VIII: Closing of African Slave Trade
THE CLOSING OF THE AFRICAN SLAVE TRADE
The many attempts of the several colonies to restrict or prohibit the importation of slaves were uniformly thwarted, as we have seen, by the British government. The desire for prohibition, however, had been far from constant or universal. The first Continental Congress when declaring the Association, on October 18, 1774, resolved: “We will neither import, nor purchase any slave imported, after the first day of December next; after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves nor will we hire our vessels nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.” But even this was mainly a political stroke against the British government; and the general effect of the restraint lasted not more than two or three years. The ensuing war, of course, hampered the trade, and the legislatures of several Northern states, along with Delaware and Virginia, took occasion to prohibit slave importations. The return of peace, although followed by industrial depression, revived the demand for slave labor. Nevertheless, Maryland prohibited the import by an act of 1783; North Carolina laid a prohibitive duty in 1787; and South Carolina in the spring of that year enacted the first of a series of temporary laws which maintained a continuous prohibition for sixteen years. Thus at the time when the framers of the Federal Constitution were stopping congressional action for twenty years, the trade was legitimate only in a few of the Northern states, all of which soon enacted prohibitions, and in Georgia alone at the South. The San Domingan cataclysm prompted the Georgia legislature in an act of December 19, 1793, to forbid the importation of slaves from the West Indies, the Bahamas and Florida, as well as to require free negroes to procure magisterial certificates of industriousness and probity. The African trade was left open by that state until 1798, when it was closed both by legislative enactment and by constitutional provision
[Footnote 1: The slave trade enactments by the colonies, the states and the federal government are listed and summarized in W.E.B. DuBois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States, 1638-1870 (New York, 1904), appendices.]
[Footnote 2: W.C. Ford, ed., Journals of the Continental Congress (Washington, 1904), I, 75, 77.]
[Footnote 3: DuBois, pp. 44-48.]
[Footnote 4: The text of the act, which appears never to have been printed, is in the Georgia archives. For a transcript I am indebted to the Hon. Philip Cook, Secretary of State of Georgia.]
The scale of the importation in the period when Georgia alone permitted them appears to have been small. For the year 1796, for example, the imports at Savannah were officially reported at 2084, including some who had been brought coastwise from the northward for sale. A foreign traveler who visited Savannah in the period noted that the demand was light because of the dearth of money and credit, that the prices were about three hundred dollars per head, that the carriers were mainly from New England, and that one third of each year’s imports were generally smuggled into South Carolina.
[Footnote 5: American Historical Association Report for 1903, pp. 459, 460.]
[Footnote 6: LaRochefoucauld-Liancourt, Travels in the United States (London, 1799), p. 605.]
In the impulse toward the prohibitory acts the humanitarian motive was obvious but not isolated. At the North it was supplemented, often in the same breasts, by the inhumane feeling of personal repugnance toward negroes. The anti-slave-trade agitation in England also had a contributing influence; and there were no economic interests opposing the exclusion. At the South racial repugnance was fainter, and humanitarianism though of positive weight was but one of several factors. The distinctively Southern considerations against the trade were that its continuance would lower the prices of slaves already on hand, or at least prevent those prices from rising; that it would so increase the staple exports as to spoil the world’s market for them; that it would drain out money and keep the community in debt; that it would retard the civilization of the negroes already on hand; and that by raising the proportion of blacks in the population it would intensify the danger of slave insurrections. The several arguments had varying degrees of influence in the several areas. In the older settlements where the planters had relaxed into easy-going comfort, the fear of revolt was keenest; in the newer districts the settlers were more confident in their own alertness. Again, where prosperity was declining the planters were fairly sure to favor anything calculated to raise the prices of slaves which they might wish in future to sell, while on the other hand the people in districts of rising industry were tempted by programmes tending to cheapen the labor they needed.
The arguments used in South Carolina for and against exclusion may be gathered from scattering reports in the newspapers. In September, 1785, the lower house of the legislature upon receiving a message from the governor on the distressing condition of commerce and credit, appointed a committee of fifteen on the state of the republic. In this committee there was a vigorous debate on a motion by Ralph Izard to report a bill prohibiting slave importations for three years. John Rutledge opposed it. Since the peace with Great Britain, said he, not more than seven thousand slaves had been imported, which at L50 each would be trifling as a cause of the existing stringency; and the closing of the ports would therefore fail to relieve the distress Thomas Pinckney supported Rutledge with an argument that the exclusion of the trade from Charleston would at once drive commerce in general to the ports of Georgia and North Carolina, and that the advantage of low prices, which he said had fallen from a level of L90 in 1783, would be lost to the planters. Judge Pendleton, on the other hand, stressed the need of retrenchment. Planters, he said, no longer enjoyed the long loans which in colonial times had protected them from distress; and the short credits now alone available put borrowers in peril of bankruptcy from a single season of short crops and low prices. The committee reported Izard’s bill; but it was defeated in the House by a vote of 47 to 51, and an act was passed instead for an emission of bills of credit by the state. The advocacy of the trade by Thomas Pinckney indicates that at this time there was no unanimity of conservatives against it.
[Footnote 7: Charleston Evening Gazette, Sept. 26 and 28, 1785.]
[Footnote 8: Ibid., Oct. 1, 1785.]
When two years later the stringency persisted, the radicals in the legislature demanded a law to stay the execution of debts, while the now unified conservatives proposed again the stoppage of the slave trade. In the course of the debate David Ramsay “made a jocose remark that every man who went to church last Sunday and said his prayers was bound by a spiritual obligation to refuse the importation of slaves. They had devoutly prayed not to be led into temptation, and negroes were a temptation too great to be resisted.” The issue was at length adjusted by combining the two projects of a stay-law and a prohibition of slave importations for three years in a single bill. This was approved on March 28, 1787; and a further act of the same day added a penalty of fine to that of forfeiture for the illegal introduction of slaves. The exclusion applied to slaves from every source, except those whose masters should bring them when entering the state as residents.
[Footnote 9: Charleston Morning Post, March 23, 1787.]
[Footnote 10: Ibid., March 29, 1787; Cooper and McCord, Statutes at Large of South Carolina, VII, 430.]
Early in the next year an attempt was made to repeal the prohibition. Its leading advocate was Alexander Gillon, a populistic Charleston merchant who had been made a commodore by the State of South Carolina but had never sailed a ship. The opposition was voiced so vigorously by Edward Rutledge, Charles Pinckney, Chancellor Matthews, Dr. Ramsay, Mr. Lowndes, and others that the project was crushed by 93 votes to 40. The strongest weapon in the hands of its opponents appears to have been a threat of repealing the stay-law in retaliation. At the end of the year the prohibitory act had its life prolonged until the beginning of 1793; and continuation acts adopted every two or three years thereafter extended the regime until the end of 1803. The constitutionality of the prohibition was tested before the judiciary of the state in January, 1802, when the five assembled judges unanimously pronounced it valid.
[Footnote 11: Georgia State Gazette (Savannah), Feb. 17, 1788.]
[Footnote 12: Augusta, Ga., Chronicle, Jan. 30, 1802.]
But at last the advocates of the open trade had their innings. The governor in a message of November 24, 1803, recited that his best exertions to enforce the law had been of no avail. Inhabitants of the coast and the frontier, said he, were smuggling in slaves abundantly, while the people of the central districts were suffering an unfair competition in having to pay high prices for their labor. He mentioned a recently enacted law of Congress reinforcing the prohibitory acts of the several states only to pronounce it already nullified by the absence of public sanction; and he dismissed any thought of providing the emancipation of smuggled slaves as “a remedy more mischievous than their introduction in servitude.” Having thus described the problem as insoluble by prohibitions, he left the solution to the legislature.
[Footnote 13: Charleston Courier, Dec. 5, 1803.]
In spite of the governor’s assertion, supported soon afterward by a statement of William Lowndes in Congress, there is reason to believe that violations of the law had not been committed on a great scale. Slave prices could not have become nearly doubled, as they did during the period of legal prohibition, if African imports had been at all freely made. The governor may quite possibly have exaggerated the facts with a view to bringing the system of exclusion to an end.
[Footnote 14: Annals of Congress, 1803-1804, p. 992.]
However this may have been, a bill was promptly introduced in the Senate to repeal all acts against importations. Mr. Barnwell opposed this on the ground that the immense influx of slaves which might be expected in consequence would cut in half the value of slave property, and that the increase in the cotton output would lower the already falling prices of cotton to disastrous levels. The resumption of the great war in Europe, said he, had already diminished the supply of manufactured goods and raised their prices. “Was it under these circumstances that we ought to lay out the savings of our industry, the funds accumulated in many years of prosperity and peace, to increase that produce whose value had already fallen so much? He thought not. The permission given by the bill would lead to ruinous speculations. Everyone would purchase negroes. It was well known that those who dealt in this property would sell it at a very long credit. Our citizens would purchase at all hazards and trust to fortunate crops and favorable markets for making their payments; and it would be found that South Carolina would in a few years, if this trade continued open, be in the same situation of debt, and subject to all misfortunes which that situation had produced, as at the close of the Revolutionary war.” The newspaper closed its report of the speech by a concealment of its further burden: “The Hon. member adduced in support of his opinion various other arguments, still more cogent and impressive, which from reasons very obvious we decline making public.” It may be surmised that the suppressed remarks dealt with the danger of slave revolts. In the further course of the debate, “Mr. Smith said he would agree to put a stop to the importation of slaves, but he believed it impossible. For this reason he would vote for the bill.” The measure soon passed the Senate.
[Footnote 15: Charleston Courier, Dec. 26, 1803.]
Meanwhile the lower house had resolved on December 8, in committee of the whole, “that the laws prohibiting the importation of negroes and other persons of colour in this state can be so amended as to prevent their introduction amongst us,” and had recommended that a select committee be appointed to draft a bill accordingly. Within the following week, however, the sentiment of the House was swung to the policy of repeal, and the Senate bill was passed. On the test vote the ayes were 55 and the noes 46. The act continued the exclusion of West Indian negroes, and provided that slaves brought in from sister states of the Union must have official certificates of good character; but as to the African trade it removed all restrictions. In 1805 a bill to prohibit imports again was introduced into the legislature, but after debate it was defeated.
[Footnote 16: Ibid., Dec. 20, 1803.]
[Footnote 17: Charleston City Gazette, Dec. 22, 1803.]
[Footnote 18: "Diary of Edward Hooker" in the American Historical Association Report for 1896, p. 878.]
The local effect of the repeal is indicated in the experience of E.S. Thomas, a Charleston bookseller of the time who in high prosperity had just opened a new importation of fifty thousand volumes. As he wrote in after years, the news that the legislature had reopened the slave trade “had not been five hours in the city, before two large British Guineamen, that had been lying on and off the port for several days expecting it, came up to town; and from that day my business began to decline…. A great change at once took place in everything. Vessels were fitted out in numbers for the coast of Africa, and as fast as they returned their cargoes were bought up with avidity, not only consuming the large funds that had been accumulating, but all that could be procured, and finally exhausting credit and mortgaging the slaves for payment…. For myself, I was upwards of five years disposing of my large stock, at a sacrifice of more than a half, in all the principal towns from Augusta in Georgia to Boston.”
[Footnote 19: E.S. Thomas, Reminiscences, II, 35, 36.]
As reported at the end of the period, the importations amounted to 5386 slaves in 1804; 6790 in 1805; 11,458 in 1806; and 15,676 in 1807. Senator William Smith of South Carolina upon examining the records at a later time placed the total at 39,310, and analysed the statistics as follows: slaves brought by British vessels, 19,449; by French vessels, 1078; by American vessels, operated mostly for the account of Rhode Islanders and foreigners, 18,048. If an influx no greater than this could produce the effect which Thomas described, notwithstanding that many of the slaves were immediately reshipped to New Orleans and many more were almost as promptly sold into the distant interior, the scale of the preceding illicit trade must have been far less than the official statements and the apologies in Congress would indicate.
[Footnote 20: Virginia Argus, Jan. 19, 1808.]
[Footnote 21: Annals of Congress, 1821-1822, pp. 73-77.]
South Carolina’s opening of the trade promptly spread dismay in other states. The North Carolina legislature, by a vote afterwards described as virtually unanimous in both houses, adopted resolutions in December, 1804, instructing the Senators from North Carolina and requesting her Congressmen to use their utmost exertions at the earliest possible time to procure an amendment to the Federal Constitution empowering Congress at once to prohibit the further importation of slaves and other persons of color from Africa and the West Indies. Copies were ordered sent not only to the state’s delegation in Congress but to the governors of the other states for transmission to the legislatures with a view to their concurrence. In the next year similar resolutions were adopted by the legislatures of New Hampshire, Vermont, Maryland and Tennessee; but the approach of the time when Congress would acquire the authority without a change of the Constitution caused a shifting of popular concern from the scheme of amendment to the expected legislation of Congress. Meanwhile, a bill for the temporary government of the Louisiana purchase raised the question of African importations there which occasioned a debate in the Senate at the beginning of 1804 nearly as vigorous as those to come on the general question three years afterward.
[Footnote 22: Broadside copy of the resolution, accompanied by a letter of Governor James Turner of North Carolina to the governor of Connecticut, in the possession of the Pennsylvania Historical Society.]
[Footnote 23: H.V. Ames, Proposed Amendments to the Constitution, in the American Historical Association Report for 1896, pp. 208, 209.]
[Footnote 24: Printed from Senator Plumer's notes, in the American Historical Review, XXII, 340-364.]
In the winter of 1804-1805 bills were introduced in both Senate and House to prohibit slave importations at large; but the one was postponed for a year and the other was rejected, doubtless because the time was not near enough when they could take effect. At last the matter was formally presented by President Jefferson. “I congratulate you, fellow-citizens,” he said in his annual message of December 2, 1806, “on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country have long been eager to proscribe. Although no law you can pass can take effect until the day of the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, yet the intervening period is not too long to prevent, by timely notice, expeditions which cannot be completed before that day.” Next day Senator Bradley of Vermont gave notice of a bill which was shortly afterward introduced and which, after an unreported discussion, was passed by the Senate on January 27. Its conspicuous provisions were that after the close of the year 1807 the importation of slaves was to be a felony punishable with death, and that the interstate coasting trade in slaves should be illegal.
[Footnote 25: W.E.B. DuBois, Suppression of the African Slave Trade, p. 105.]
The report of proceedings in the House was now full, now scant. The paragraph of the President’s message was referred on December 3 to a committee of seven with Peter Early of Georgia as chairman and three other Southerners in the membership. The committee’s bill reported on December 15, proposed to prohibit slave importations, to penalize the fitting out of vessels for the trade by fine and forfeiture, to lay fines and forfeitures likewise upon the owners and masters found within the jurisdictional waters of the United States with slaves from abroad on board, and empowered the President to use armed vessels in enforcement. It further provided that if slaves illegally introduced should be found within the United States they should be forfeited, and any person wittingly concerned in buying or selling them should be fined; it laid the burden of proof upon defendants when charged on reasonable grounds of presumption with having violated the act; and it prescribed that the slaves forfeited should, like other goods in the same status, be sold at public outcry by the proper federal functionaries.
[Footnote 26: Annals of Congress, 1806-1807, p. 14.]
[Footnote 27: Ibid., pp. 167, 168.]
Mr. Sloan of New Jersey instantly moved to amend by providing that the forfeited slaves be entitled to freedom. Mr. Early replied that this would rob the bill of all effect by depriving it of public sanction in the districts whither slaves were likely to be brought. Those communities, he said, would never tolerate the enforcement of a law which would set fresh Africans at large in their midst. Mr. Smilie, voicing the sentiment and indicating the dilemma of most of his fellow Pennsylvanians, declared his unconquerable aversion to any measure which would make the federal government a dealer in slaves, but confessed that he had no programme of his own. Nathaniel Macon, the Speaker, saying that he thought the desire to enact an effective law was universal, agreed with Early that Sloan’s amendment would defeat the purpose. Early himself waxed vehement, prophesying the prompt extermination of any smuggled slaves emancipated in the Southern states. The amendment was defeated by a heavy majority.
Next day, however, Mr. Bidwell of Massachusetts renewed Sloan’s attack by moving to strike out the provision for the forfeiture of the slaves; but his colleague Josiah Quincy, supported by the equally sagacious Timothy Pitkin of Connecticut, insisted upon the necessity of forfeiture; and Early contended that this was particularly essential to prevent the smuggling of slaves across the Florida border where the ships which had brought them would keep beyond the reach of congressional laws. The House finding itself in an impasse referred the bill back to the same committee, which soon reported it in a new form declaring the illegal importation of slaves a felony punishable with death. Upon Early’s motion this provision was promptly stricken out in committee of the whole by a vote of 60 to 41; whereupon Bidwell renewed his proposal to strike out the forfeiture of slaves. He was numerously supported in speeches whose main burden was that the United States government must not become the receiver of stolen goods. The speeches in reply stressed afresh the pivotal quality of forfeiture in an effective law; and Bidwell when pressed for an alternative plan could only say that he might if necessary be willing to leave them to the disposal of the several states, but was at any rate “opposed to disgracing our statute book with a recognition of the principle of slavery.” Quincy replied that he wished Bidwell and his fellows “would descend from their high abstract ground to the level of things in their own state—such as have, do and will exist after your laws, and in spite of them.” The Southern members, said he, were anxious for nothing so much as a total prohibition, and for that reason were insistent upon forfeiture. For the sake of enforcing the law, and for the sake of controlling the future condition of the smuggled slaves, forfeiture was imperative. Such a provision would not necessarily admit that the importers had had a title in the slaves before capture, but it and it alone would effectively divest them of any color of title to which they might pretend. The amendment was defeated by a vote of 36 to 63.
When the bill with amendments was reported to the House by the committee of the whole, on December 31, there was vigorous debate upon the question of substituting imprisonment of from five to ten years in place of the death penalty. Mr. Talmadge of Connecticut supported the provision of death with a biblical citation; and Mr. Smilie said he considered it the very marrow of the bill. Mr. Lloyd of Maryland thought the death penalty would be out of proportion to the crime, and considered the extract from Exodus inapplicable since few of the negroes imported had been stolen in Africa. But Mr. Olin of Vermont announced that the man-stealing argument had persuaded him in favor of the extreme penalty. Early now became furious, and in his fury, frank. In a preceding speech he had pronounced slavery “an evil regretted by every man in the country.” He now said: “A large majority of the people in the Southern states do not … believe it immoral to hold human flesh in bondage. Many deprecate slavery as an evil; as a political evil; but not as a crime. Reflecting men apprehend, at some future day, evils, incalculable evils, from it; but it is a fact that few, very few, consider it as a crime. It is best to be candid on this subject…. I will tell the truth. A large majority of people in the Southern states do not consider slavery as an evil. Let the gentleman go and travel in that quarter of the Union; let him go from neighborhood to neighborhood, and he will find that this is the fact. Some gentlemen appear to legislate for the sake of appearances…. I should like to know what honor you will derive from a law that will be broken every day of your lives.” Mr. Stanton said with an air of deprecation on behalf of his state of Rhode Island: “I wish the law made so strong as to prevent this trade in future; but I cannot believe that a man ought to be hung for only stealing a negro. Those who buy them are as bad as those who import them, and deserve hanging quite as much.” The yeas and nays recorded at the end of the exhausting day showed 63 in favor and 53 against the substitution of imprisonment. The North was divided, 29 to 37, with the nays coming mostly from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Connecticut; the South, although South Carolina as well as Kentucky was evenly divided, cast 34 yeas to 16 nays. Virginia and Maryland, which might have been expected to be doubtful, virtually settled the question by casting 17 yeas against 6 nays.
[Footnote 28: Annals of Congress, 1806-1807, p. 174.]
[Footnote 29: Ibid., pp. 238, 239.]
When the consideration of the bill was resumed on January 7, Mr. Bidwell renewed his original attack by moving to strike out the confiscation of slaves; and when this was defeated by 39 to 77, he attempted to reach the same end by a proviso “That no person shall be sold as a slave by virtue of this act,” This was defeated only by the casting vote of the Speaker. Those voting aye were all from Northern states, except Archer of Maryland, Broom of Delaware, Bedinger of Kentucky and Williams of North Carolina. The noes were all from the South except one from New Hampshire, ten from New York, and one from Pennsylvania. The outcome was evidently unsatisfactory to the bulk of the members, for on the next day a motion to recommit the bill to a new committee of seventeen prevailed by a vote of 76 to 46. Among the members who shifted their position over night were six of the ten from New York, four from Maryland, three from Virginia, and two from North Carolina. In the new committee Bedinger of Kentucky, who was regularly on the Northern side, was chairman, and Early was not included.
This committee reported in February a bill providing, as a compromise, that forfeited negroes should be carried to some place in the United States where slavery was either not permitted or was in course of gradual extinction, and there be indentured or otherwise employed as the President might deem best for them and the country. Early moved that for this there be substituted a provision that the slaves be delivered to the several states in which the captures were made, to be disposed of at discretion; and he said that the Southern people would resist the indenture provision with their lives. This reckless assertion suggests that Early was either set against the framing of an effective law, or that he spoke in mere blind rage.
Before further progress was made the House laid aside its bill in favor of the one which the Senate had now passed. An amendment to this, striking out the death penalty, was adopted on February 12 by a vote of 67 to 48. The North gave 31 ayes and 36 noes, quite evenly distributed among the states. The South cast 37 ayes to 11 noes, five of the latter coming from Virginia, two from North Carolina, and one each from Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky and South Carolina. A considerable shifting of votes appeared since the ballot on the same question six weeks before. Knight of Rhode Island, Sailly and Williams of New York, Helms of New Jersey and Wynns of North Carolina changed in favor of the extreme penalty; but they were more than offset by the opposite change of Bidwell of Massachusetts, Van Cortlandt of New York, Lambert of New Jersey, Clay and Gray of Virginia and McFarland of North Carolina. Numerous members from all quarters who voted on one of these roll-calls were silent at the other, and this variation also had a net result against the infliction of death. The House then filled the blank it had made in the bill by defining the offense as a high misdemeanor and providing a penalty of imprisonment of not less than five nor more than ten years. John Randolph opposed even this as excessive, but found himself unsupported. The House then struck out the prohibition of the coasting trade in slaves, and returned the bill as amended to the Senate. The latter concurred in all the changes except that as to the coastwise trade, and sent the bill back to the House.
John Randolph now led in the insistence that the House stand firm. If the bill should pass without the amendment, said he, the Southern people would set the law at defiance, and he himself would begin the violation of so unconstitutional an infringement of the rights of property. The House voted to insist upon its amendment, and sent the bill to conference where in compromise the prohibition as to the coastwise carriage of slaves for sale was made to apply only to vessels of less than forty tons burthen. The Senate agreed to this. In the House Mr. Early opposed it as improper in law and so easy of evasion that it would be perfectly futile for the prevention of smuggling from Florida. John Randolph said: “The provision of the bill touched the right of private property. He feared lest at a future period it might be made the pretext of universal emancipation. He had rather lose the bill, he had rather lose all the bills of the session, he had rather lose every bill passed since the establishment of the government, than agree to the provision contained in this slave bill. It went to blow up the Constitution in ruins.” Concurrence was carried, nevertheless, by a vote of 63 to 49, in which the North cast 51 ayes to 12 noes, and the South 12 ayes to 37 noes. The Southern ayes were four from Maryland, four from North Carolina, two from Tennessee, and one each from Virginia and Kentucky. The Northern noes were five from New York, two each from New Hampshire and Vermont, and one each from Massachusetts, Connecticut and Pennsylvania.
[Footnote 30: Annals of Congress, 1806-1807, p. 626.]
The bill then passed the House. Its variance from the original House bill was considerable, for it made the importation of slaves from abroad a high misdemeanor punishable with imprisonment; it prohibited the coastwise trade by sea in vessels of less than forty tons, and required the masters of larger vessels transporting negroes coastwise to deliver to the port officials classified manifests of the negroes and certificates that to the best of their knowledge and belief the slaves had not been imported since the beginning of 1808; and instead of forfeiture to the United States it provided that all smuggled slaves seized under the act should be subject to such disposal as the laws of the state or territory in which the seizure might be made should prescribe. Randolph, still unreconciled, offered an explanatory act, February 27, that nothing in the preceding act should be construed to affect in any manner the absolute property right of masters in their slaves not imported contrary to the law, and that such masters should not be liable to any penalty for the coastwise transportation of slaves in vessels of less than forty tons. In attempting to force this measure through, he said that if it did not pass the House at once he hoped the Virginia delegation would wait on the President and remonstrate against his approving the act which had passed. By a vote of 60 to 49 this bill was made the order for the next day; but its further consideration was crowded out by the rush of business at the session’s close. The President signed the prohibitory bill on March 2, without having received the threatened Virginia visitation.
[Footnote 31: Ibid., pp. 1266-1270.]
[Footnote 32: Annals of Congress, 1806-1807, p. 637.]
Among the votes in the House on which the yeas and nays were recorded in the course of these complex proceedings, six may be taken as tests. They were on striking out the death penalty, December 31; on striking out the forfeiture of slaves, January 7; on the proviso that no person should be sold by virtue of the act, January 7; on referring the bill to a new committee, January 8; on striking out the death penalty from the Senate bill, February 12; and on the prohibition of the coasting trade in slaves in vessels of under forty tons, February 26. In each case a majority of the Northern members voted on one side of the question, and a yet larger majority of Southerners voted on the other. Twenty-two members voted in every case on the side which the North tended to adopt. These comprised seven from Massachusetts, six from Pennsylvania, three from Connecticut, and one or two from each of the other Northern states except Rhode Island and Ohio. They comprised also Broom of Delaware, Bedinger of Kentucky, and Morrow of Virginia; while Williams of North Carolina was almost equally constant in opposing the policies advocated by the bulk of his fellow Southerners. On the other hand the regulars on the Southern side comprised not only ten Virginians, all of the six South Carolinians, except three of their number on the punishment questions, all of the four Georgians, three North Carolinians, two Marylanders and one Kentuckian, but in addition Tenney of New Hampshire, Schuneman, Van Rensselaer and Verplanck of New York on all but the punishment questions.
On the whole, sectional divergence was fairly pronounced, but only on matters of detail. The expressions from all quarters of a common desire to make the prohibition of importations effective were probably sincere without material exception. As regards the Virginia group of states, their economic interest in high prices for slaves vouches for the genuine purpose of their representatives, while that of the Georgians and South Carolinians may at the most be doubted and not disproved. The South in general wished to prevent any action which might by implication stigmatize the slaveholding regime, and was on guard also against precedents tending to infringe state rights. The North, on the other hand, was largely divided between a resolve to stop the sanction of slavery and a desire to enact an effective law in the premises directly at issue. The outcome was a law which might be evaded with relative ease wherever public sanction was weak, but which nevertheless proved fairly effective in operation.
When slave prices rose to high levels after the war of 1812 systematic smuggling began to prevail from Amelia Island on the Florida border, and on a smaller scale on the bayous of the Barataria district below New Orleans; but these operations were checked upon the passage of a congressional act in 1818 increasing the rewards to informers. Another act in the following year directed the President to employ armed vessels for police in both African and American waters, and incidentally made provisions contemplating the return of captured slaves to Africa. Finally Congress by an act of 1820 declared the maritime slave trade to be piracy. Smuggling thereafter diminished though it never completely ceased.
[Footnote 33: DuBois, Suppression of the Slave Trade, pp. 118-123.]
As to the dimensions of the illicit importations between 1808 and 1860, conjectures have placed the gross as high as two hundred and seventy thousand. Most of the documents in the premises, however, bear palpable marks of unreliability. It may suffice to say that these importations were never great enough to affect the labor supply in appreciable degree. So far as the general economic regime was concerned, the foreign slave trade was effectually closed in 1808.
[Footnote 34: W.H. Collins, The Domestic Slave Trade of the Southern States (New York , pp. 12-20). See also W.E.B. DuBois, “Enforcement of the Slave Trade Laws,” in the American Historical Association Report for 1891, p. 173.]
At that time, however, there were already in the United States about one million slaves to serve as a stock from which other millions were to be born to replenish the plantations in the east and to aid in the peopling of the west. These were ample to maintain a chronic racial problem, and had no man invented a cotton gin their natural increase might well have glutted the market for plantation labor. Had the African source been kept freely open, the bringing of great numbers to meet the demand in prosperous times would quite possibly have so burdened the country with surplus slaves in subsequent periods of severe depression that slave prices would have fallen virtually to zero, and the slaveholding community would have been driven to emancipate them wholesale as a means of relieving the masters from the burden of the slaves’ support. The foes of slavery had long reckoned that the abolition of the foreign trade would be a fatal blow to slavery itself. The event exposed their fallacy. Thomas Clarkson expressed the disappointment of the English abolitionists in a letter of 1830: “We certainly have been deceived in our first expectations relative to the fruit of our exertions. We supposed that when by the abolition of the slave trade the planters could get no more slaves, they would not only treat better those whom they then had in their power, but that they would gradually find it to their advantage to emancipate them. A part of our expectations have been realized; … but, alas! where the heart has been desperately wicked, we have found no change. We did not sufficiently take into account the effect of unlimited power on the human mind. No man likes to part with power, and the more unbounded it is, the less he likes to part with it. Neither did we sufficiently take into account the ignominy attached to a black skin as the badge of slavery, and how difficult it would be to make men look with a favourable eye upon what they had looked [upon] formerly as a disgrace. Neither did we take sufficiently into account the belief which every planter has, that such an unnatural state as that of slavery can be kept up only by a system of rigour, and how difficult therefore it would be to procure a relaxation from the ordinary discipline of a slave estate.”
[Footnote 35: MS. in private possession.]
If such was the failure in the British West Indies, the change in conditions in the United States was even greater; for the rise of the cotton industry concurred with the prohibition of the African trade to enhance immensely the preciousness of slaves and to increase in similar degree the financial obstacle to a sweeping abolition.