Enslaved Agents: Business Transactions Negotiated by Slaves in the Antebellum South

This Article explores the law of agency as applied to enslaved workers in the Antebellum South between 1798 and 1863. In particular, I examine legal disputes involving the delegation of agency power to enslaved workers. Southern courts generally accepted that an enslaved worker could serve as business agent for his or her slaveholder, which often meant binding a third party to a transaction negotiated or performed by an enslaved person.

These cases provide a window into business practices in slave states, where enslaved workers conducted business on behalf of slaveholders in a variety of contexts. While agency law served the economic interests of individual slaveholders—who could then avoid hiring paid labor for the same work—it also at times conflicted with the ideology of white supremacy and the associated southern laws meant to enforce racial dominance. Agency law bestowed the slaveholder’s power on an enslaved worker in transactions with third parties, often white businessmen who later sought to unwind the deal. The law of agency also conflicted at times with state laws that prohibited sales and business dealings with slaves. Nevertheless, southern courts frequently sided with slaveholders, who insisted that their powers could be delegated to enslaved workers.

Agency-related jurisprudence also illustrates the economic exploitation of slavery, which allocated all of the proceeds from an enslaved person’s labor, talent, and expertise to the slaveholder.