From the period of 1800 to 1860, slavery in the southern USA reached its greatest extent and economic importance. It was during this time period that the phrase “sold down the river” entered American English. Originally, the phrase had a very clear and specific meaning associated with slavery. In time, this phrase has lost this original meaning, and has now become a vague phrase that signifies a situation of having been betrayed or victimized.
Throughout this peak period of American slavery, slave owners faced challenges in managing their human “property” in ways that would yield them the most money for the least trouble. On the one hand, slaves could be highly profitable through their work, through re-sale, or through their use as breeding stock to produce more slaves that could be sold later. In 1808, importation of new slaves had been forbidden by American law. The slave trade was also eventually shut down by British Navy forces that patrolled the West Coast of Africa. This had the effect of increasing the worth of existing slaves in the American South. On the other hand, slavery was a hateful and horrible institution in the perception of slaves, who logically would run away if they were able to escape and able to bear separation from their families, following the underground railroad up to Canada.
The solution to these twin challenges of maximizing profit and limiting losses (slave escapes) for the slavemasters was to intimidate slaves into cooperation. This could be done by punishment or through threats. One of the best threats was to talk about selling the slave “down the river” - in other words, from the healthier and less brutal conditions of the upper South to the deep South where intense work under unhealthy conditions could often result in death. A slave who attempted escape and was recaptured or who repeatedly resisted the wishes of his master could soon hear this threat, and then could soon experience the reality of it. In economic terms, conditions favored selling a slave down the river if the alternative was to give the slave another chance at escape. A fugitive slave paid a master nothing, while a slave sold South could bring hundreds or even thousands of dollars at a time when a dollar was worth far more than it is today.
This phrase that sounds vaguely threatening, “sold down the river,” in actuality refers to husbands and wives never to see each other again, children torn from the arms of screaming mothers, and human beings abused and controlled in vicious ways in order to maximize profit as if they were cattle or pigs. The cruelties and injustices expressed in the phrase would render a compassionate person incapable of speaking it out loud. But at the same time, it opens a fascinating window through time into the darkest corner of America’s history. "Sold down the river" is a horrible name for a horrible thing.