The Thing about Franklin

I think the thing that bothers me most about Isaac Franklin, which is both why I want him in my book and why I’m finding it really unsettling to have to ponder him as a human being, is that, as far as I can tell, he was “one of the good ones.” By the standards of his time, he was a respected businessman who, while occasionally upsetting the people of Natchez by leaving dead enslaved people all around the outskirts of town, was a lot of people’s preferred trader to do business with.

The other successful slave traders who were at Franklin & Armfield’s level–or at least who could reasonably aspire to be–had some really shady business practices that people at the time found shadier than Franklin & Armfield’s, a fact Franklin & Armfield regularly used to their advantage to increase their own sales.

In their own context, these were good businessmen and good people (which is why the University of the South took Armfield’s money) who, yes, had the distasteful job of slave trading, but aside from that. In other words, they had reputations similar to how we view used car salesmen. People kind of thought the job was icky and involved a level of them trying to pull one over on you, but success spoke for itself.

When white people in the South say that their slave-owning ancestors were good people, here’s the rub–if they’re telling the truth (and let’s not doubt that they are), a good person in the early 1800s would have, if he needed to, bought his slaves from Franklin & Armfield. That would have been the “ethical” choice.

And they seemed to have raped a lot of the female slaves that passed through their business. If you bought a woman from them, you likely bought their victim from them. The scale of their rape cult is just mind-boggling (can you have a three-person cult? I don’t know what other word to use here.) Franklin & Armfield sold about 1200 people a year. If half of them were women and they “only” raped half of those women, that’s still almost a rape for every day of the year. The very least you can say is that, if you fell into the clutches of Franklin & Armfield, you were going to witness a rape.

One place I read said that Franklin & Armfield controlled about 5% of the U.S. economy. A nickle of every dollar passed through their hands.

I don’t know.. I don’t know what I want to say, exactly, except for that we, here in Nashville, talk about slavery like the worst of it happened someplace else. And yet, if you want to see those Franklin & Armfield nickles up-close and personal, you can stroll around Belmont or drive to Suwanee.

3 thoughts on “The Thing about Franklin

  1. I guess it’s worth it to consider the extent to which successful men become the prototype for “good.” So, here we have two insanely successful men, unspeakably powerful and gratuitously wealthy. I look at the people who claim their ancestors were’ “good” and have to think to what extent were they emulating Franklin and Armfeld because of their wealth and power? After all, I don’t think “successful” = “good” is a recent American invention.

  2. Thanks for posting this, B. I get a kick out of hearing white men talk about how their ancestors (who may or may not have arrived in the U.S. after the Civil War) probably had it just as bad or worse than black slaves and their descendants. I wonder where they’re learning their history of chattel slavery.

  3. C., this is an important point I was going to make in my “Why do we occasionally think Adelicia Acklen was a witch?” section, but I may have to lay the groundwork here in the section on her first husband. Southerners believed in a kind of early version of the Prosperity Gospel. A person’s wealth and success was absolutely understood as God’s blessing on them. A rich person was a godly person. Which meant that whatever a rich person might do must be okay with God, otherwise, God would have removed His blessing from that rich person.

    We kind of believe something different–we believe that a good person can become rich because God loves him and is blessing him. It’s a slight difference, but it allows for good people not being rich and rich people not necessarily being good. That, as far as I can tell, is not a nuance antebellum white Southerners would have bothered with.

    Which means, again, that when people now say “My ancestor was a good slave owner,” that can very well be true. In that ancestor’s time, he may have been incredibly wealthy, thus proving that whatever he did was fine with God, and thus good. But that doesn’t mean that, if a modern Southerner went back to 1840 and saw what his ancestor was up to, he wouldn’t be disgusted and appalled. Most of us just aren’t aware of the difference in how “good” is being used across two centuries.

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