voices of the people.[11]

Because many United States citizens persistently believed in a silent Confederate majority in favor of restoring the Union, wealthy, influential slave dealers remained a useful excuse for explaining the lengthening conflict. Their corrupting influence and deep pockets, the argument ran, enabled a minority to beat the drum for war over the wishes of most Southerners. A Cleveland periodical thus claimed that while most Virginians desired reunion, large slaveholders and “negro traders” opposed this and held them in political bondage.[12] Another paper blamed “the negro-traders, the blacklegs, the overseers, and all the parasites of slavery” for abetting secession and for the ongoing war.[13] Though such claims became less convincing as the war dragged on, the idea that secession had been not only legally but democratically illegitimate thanks to the undue influence of a monied class remained broadly compelling.

The surviving evidence is inconclusive regarding the actual role of slave-trading money in the political crisis of 1860-1861. Certainly many slave dealers were politically active, and contemporary testimony does place them in the thick of anti-Union activities; after the war, one of their own implicated many leading slave traders, for example, in running the secession flag up over the state capital in Virginia.[14] Their surviving correspondence, however, gives little indication of a broad conspiracy. Regardless of the reality of their actions, however, the threat of slave trading capital deployed in the political process remained rhetorically useful for proponents of the Union. By playing on existing fears of slaveholders’ dominance, their notoriety, and their widely known profits, Unionists made them into plausible enemies. Though they ultimately failed politically, blaming secession on slave dealers’ money and purchased influence provided a compelling scapegoat, allowing Unionists could tout their own authority amidst the secession crisis and to discredit their opponents. They thus joined a long and, as contemporary events show, ongoing history of using political financing as an issue in shaping electoral behavior and determining the legitimacy of the democratic process.


[1] Peter Overby, “Every Position Donald Trump Has Taken on How He’ Is Funding His Campaign,” NPR, July 14, 2016, accessed October 15, 2018, https://www.npr.org/2016/07/14/485699964/every-position-donald-trump-has-taken-on-how-he-is-funding-his-campaign; Beto O’Rourke, “Make a Donation,” Beto For Senate, accessed October 15, 2018, https://betofortexas.com.

[2] Excerpted in “The Negro Traders as Politicians,” Christian Advocate, January 14, 1864; quoted in George M. Stephenson, The Political History of the Public Lands From 1840 to 1862: From Pre-Emption to Homestead (Boston: Richard G. Badger, 1917), 217.

[3] Daniel W. Crofts, Reluctant Confederates: Upper South Unionists in the Secession Crisis (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989), 281-282, 315-323.

[4] “Secession at Richmond,” Orleans Independent Standard, March 1, 1861.

[5] “From Virginia,” New York Tribune, March 17, 1861.

[6] David D. Ryan, ed. A Yankee Spy in Richmond: The Civil War Diary of “Crazy Bet” Van Lew (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Boos, 1996), 30, 33.

[7] D.X. Junkin, George Junkin, D.D., LL.D.: A Biography (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1871), 516.

[8] Quoted in Bruce S. Greenwalt, “The Correspondence of James D. Davidson, Reluctant Rebel” (M.A. thesis, University of Wisconsin, 1961), 35, 41.

[9] John Minor Botts, The Great Rebellion: Its Secret History, Rise, Progress, and Disastrous Failure (New York, 1866), 240; “From Richmond,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, February 27, 1861; Crofts, Reluctant Confederates, 277.

[10] Henry Ward Beecher, Patriotic Addresses in America and England, From 1850 to 1885, on Slavery, the Civil War, and the Development of Liberty in the United States (New York: Fords, Howard & Hulbert, 1887), 373.

[11] “Late News From the Rebel States,” Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, August 17, 1861.

[12] “The Situation at Richmond,” Cleveland Morning Leader, October 13, 1862.

[13] “Slaveholders Unionists,” Herkimer Democrat, April 29, 1863.

[14] “Notice,” Richmond Daily Dispatch, November 5, 1860; James L. Apperson, Amnesty Petition, June 21, 1865, Case Files of Applications from Former Confederates for Presidential Pardons (“Amnesty Papers”), 1865-67, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780s-1917, Record Group 94, NARA. Accessed via www.fold3.com.

Robert Colby

Robert Colby is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His dissertation, "The Continuance of an Unholy Traffic: Slave Trading in the Civil War South," examines the ways in which the domestic slave trade shaped the course of the Civil War and the experience of emancipation. You can follow him on Twitter, @rkdcolby86.

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