top of page
  • Emmanuel Mehr

Hope H. Slatter’s Presidential Pardon and the Erasure of Black Lives

BHW 43: November 25, 2023

A scanned document marking President Andrew Johnson’s official pardon of Hope H. Slatter. It begins: “Now, therefore, be it known, that I, ANDREW JOHNSON, President of the United States of America, in consideration of the premises, divers other good and sufficient reasons me thereunto moving, do hereby grant to the said H. H. Slatter a full pardon and amnesty for all offences committed, arising from participation, direct or implied, in the said rebellion…”
Figure 1. President Andrew Johnson’s pardon of Hope H. Slatter, November 1865 [1].


CONTENT WARNING: Violence of slavery and the slave trade


Former Baltimore-based slave trader Hope H. Slatter wrote to President Andrew Johnson in October 1865, seeking a presidential pardon for fighting against the United States as a Confederate Lieutenant and Captain. [2] As was required, he also swore an oath to “abide by and faithfully support all acts of Congress passed during the existing rebellion with respect to slaves” and “in like manner abide by and faithfully support all Proclamations of the President made during the existing rebellion, having reference to slaves.” [3] After building a career perpetuating American slavery, he fought a war to protect it. Now, he required a pardon to regain the right to enter business contracts, among other privileges. [4] Around 1840, Baltimore’s preeminent domestic slave trader Austin Woolfolk relocated to Louisiana. Slatter was one of the leading traders remaining in the city, primarily moving large human cargoes from Baltimore to New Orleans. [5] In 1843, he claimed in the Sun: “I am now the largest dealer who is engaged in the trade.” [6] By 1848, he sold his Baltimore slave trading firm for a profit and announced his retirement from the occupation. [7] He was living in New Orleans when he submitted his pardon application in 1865. [8] However, ship manifests make clear that Baltimore was his residence and base of operations throughout his slave trading years. [9] When President Johnson issued his first Amnesty Proclamation for Confederate contributors on May 28, 1865, Slatter was included in the “excepted classes” since he possessed wealth greater than $20,000. [10] This meant he had to submit a specialized pardon request. [11] While some of this was an inheritance, much of his wealth was accrued through slave trading. On November 13, 1865, his pardon was approved (Figure 1). [12] He was free to resume his successful career in business. Slavery was no longer legal, but he maintained the wealth, business connections, and experience it brought him while it was. By contrast, the enslaved Black people he extracted this wealth from never received any compensation. They faced a United States no longer structured by formal slavery, but inextricably structured by the systemic inequities of American racial capitalism.

A glimpse into Slatter’s everyday capitalist exploitation of Black lives in Baltimore is provided by British abolitionist Joseph Sturge, who visited the slave trader in 1841. Sturge wrote about this experience in his written account of his trip around the United States that year, including in this publication a letter he wrote to Slatter reflecting on their encounter. While the ardent abolitionist Sturge makes clear he was disgusted by Slatter’s “market-house for human flesh,” he came away from the visit telling Slatter he “feels nothing but kindness and good will towards thyself.” [13] Sturge points out that the slave trader’s business office included a jail “strongly secured with bolts and bars.” At the time of his visit, “There were only five or six negroes in stock [italics in original].” However, Slatter made sure to mention “he had sometimes three or four hundred there, and had shipped off a cargo to New Orleans a few days before.” Sturge’s account of meeting “the head slave” demonstrates Slatter’s everyday role directly extracting profit from Black people. The trader emphasized that this enslaved person’s “wife he had made free, and promised the same boon to him, if he conducted himself well a few years longer.” The power dynamic between the enslaver and the enslaved gave this arrangement no substantial social or legal backing. Slatter may have never intended to free this person. Yet, “he frequently left his concerns [enslaved assets] for weeks together [without his supervision], under the care of his head slave.” Slatter extracted profit from this enslaved person whenever he successfully compelled them to watch over and protect his human inventory without guaranteed compensation. [14] Additionally, Sturge seemed convinced by Slatter’s justification that his occupation was a lawful and important part of the capitalist economy. Sturge wrote, “To thy remark that thy business was necessary to the system of slavery, and an essential part of it—and if slave-holding were to be justified at all, the slave-trade must be also—I certainly can offer no valid objection.” [15] Perhaps Slatter was comforted to receive this concession from an abolitionist about his extraction of profit from Black lives.

Sturge also spoke to why Slatter chose Baltimore as his base for trading enslaved people, stating, “The city is the market where the highest price is generally obtained for them.” [16] It is unclear if Sturge was referring specifically to Baltimore City or to urban contexts in general. Regardless, Slatter recognized that Baltimore’s booming industrial port economy and location as a nexus between North and South opened a wealth of business opportunities. He typically sent enslaved cargoes from Baltimore to New Orleans then relied on his business partners in Louisiana to manage the other end of the transaction. The demand for enslaved people in the Deep South was strong, so the dealer’s expertise was not necessarily needed on that side. By contrast, coordinating purchases in Baltimore required substantial business acumen. There were numerous traders operating out of the city at any given time and limited numbers of enslaved people available for sale. [17] Slavery in Baltimore itself was relatively uncommon by the 1840s, so traders relied on sellable assets being brought from outside the city. [18] Slatter regularly ran advertisements in Baltimore newspapers to publicly stress his superiority over his competitors. For example, in an 1838 ad he described his presale slave incarceration facility as “not surpassed by any establishment of its kind in the United States.” He stressed that he designed his operation with “an eye to the health and cleanliness of the slaves, as well as the many other necessary conveniences.” He also promised that “Cash and the highest prices will at all times be given for likely slaves of both sexes.” [19] Customers could expect a slave trading experience of the highest caliber when working with his Baltimore operation.

Slatter also demonstrated strong knowledge and utilization of Baltimore’s specific place in the national economy, most notably through his usage of transportation infrastructure. His predecessor as the leading Baltimore slave trader, Austin Woolfolk, pioneered sending human cargoes from Baltimore to New Orleans by ship. [20] While Slatter did this too, he was also a leader in using Baltimore’s status as a national railroad hub to move cargo by rail. As historian Steven Deyle points out, “By 1848 the large Baltimore dealer Hope Slatter was shipping slaves to the Georgia market by rail, and, not long after, most other traders were doing so as well.” [21] As previously mentioned, this is the same year that he announced his retirement from Baltimore slave trading. While he recognized the importance of Baltimore’s rail infrastructure for the trade, he also recognized that regional competition restricted his future possibilities for profit. Most specifically, the operations of Isaac Franklin and John Armfield based in Alexandria, Virginia, increasingly dominated the regional slave trade. [22] By getting out of the business many years before the Civil War would terminate the entire industry, Slatter was able to long live off the wealth he accrued from exploiting Black lives. The pardon he received from President Andrew Johnson in 1865 enabled this, lifting any treasonous stigma from his association with slavery.

When Slatter fought for the Confederacy, he fought to defend the institution through which he built his wealth: American slavery. By extension, when he sought a presidential pardon for fighting against the United States, he was also seeking federal forgiveness and tacit validation of his slave trading. When he was successfully pardoned, the federal government in effect forgave his role in perpetuating slavery, in service of postbellum national unity. Crucially for Slatter, this forgiveness did not require the surrender of any of his non-human property. No longer an active slave trader in the 1860s, his wealth was long removed from the Black bodies from which it was extracted. In effect, President Johnson’s conciliatory Reconstruction campaign enabled Slatter’s continued enjoyment of this wealth. As historian Jonathan Truman Dorris argues, Johnson initially sought to harshly punish former Confederates for their treasonous actions. However, his punishments became increasingly lenient as Presidential Reconstruction developed. Dorris credits a variety of factors for this softening. Most notably, he cites Johnson’s predecessor Abraham Lincoln’s general leniency as a contributing factor. Relatedly, he also credits William H. Seward’s continued role as Secretary of State for both the Lincoln and Johnson administrations and his “pacific disposition.” Finally, he emphasizes the relative cooperation of former Confederates as convincing Johnson of lesser requisite punishment. [23]

Slatter’s case specifically demonstrates one impactful way in which Johnson’s clemency policy was harsher than that of his predecessor. While President Lincoln excepted six different classes of Confederates from his amnesty policy, Johnson excepted fourteen groups. [24] To understand this difference it is important to understand the conceptual difference between amnesty and pardon. Historian Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius explains this well, writing, “Typically, a pardon is bestowed on an individual, while a proclamation of amnesty embraces a group of people and forgives their collective offenses before legal action occurs.” [25] In the case at hand, people who supported the Confederacy but did not fall under any of Johnson’s excepted categories received a general amnesty. Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation absolved them of legal liability for their treason against the United States, with no further action required on their part. However, Slatter and other excepted people had to individually apply for a pardon. Like Slatter, most excepted Confederates were part of the thirteenth group. [26] It included, “All persons who have voluntarily participated in said rebellion, and the estimated value of whose taxable property is over twenty thousand dollars.” [27] Most of these people were enslavers, and many of them held large amounts of enslaved human property. [28] Membership in this thirteenth group explains why the front page of Slatter’s pardon application case file includes the phrase “La, 13,” indicating his residence in Louisiana and property of over $20,000.

Hope H. Slatter’s presidential pardon is an imposing document, written as it was on the official letterhead of the most powerful person in the United States. By contrast, the Black lives on which Slatter built his personal wealth are restricted in the archive to brief mention on ship manifests. Their names appear on these documents as lines on a ledger, lives recognized as legally enslaved by the federal customs officer who approved the manifest. [29] The sheer power of the office of the president elevated Slatter’s conciliatory pardon over these many manifests, marginalizing Black lives in the archive. The financial and social gains Slatter made from these Black people enabled his continued advantage over Black Americans, even after emancipation marked the failure of the Confederate cause. When Johnson’s pardon renewed Slatter’s ability to capitalize on this wealth, his treason was forgiven and his slave trading successes were officially legitimized. As a wealthy white property-owner, he was deemed of sufficient importance to require a personalized presidential pardon. This document secured and perpetuated all of his assets that were no longer directly attached to human lives. Scholar Tonia Sutherland articulates the implications of this pardon well: “When Johnson granted amnesty to the Confederacy he removed the possibility and necessity of accountability, thereby reinforcing the cultural and social supremacy of Southern whites. African Americans and other people of color in the American South saw no end to the predilections of slavery and the precarity of Black life.” [30] Slatter’s pardon provides an archival embodiment of how the inequities inherent within American racial capitalism ensured continued undermining of Black lives post-emancipation. Johnson’s presidential letterhead overpowers traces of the source of Slatter’s wealth, marginalizing the vital role of slavery in the foundations of American capitalism.


[1] President Andrew Johnson, “President Andrew Johnson’s Pardon of H. H. Slatter,” November 13, 1865, National Archives at Fort Worth (Fort Worth, TX), Reference, Reproduction, and Preservation, NAID: 7403291, 1,

[2] Hope H. Slatter, “Confederate Applications for Pardon and Amnesty, Louisiana: Slatter, Hope H.,” National Archives (Washington, D.C.), Textual Reference, M1003 - Pardon Petitions and Related Papers Submitted in Response to President Andrew Johnson's Amnesty Proclamations of May 29, 1865, ("Amnesty Papers"), NAID: 57413178, 1,

[3] Slatter, “Confederate Applications for Pardon and Amnesty, Louisiana: Slatter, Hope H.,” 4.

[4] Jonathan Truman Dorris, Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson: The Restoration of the Confederates to Their Rights and Privileges, 1861-1898 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1953), 117,

[5] Jennie K. Williams, “Trouble the water: The Baltimore to New Orleans coastwise slave trade, 1820-1860,” Slavery & Abolition 41, no. 2 (June 2020): 277,

[6] Hope H. Slatter, “NEGROES WANTED,” November 1, 1843, Sun (Baltimore, MD), November 1, 1843, 4,

[7] “NEGROES WANTED,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), December 14, 1848, 4,

[8] Slatter, “Confederate Applications for Pardon and Amnesty, Louisiana: Slatter, Hope H.,” 2.

[9] See “Manifest of the Brig Splendid of Baltimore,” National Archives at Fort Worth (Fort Worth, TX), Record Group 36: Records of the U.S. Customs Service, Series: Slave Manifests, File Unit: May 1841, NAID: 17408487, 1,;, New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S., Slave Manifests, 1807-1860 [database on-line], Operations Inc., 2006, original data: The National Archives in Washington, DC; Washington, DC; Slave Manifests of Coastwise Vessels Filed at New Orleans, Louisiana, 1807-1860; Microfilm Serial: M1895; Microfilm Roll: 8,

[10] President Andrew Johnson, “Prest. Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation,” Washington, D.C., May 29, 1865, Library of Congress,

[11] Dorris, Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson, 112.

[12] President Andrew Johnson “President Andrew Johnson’s Pardon of H. H. Slatter,” 2.

[13] Joseph Sturge, A Visit to the United States in 1841 (Boston: Dexter S. King, 1842), 48, 50,

[14] Sturge, A Visit to the United States, 46.

[15] Sturge, A Visit to the United States, 49.

[16] Sturge, A Visit to the United States, 46.

[17] T. Stephen Whitman, The Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 1997), 77-79, Kindle edition.

[18] Barbara Jeanne Fields, Slavery and Freedom on the Middle Ground: Maryland during the Nineteenth Century (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), 48,

[19] Hope H. Slatter, “CASH FOR NEGROES,” Sun (Baltimore, MD), November 1, 1838, 4,

[20] Seth Rockman, Scraping By: Wage Labor, Slavery, and Survival in Early Baltimore (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), 236,

[21] Steven Deyle, Carry Me Back: The Domestic Slave Trade in American Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 111,

[22] Calvin Schermerhorn, “Capitalism’s Captives: The Maritime United States Slave Trade, 1807-1850,” Journal of Social History 47, no. 4 (Summer 2014): 905-906,

[23] Dorris, Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson, 313-316.

[24] Dorris, Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson, 111.

[25] Kathleen Zebley Liulevicius, Rebel Salvation: Pardon and Amnesty of Confederates in Tennessee (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2021), 30, Kindle edition.

[26] Dorris, Pardon and Amnesty under Lincoln and Johnson, 221.

[27] President Andrew Johnson, “Prest. Johnson’s Amnesty Proclamation,” Washington, D.C., May 29, 1865.

[28] Liulevicius, Rebel Salvation, 19.

[29] I am highly grateful to note that my thinking on how these manifests fit into the archive and history is influenced by personal correspondence with the brilliant historian Dr. Gautham Rao.

[30] Tonia Sutherland, “Archival Amnesty: In Search of Black American Transitional and Restorative Justice,” Critical Archival Studies 1, no. 2 (2017): 4,

bottom of page