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Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader

Hanging Captain Gordon: The Life and Trial of an American Slave Trader

Author:Ron Soodalter
Release Date:2006

By Emily Flake | Posted 7/26/2006

In the entire history of the United States, only one slave trader was ever tried and hung for his crimes. That man was Nathaniel Gordon, and his death is of interest less for the satisfaction of justice duly meted out than for the illumination it brings to the miscarriage of justice that preceded it.

A fast-paced, almost juicy narrative of one of the most curious trials in American history, Ron Soodalterís new book uses the Gordon trial as a jumping-off point from which to explore the slave trade and its influence on American life, Northern and Southern. Anyone thinking that the North deserved the mantle of righteousness as far as slavery was concerned will be deeply disappointed--while they may not have been slavers in their own right, the businessmen of New York were deeply dependent on Southern goods and goodwill. Upon the secession of South Carolina, the mayor of New York recommended that the city follow the rebel stateís example to become the Commonwealth of Tri-Insula--for Long, Staten, and Manhattan--and deny Northern troops passage. Many opponents of the slave trade were unconcerned with human rights; they simply did not want to see white men outnumbered by their African chattel. Soodalter makes clear that it was never a cut and dried argument.

Soodalter also provides a fascinating look at the courtsí capriciousness at the time--by comparison, our "renegade judges" look like hard-line constitutionalists. The law outlawing the capture and sale of Africans by American ships was ratified in 1807 and made a capital offense in 1820. However, these laws were so ineffectively applied that even ships detained with a full cargo of slaves were often let go on minor technicalities. Bribes, wild misinterpretations of the law, false precedent--name your legal iffiness. Gordonís misfortune--besides, it can be argued, his choice of career--was to be in the wrong place at the wrong point of history. Administrations had changed, stakes were different, and an example had to be made.

Soodalter has uncovered this largely forgotten chapter of history and spun it into a sweeping drama, performing the neat trick of packing rich veins of historical information and horrific subject matter into a style both engaging and entertaining. You could fill libraries with books written about the Civil War, but Soodalter brings a rare novelistís flair to the subject, moving the story along so skillfully that you barely register the parts that are old news or balk at long stretches of historical minutiae that in less capable hands might be too dry for the nonhistorian palate.

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