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.