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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,449

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This is the grave of John Armfield.

One of the most disgusting human beings to ever live in this country, Armfield was born in 1797 in North Carolina, His parents were Quakers. Now, the Quakers have a reputation for being politically progressive. There is a lot of truth here. However, Quakers have an outsized proportion of really terrible Americans. I’d point out to start with that the two Quaker presidents are Herbert Hoover and Richard Nixon, so that’s quite a start. Well, Armfield is probably a worse American than Nixon and he is definitely worse than Hoover.

We have learned about John Armfield on this site before, at least if you listen to the podcasts, which is probably like none of you. Back in January, I talked to the University of Alabama historian Joshua Rothman about his book The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America. Rothman explored the largest domestic slave trading operation in American history. This was Armfield’s baby. So listen to the podcast and buy his book if you really want to go all in on this. But here’s a quick roundup of this awful man.

Armfield was worthless as a young man. Shiftless, he was kicked out of a county in North Carolina for fathering a child out of wedlock and refusing to marry the woman. In the 1820s, Armfield got involved in trading slaves. His future wife’s uncle Isaac Franklin had already done some slave trading. It was in his family going back to his birth in 1799. Armfield meanwhile started to do a little slave trading to make ends meet. He met Franklin and they became friends. They decided to go into business together. They soon became fantastically successful. They had a clear sense of the market, which was to buy up unneeded slaves in the Chesapeake region, where tobacco was in decline and slavery slowly withering (which explains why people such as Washington and Jefferson talked about the eventual end of slavery, since they weren’t really making any money on it anymore) and shipping them to the southwest, where new cotton plantations were daily being ripped into the soil from land acquired through genocide against the tribes. The talk about freeing slaves or gradual emancipation basically ended with the invention of the cotton gin in the late 1790s. Now these elites in Virginia and Maryland and Delaware could just sell their slaves to traders who would send them to Mississippi and Alabama and Arkansas.

Now, one of the many myths of post-Civil War America that had tremendous traction until quite recently is that while slave traders were necessary for the functioning of a slave society, the work was not really respectable and even though those people might have made money, they were not seen as equal to other rich whites. This is complete and utter bullshit. As Rothman explored in his book, in fact slave traders were completely accepted and respectable members of elite southern society. Everyone knew what they did and no one held it against them. They even celebrated it. Armfield became very wealthy in this hugely profitable business. He eventually moved to Nashville and became a central figure of the city’s white elite. The reason that myth exists is to distract away from the centrality of slavery to southern society and to downplay just how supported the institution was all the way until the end of the Civil War. So trying to take people such as Armfield and say they were fundamentally different than the lawyers and planters and doctors and politicians, well this is just bogus garbage. It’s true enough that a man such as Armfield did not grow up wealthy and so used the slave trade for economically upward mobility. But that described a lot more rich southern white elites than did inheriting the plantation. Remember Andrew Jackson’s history, among other things, an almost entirely uneducated and violent man who was president as Armfield rose through the ranks into the elite South.

This is all bad enough. But then you get into the ways Armfield and Franklin treated the slaves they sold. These two guys had no reason to treat these slaves as remotely human, other than keeping them alive to sell as part of their investment. Otherwise, the slaves were there for some good ol’ male fun. So these two guys routinely wrote to each other (Armfield was mostly doing the buying and Franklin the selling, so the latter was away a lot more and thus they had a large correspondence) and in their writings, they described to each other how much fun it was to rape various slaves. Yep. Openly bragging about rape to your own relative by marriage. Even outside of the utter scumbaggery involved, to talk about this so openly with the uncle of your wife and him talking about it back to you, I mean what more do you need to know about the contours of southern white masculinity in pre-Civil War America? It was racist and it was misogynistic and it was violent and just disgusting.

By the early 1830s, these men were moving thousands of people a year. Armfield left the slave trade by 1835. Why continue? He could have kept going of course, there was an endless demand for slaves. But it was hard work and he did a lot of it himself. Why not just live off all that profit? So he moved to Nashville full time, was a local elite, and invested in high end vacation resorts for men like himself. One of them was Beersheeba Springs, Tennessee. You can go there today. It’s quite a lovely spot on the southern edge of the Cumberland Plateau. Lots of old buildings still exist, including some of the resort’s original housing. Of course there is nothing I could see there about the history of the place and the scumbag who started this place. Doesn’t mean there was nothing, but I sure didn’t see it.

And in case you are still unsure about how accepted Armfield was in the South due to his profession, he was the big funder behind the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. This seems appropriate since Sewanee is basically the last true bastion of the Old South in education, outside of VMI or other military academies. So every time you hear about this school, remember that it comes straight from the slave trade. 25 years ago, I went there quite a bit due to dating someone from the town and that’s a long time ago now, but again, I don’t remember a single thing about any of this there.

Incidentally, the slaveholding pen where Armfield and Franklin held their poor captives and did some of their rampant raping still exists in Alexandria, Virginia.

Armfield died in 1871. He was 74 years old.

John Armfield is buried in Armfield Cemetery, Beersheeba Springs, Tennessee.

If you would like this series to visit other scumbag slave traders, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Isaac Franklin is in Nashville and Tarlton Arterburn is in Louisville. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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