ARTICLE | “Principally Children”: Kidnapping, Child Trafficking, and the Mission of Early National Antislavery Activism | The Journal of American History | by Richard Bell

“‘Principally Children’: Kidnapping, Child Trafficking, and the Mission of Early National Antislavery Activism”

by Richard Bell

Journal of American History

Volume 109, Issue 1, June 2022, Pages 46–67


“This essay shines a spotlight on the experiences of [kidnapped African American children] and reconstructs their transformative effect upon the mission of the early national antislavery movement. It marks the final product of a decade of research and writing about child trafficking in the early United States, offering up arguments that I could not adequately explore in Stolen (2019), a recent plot-driven, trade book aimed at general readers. Specifically, this essay demonstrates that demand for malleable and submissive young laborers in the cotton kingdom quickly rising along the nation’s southwest border in the three decades following the end of the War of 1812 was robust and sustained and that, in order to participate in and profit from that lucrative market, gangs of child snatchers turned the early republic’s northern towns and cities into their hunting grounds. It argues that these criminal traffickers custom designed abduction techniques to be effective against individual children between six and sixteen years old. It establishes that the young age of the many thousands of minors ensnared by such means informed their experiences of enslavement and shaped their opportunities for resistance. The essay then proceeds to examine antislavery activists’ practical and polemical responses to the rise of this covert traffick in kidnapped free children. It interrogates the decision of these activists to focus, often fetishistically, on the exquisite sufferings of these boys and girls and of the parents from whom they were stolen and separated. It contends that such strategies were market tested, mature, and ubiquitous long before activists mounted second-wave print campaigns in response to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850″ (47).