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“Why may not our country be enriched by that lucrative traffic?”: The slave trade and the failed politics of federal proscription in the early American Republic (1787-1808)

Andy Cabot


Cet article est une étude des aspects commerciaux du débat sur l’abolition de la traite aux États-Unis durant la période de la jeune république. Il fait usage des travaux récents sur la traite transatlantique sous drapeau américain ainsi que sur le débat de l’esclavage durant cette période pour montrer que la question de la traite fut un élément moteur du débat national sur l’esclavage. Ce débat opposa deux groupes au Congrès mais également au sein des différents États, dont les intérêts dans leur soutien ou leur opposition à la traite étaient variés. Au sein de ce débat, c’est bien la problématique de l’étendue du pouvoir fédéral sur le commerce qui structura les positions divergentes. Les deux argumentaires (opposition à l’abolition ou restriction) développèrent les termes du débat durant la période en insistant tout particulièrement sur la nature commerciale de la traite, mais aussi sur le rôle du gouvernement dans sa continuation ou non. Ainsi, l’article soutient que le débat politique sur la traite était avant tout un débat sur la place du commerce au sein de la jeune république, là où les conceptions antagonistes sur le rôle de l’État dans la régulation du commerce furent mobilisées par les acteurs du débat pour étayer le bien-fondé politique de leur opposition ou leur soutien à la traite.

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1In his pioneering study The Suppression of the Slave Trade to the United States of America (1896), W.E.B. Du Bois said of the twenty-year period from the adoption of the Constitution to the final abolition of the slave trade by Congress in 1807: “Fear, interest, and philanthropy united for a time in an effort which bade fair to suppress the trade; then the real weakness of the constitutional compromise appeared, and the interests of the few overcame the fears and the humanity of the many” (Du Bois 93). Unearthing essential documents and acts from across the country, The Suppression demonstrated, as historian John Hope Franklin noted in his foreword to the 1969 reissue, that the traffic in slaves remained both substantial in volume and relevant to the national political debate on slavery until the Civil War (1861-1865) (Du Bois v-xi; Parfait). Du Bois’s breakthrough research failed to immediately impact on his own generation of historians. Except for Elizabeth Donnan’s four-volume collection of primary sources on the slave trade – published in the 1930s – and her article on the New England slave trade after the Revolution, the American slave trade entered a long period of historiographical neglect (Donnan, Documents; “The New England Slave Trade after the Revolution”).

2Although not devoted to the American participation in the traffic, Philip Curtin’s 1969 The Atlantic Slave Trade: A Census marked the beginning of a radical reassessment of the US traffic in slaves after the Revolution. In the wake of this global survey, another set of key studies helped refine Curtin’s calculations for the American trade post-1783. They conclusively established its statistical significance by drawing closer attention to slave importations both within the newly independent states, as well as to the traffic conducted outside the national borders to foreign territories (Curtin; Klein; Anstey). James McMillin’s 2004 monograph The Final Victims followed on and provided the most thorough investigation of the volume of and the actors in the US slave trade for the entire 1783-1807 period. Scholarly interest then turned to the extent of the American slave trade to foreign markets, and to the flow of African captives traded in the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean islands to British colonial America (O’Malley).

  • 1 Marques claimed another 70,000 Africans were delivered to foreign territories in the twenty years f (...)

3These studies were successful in underscoring the trade’s significance during a period traditionally ignored by historians. Curtin’s initial conservative estimate of 92,000 slaves imported to the US between 1783 and 1807 was increased to 170,000 by McMillin, thus demonstrating how slave importation remained substantial well after the Constitution was ratified (McMillin 13-17, 117-19). Furthermore, this renewed interest in the study of the African slave trade to the early United States effectively demonstrated the complexity of this commerce in the early national era. Leonardo Marques’ study of American participation in the transatlantic slave trade up to the Civil War underscored how US citizens were actively engaged in delivering slaves to foreign markets (15-16).1 As Marques put it, the frantic involvement of Americans in the trade during that period reflected “a symptom of the world of freer trade that US merchants – including slave traders – helped create” (82-83). Clearly, the loud cries for freeing Americans from British imperial constraints that had been central to the Revolution’s anti-colonial rhetoric found “a practical example of their effectiveness in the activities of US slave traders” (82) during the post-revolutionary era.

4This overhaul of the historiography of the American slave-trade in the early American republic period has definitively established the sheer size of the trade’s volume during that period. Similarly, it helped usher in a renewed interest in the politics of slavery during the same period (Hammon and Mason; Rossignol, Roy and Parfait). Yet, most of this body of work still has not fully addressed the challenges brought by these new findings. Despite a clearer view of the actual volume of the trade, the political importance of the slave trade in the broader antislavery debates of the period is still too often ignored. Recent scholarship on antislavery politics in the early republic continues to view the slave trade as a minor issue in the contemporary national debate on slavery. This trend has cast the slave trade as a traffic on the wane and unrelated to the larger issue of slavery’s contemporaneous growth and geographical expansion in the national territory (Newman; Rothman; Mason, Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic; Hammond, Slavery, Freedom, and Expansion in the Early American West).

5One of the main reasons for this relative marginalization of the slave trade in the historiography of antislavery politics is the shifting nature of the trade itself in the political discourse of the era. Between the late 1760s and the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the political condemnation of the trade gained solid ground in British North America. Criticism of the trade had been a staple of abolitionist discourse since the late 17th century and later became a unifying theme among the burgeoning anti-colonial pamphleteers during the tax crisis with Britain between 1767 and 1774. In his Summary View of the Rights of British America, Thomas Jefferson vilified a metropolitan Parliament “preferring the immediate advantages of a few African corsairs to the lasting interests of the American states” (Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America). As the war approached, the Continental Congress followed the Virginian’s counsel and banned the importation of slaves in late 1774. In the first draft of the Declaration of Independence penned on July 2, 1776, Jefferson again indicted the slave trade as an unjust war on the colonies practiced by the British sovereign (Jefferson, “Original Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence”). The victorious struggle against “tyrannical” Britain was thus marked by a national embrace of legal prohibition of a trade considered both nefarious in itself and detrimental to the body politic. In the aftermath of the revolutionary period, the trade was almost universally deemed illegitimate and immoral. “Moral Capital” and commercial interests then allied to elevate revolted colonists to the role of freedom’s torchbearers in their contest against Britain (Brown).

6Soon after the end of the conflict with Britain, the states of the Lower South (South Carolina and Georgia), which relied on slave importation for their staple agricultural production, rapidly reopened the trade. The political consensus then clearly tended to favor prohibiting the trade throughout the states. After peace had returned in 1783, the political consensus still tended to favor prohibiting the trade throughout the states. Nevertheless, when a Constitutional Convention was finally held in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to form a new framework of government for the different states, this apparent consensus proved illusory. Faced with the diverse positions of the various states, the Congress of the Confederacy – the only national institution extant before the Constitution was eventually ratified in 1788 – could not uphold (or defend) a unified moral policy on the trade. Therefore, during the Constitutional debates on the slave trade, the trade resurfaced as a predominantly political institution, leading to what is today referred to as the “Constitutional Compromise” on the trade. Placed in Article I Section IX of the final document, the “Compromise” allowed for a twenty-year ban on abolition by the Federal Congress and framed this ban as a mere exemption to Congress’ general power to regulate international commerce. This clause sought to satisfy the pressing demands of the states of the Lower South that wished to preserve their right to import slaves, all the while avoiding Constitutional recognition of the principle of “property in man” (Wilentz). Here, the assembled delegates plainly legitimized the trade, while also recognizing it as a fundamentally political institution, meaning one that had been instituted and sanctioned by different states in the past. The Constitutional Convention thus reintroduced a sense of ambiguity in the nature of the slave trade by viewing it as, first and foremost, a licit commercial activity.

7The Constitutional debates on the slave trade reawakened the deeply contentious nature of a practice that was henceforth perceived not only from a moral, but from a predominantly political point of view. To resolve the tension between the general condemnation of the traffic and its economic importance for certain member states of the new Federation, the Constitution explicitly viewed slave trafficking as a mode of importation so as to shelter it from federal interference. Constitutional language thus defined the practice in commercial terms, and the consequences of this decision on future slave trade debates would be highly significant. From that moment on, abolitionists and the representatives who supported restrictive measures against the trade would argue on commercial grounds, rather than from a straightforward moral position. Similarly, defenders of the trade sought to defeat restrictive measures and protect their interests by using commercial arguments to emphasize the trade’s economic importance, but also by positioning themselves as defenders of limited Federal Government intervention in commercial affairs. Hence, for the first generation of American politicians, the Constitution set the terms of the debate on the slave trade within the area of commerce, and, more broadly, of political economy.

8During the entire twenty-year period before its abolition, the ambiguous nature of the slave trade as defined by the Constitution remained a central element in the larger debates on the place of slavery in the early republic and the extent of government power over commerce (Finkelman; Ericson). This inherent tension between the moral and political dimensions of the trade was not satisfyingly resolved until the abolition bill of March 1807, with significant implications for the history of slavery’s later expansion in the US.

The political economy of abolition and the success of the 1794 Foreign Slave Trade Act

9The immediate postwar period was probably the high-water mark of the first organized movement for abolition in North America. Surely, when the conflict ended, imperatives for commercial coercion faded and, after a few years, the slave trade resumed its course to the states of the Lower South (South Carolina and Georgia) where the British Southern campaign of 1779-1781 had been particularly destructive to the plantation economy, and where planters had had to cope with a depleted workforce struck by massive slave flights, severe material damages, and the closing of British imperial markets (Frey 306-13). Accordingly, the three-year period after the 1783 Treaty of Paris witnessed a sudden spike in the commerce of slaves to these states. Apart from the Lower South, prohibitive measures against the trade and gradual measures for the emancipation of slaves gained ascendancy everywhere in the country, especially in the North. The states of Connecticut and Pennsylvania passed gradual emancipation laws in 1780 and 1783 respectively, whereas both Vermont (through its state Constitution in 1777) and Massachusetts (by two decisions of the state Supreme Court in 1781 and 1783) abolished slavery outright. In the Upper South, the Virginia Assembly also enacted a law in 1782 permitting the manumission of slaves – albeit under very strict conditions – by their owners. Under the guidance of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) which, after its reorganization in 1784, acquired influence nationally over other local abolition societies created in the wake of the Revolution, abolitionists and their sympathizers throughout the country truly believed slavery and its commercial origins to be on the wane throughout North America.

  • 2 Later during the 22 August 1787 debate on the slave trade clause, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut u (...)

10This belief was cynically exploited by defenders of slavery and the slave trade when the trade once again became the subject of national debate near the end of the Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia in 1787. Connecticut delegate Roger Sherman declared himself in favor of an article forbidding Congress from prohibiting the trade, noting “that the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the U.S., that the good sense of the several States would probably by degrees complete it” (Farrand 369). His fellow colleague Oliver Ellsworth concurred and solemnly begged the assembly to “not intermeddle […]. Slavery in time will not be a speck in our Country” (Farrand 371). Delegates from the major slave trading states of New England – Rhode Island, Connecticut, Massachusetts – intended to assuage opponents of the clause and convince them to speedily complete the country’s political union without alienating the two importing states of the Lower South.2 The latter then launched a rigorous defense of slavery against their Upper South (Virginia, Maryland) and Mid-Atlantic (Pennsylvania) critics. After several delays and committee revisions, the article was eventually accepted, though with conditions: importing slaves from Africa was limited to a period of twenty years and Congress still retained the right to impose a ten-dollar tax on “such importation.” During the state ratification process that ensued, it was primarily the slave-trade supporters who claimed a partial victory (Finkelman 394-98; Fehrenbacher 37-38).

  • 3 Contrary to this exception, Article I Section VIII of the Constitution established Congressional po (...)
  • 4 Luther Martin was the first delegate to propose federal taxation of imported slaves during the Conv (...)

11The final clause in Article 1 Section IX, restricting Congress from interfering in the “Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, […] prior to the Year 1808,” was significant in that it formulated a clear exception to congressional authority over most other areas of commercial policy.3 Opponents of the clause seized on this fact during the 22 August 1787 debate when John Dickinson (Delaware) stated “inadmissible on every principle of honor and safety that the importation of slaves should be authorized to the states by the Constitution” (Farrand 372), while John Langdon (New Hampshire) confessed that “he was strenuous for giving the power to the General Government” as “he could not with a good conscience leave it with the States who could then go on with the traffic, without being restrained by the opinions here given that they will themselves cease to import slaves” (Farrand 373). Concerns over abandoning the political sovereignty of Congress to the different states on this specific branch of commerce was a dominant and purposeful theme for critics. These helps shed light on a significant component of the national debate on slavery in the early republic, i.e. its direct relation to broader debates on federalism, states’ rights, and the ever-vexing issue of taxation.4

12With the Constitution having secured guarantees for protecting the slave trade against federal intervention, the abolitionist movement had no other choice but adopt a local strategy aimed at pressuring state legislatures. In late 1788, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted a temporary five-year ban on slave importation to stop labor-hungry back-country planters from aggravating the post-war credit crisis that had developed after the resumption of the trade. This decision was interpreted favorably by abolition societies who perceived Lower South planters as willing participants in the national march towards ending the trade (HSP, PAS Papers, Reel 12, 2-3). Despite the Constitutional setback, political conditions for abolition were thus still favorable when the First Congress assembled in the fall of 1789.

13In February 1790, three petitions were submitted to Congress (including one sponsored by Benjamin Franklin), demanding that the assembly end the slave trade and promote the general emancipation of the slave population (Annals of Congress, vol.1, 1790, 1240-1241). The debate initiated by these petitions relied on arguments similar to the ones used three years earlier and produced similar results: pressure from the Lower South forced Congress to issue a Declaration of Powers surveying the entirety of its constitutional prerogatives over the slave trade and slave emancipation. Voted in its final form on March 23, 1790, the Declaration was largely favorable to the Lower South, but still contained two propositions specifying Congressional power to “restrain the citizens of the United States from carrying on the African trade, for the purpose of supplying foreigners with slaves” and “to prohibit foreigners from fitting out vessels in any port of the United States for transporting persons from Africa to any foreign port” (Du Bois 55-56).

  • 5 The 1787-1793 period saw US merchants transporting 23,000 captives to Cuba representing 45 % of the (...)

14The debate of February-March 1790 ended the national conflict over the slave trade that arose at the Convention. It put to rest abolitionists’ hope of obtaining a nation-wide proscription of the trade from the newly created federal institutions. Meanwhile, it also breathed new life into the abolitionist strategy because it targeted American citizens participating in slave carrying trade to foreign territories and made them liable to Congressional regulation. This specific area of trade was evoked by James Madison (Virginia) during the debates leading to the Declaration of Powers and was indeed on the rise in the early 1790s when Cuba and the Dutch Guianas became US traders’ most extensive commercial outlet.5 During this period, abolition societies in the slave trading states of New England were battling their local courts to prosecute ship captains and crews under the anti-slave trade laws passed by their respective legislatures. In the case of the slave ship Abeona, brought to court in Massachusetts for having sold 94 slaves in Cuba in early 1792, the defense successfully argued that the Constitutional clause in Article I Section IX had nullified state laws against the commerce of slaves. Such evasion tactics often proved insurmountable. Local antislavery societies reported to the PAS that the prevailing idea in slave trading states was “that Congress alone has power to make laws regulating commerce, piracy and war […] even the ones who had given it up are going under this expectation” (Donnan, Documents vol.3, 84, 89-97). In light of the states’ ineffectiveness in stopping their citizens from participating in the trade, abolitionists would have to revitalize their national campaign, this time to pass a federal law against the foreign slave trade conducted by American citizens.

15In mid-1791, the PAS asked every local abolition society to send a memorial demanding Congressional action to regulate the foreign slave trade. These petitions were later dismissed by the House. Their content nevertheless displayed a marked shift in rhetoric as the local abolition societies were more versed in the language of political economy than their predecessors (Convention of Delegates from the Abolition Societies, 1792, 3-4). In light of previous failures, the New York Manumission Society (NYMS) then advised the PAS to organize a convention of all the American abolition societies in order to draft a joint memorial to Congress to gain better traction at the House for passage of the bill (PAS Papers, Reel 11, 107-108). On January 1, 1794, the first Convention of American Abolition Societies was held in Philadelphia and produced a powerful indictment of the trade now being conducted (or carried out) from a nation which, though “dignified by being the first in modern times, to assert and defend the equal rights of man, suffers her fame […] to be weakened, by a cruel commerce, carried on from some of her ports, for the supply of foreign nations with African slaves” (American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery Minutes, 1794, 26-27). Brought before the House a few weeks later, the 1794 American Convention’s address was eventually successful when Congress passed a bill on March 22, 1794 “[t]o prohibit the carrying of the Slave Trade from the United to any Foreign Place or Country.” Throughout its swift legislative journey, the bill saw almost no opposition and received a near unanimous vote in favor. This raises the obvious question of why abolitionists were suddenly successful in obtaining action from Congress.

  • 6 In February 1793, France opened its Caribbean colonies to American shipping. Britain retaliated by (...)

16The Slave Trade Act of 1794 was the result of the tactical turn taken by abolitionists in early 1794 in a dramatically altered international context. By focusing their efforts on the foreign slave trade, the 1794 American Convention’s address took into account that most states had already banned importation (Georgia was then the last remaining importer). Therefore, the legislation could only draw reasonable opposition from one state in the Lower South and the slave trading states of Rhode Island and New York. The effect of this tactic was thus especially conclusive for abolitionists as it allowed them to single out the New England exporting states and neutralize opposition from the Lower South, the latter still being the most considerable obstacle to Congressional regulation. Effective opposition to the bill was also clearly weakened by the return of maritime warfare now raging in the Atlantic. In early 1793, Britain had entered the European coalition against revolutionary France and was waging an aggressive campaign on the high seas against neutral ships supplying France’s overseas colonies. To avoid a military confrontation with the two principal belligerents, the US Cabinet had tried to steer clear of the conflict and preserve the country’s neutrality.6 British captures of American merchant vessels suspected of supplying French colonies soared in 1793, and in early 1794, the two nations were on the brink of war. At this critical juncture, Congress sought to force Britain to stop its aggressive practices by passing a series of trade restrictions against the former mother country (Annals of Congress, vol.4, 1794, 539-531). In this context of mounting commercial tensions, the 1794 Act must thus be understood as part of a general and popular commercial policy preventing American ship-owners from coming to the assistance of the British, and of the British slave trade.

17Passed with virtually no opposition, the 1794 Act represented a clear strengthening of federal power over foreign commerce generally and over the slave trade more particularly. Against the backdrop of previous failures at obtaining federal legislation to regulate the trade, the Act was a remarkable success in that it made Congress reassert its regulatory powers over the trade. This was a striking victory for the American abolitionist movement. Agents of the government would now be directly involved in arresting citizens attempting to engage in the Atlantic slave trade on behalf of other nations. Considering the rapid progress of abolition in the different states, this new measure raised hopes of ending American participation in the infamous traffic long before 1808.

Commercial interests against federal regulation: the defective politics of enforcement (1794-1800)

  • 7 The French colony of Saint-Domingue was located on the western half of the island of Hispaniola. On (...)

18From the first Federal Congress to the 1794 Act, abolitionists had come to realize that American involvement in the slave trade had two branches: the domestic branch tied to importing states especially in the Lower South, and the foreign branch sustained by exporting states in New England. For legal and political reasons, abolitionists decided to concentrate their energy on Congress to eliminate the trade’s foreign branch, rather than the domestic one. Indeed, by early 1794, the domestic branch seemed on the way to extinction. After a large slave revolt broke out in August 1791 in the French colony of Saint-Domingue, situated only at a one-week sailing distance from the US south Atlantic coast, two southern states – South Carolina in 1792 and North Carolina in 1794 – decided to close their ports to the slave trade.7 The decision to close off these ports to slave importation was motivated by the arrival of several thousand refugees from the French colony to US ports during the 1790s. Many of the refugees were slaves and free people of color whom state authorities considered dangerous and prone to conspire with the local colored population to encourage new slave revolts (Ford 84; Hunt 107-10). With the domestic importation of slaves thus drastically reduced, the case for an abolition strategy focusing on the foreign branch was reinforced.

  • 8 The 1794-1800 period saw a 71% increase in the overall traffic compared to the six-year period prio (...)

19Though temporarily effective in Congress, the credibility of this strategy rapidly proved illusory. To begin with, federal implementation of the law in exporting states was difficult and often lax as powerful slave merchants still found ways to circumvent the law with trustworthy allies in state courts (Batterson 48-52). Furthermore, the necessary resources, at land and at sea, to discover, capture, and prosecute US slave ships were simply lacking, and ultimately revealed the limits of federal power in the early republic in comparison with the more successful maritime policy of Britain after the slave trade was abolished by the European nation in 1807. Indeed, unlike the domestic branch of the trade, the foreign branch targeted by the 1794 Act required heavy patrolling of the Caribbean and South Atlantic seas – where the trade was being carried out by American citizens – to be efficient. After the violent dismantling of the Saint-Domingue plantation economy between 1791 and 1793, the production of tropical commodities (sugar and coffee mainly) had taken off in the rest of the Caribbean islands to “fill the void” left by the French colony which, prior to the slave revolt, produced close to 40% of the world’s sugar supply, and 50% of the coffee. Slave-trading markets in the Caribbean shifted to new areas of production in the 1790s, and slave traders began to tap into these markets (Tomich; Drescher 76-77, 83-85, 87-90). Chief among these, American slave traders geared their activities to these islands in spite of their government’s attempts to suppress this commerce. In the end, the six-year period after the anti-slave trade Act of 1794 eventually witnessed a sharp rise in both the domestic and foreign slave trades.8 From a political point of view, the first legislation against the slave trade proved ineffective and demonstrated the inability of the Federal Government to enforce its laws.

20As for the domestic trade, the three-year period from 1795 to 1798 witnessed robust activity among US traders who supplied the sole remaining importing state of Georgia. Because the 1794 Act had no force on domestic trade, it was only when Georgia decided to close the trade in 1798 that things started to change. Indeed, slave importation to the state fell brutally after the act was passed, demonstrating that state laws proved much more effective at curbing the traffic than their federal counterparts. This disappointing outcome to the first anti-slave trade law was not even counterbalanced by positive results in the commerce to foreign territories. From the law’s passage to its first amending in 1800, slave trading expeditions to Cuba under US flag doubled.

21Explanations for the law’s failure to stop the trade have focused not on its lack of political support, but suggest the Act’s weakness stemmed “rather from the mode of enforcement adopted by the federal bureaucrats who adopted it” (Coughtry 537). Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott kept a regular correspondence with customs collectors in the slave trading ports of Newport and Bristol where no less than twenty-two cases were pursued against suspected slave ships. These were, however, rarely successful and clearly exposed the limitations of the Act and the ease with which merchants, ship owners, and partners in slave trading ventures evaded conviction (Coughtry 544). In one of the few successful cases brought to Court, the schooner Betsey was forfeited after documents proved she had landed 64 slaves at La Havana in March 1799. Yet, as the ship’s captain had died there, no individual sentence could be pronounced, and the government received merely a portion of the fine from the ship’s auction. In the case of the Lucy, a ship owned by Charles D’Wolf of the powerful D’Wolf merchant family, Bristol customs collector William Ellery sent his deputy to participate in the auction sale to prevent the ship from being re-purchased by its original owners for a fraction of the real worth. Kidnapped by several of D’Wolf’s accomplices, the deputy was absent at the auction and the family eventually recovered their ship. Despite the best efforts of federal agents and abolition societies, local trading networks using their political leverage in cities and courts effectively blocked proper application of the law (Coughtry 545-53; Marques 69).

  • 9 Absalom Jones (1746-1818) founded the Free African Society with Richard Allen in 1787. He also co-f (...)

22Manifest inability to stop American participation in the trade plagued the 1794 Act. This political failure reawakened abolitionists’ awareness to the urgency of further action to effectively eliminate the trade. On January 2, 1800, a petition to Congress authored by Philadelphia free black leader Absalom Jones9 and other free men of color presented a series of demands, including revision of the law. During yet another raucous debate, John Brown of Rhode Island, a slave trader who, in 1797, became the first American condemned under the Act, delivered a robust indictment of the anti-trade legislation. Allying with southern opponents, Brown lamented the detrimental effects of the law and demanded its repeal, “for why should we see Great Britain getting all the slave trade to themselves; why may not our country be enriched by that lucrative traffic?” (Annals of Congress, vol. 10, 1800, 233). In one particularly revealing statement, the initial petitioner, James Waln (Pennsylvania), after reminding the assembly that “forty vessels entered the West Indies with this illicit species of commerce,” judged that “it would be much better to repeal the old law, and open the trade, than to suffer the law to continue when nearly a nullity” (Annals of Congress, vol.10, 1800, 689-90).

  • 10 The US slave carrying trade fell markedly in 1801 (-54%) in the aftermath of these captures. This w (...)

23Despite these manifest concerns about the law’s efficacy and Brown’s commercial arguments, a revised law was passed, once again with a wide majority. The May 1800 Act contained several measures closing the loopholes previously exploited by ship owners. It specifically forbade citizens from financial involvement in any slave voyage to a foreign territory; increased the existing financial penalties; and directed US-commissioned ships to dispose of slave vessels’ cargoes as regular naval prizes. This latter measure proved especially consequential. It finally allowed US ships to stop slave traffickers en route to their African destinations, and prior to selling captives. As Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert told a US frigate commander, the object of the Act was “to annihilate the trade,” a task which the newly built US frigates vehemently undertook. Indeed, since 1798, while the Quasi-War (1797-1801) with French privateers was raging in the Caribbean, the Federal Government had been spending ample funds to establish a navy to police neighboring seas and protect US ships from being seized. Two months after the Act was passed, this patrolling activity had been extended to slavers and reaped immediate benefits; the new naval force had captured three American slave trading vessels: the Betsy, the Prudent and the Phoebe, the latter off the coast of Cuba with 120 slaves aboard who were placed under custody of the PAS. But such dramatic naval interventions dwindled as the Navy was quickly and drastically reduced under the Jefferson administration (1801-1809) and as slave traders found new ways to escape the vigilance of navy patrols. Yet, they demonstrated, for a limited period of time, the efficacy of these early slave trading regulations when backed by an active government with appropriate means (Canney 3; Marques 45, 58).10

The “floodgate opened”: the 1803 South Carolina reopening of the slave trade, the failure of regulation and the coming of federal abolition

24The decision to strengthen the original Act in 1800 was indication that the Federal Government was determined to end American involvement in the trade. The closing of importation being complete with Georgia’s constitutional prohibition in 1798, also increased the possibility of finally eradicating the American slave trade. But in spite of positive signs, the South Carolina House of Representatives decided to repeal all its previous bans in late 1803 and reverse an almost fifteen-year-old policy of prohibition, thus reopening the slave trade to its ports. This brutally shattered abolitionists’ hopes of ending the trade before 1808 and permanently weakened the fragile political consensus in Congress for suppressing the commerce. To grasp the importance of this repeal, it is important to look back at how and why this repeal was adopted, and how this decision drastically altered the course of American slave trading in the early republic.

  • 11 On August 30, 1800, near the state capital of Richmond, Virginia, a 24-year-old slave named Gabriel (...)
  • 12 Toussaint de Bréda Louverture (1743-1803) was an emancipated slave who had participated in the init (...)

25In the aftermath of Jefferson’s election to the presidency in 1800, the prevailing mood was still trending towards a tougher regulation of the trade. This was due particularly to the news of an aborted slave revolt in Norfolk, Virginia, led by an enslaved blacksmith named Gabriel Prosser in the summer of 1800.11 While the revolt ultimately failed, its suppression set the stage for weeks of bitter fighting between the Republican press favorable to Jefferson and its Federalist counterpart (Nicholls). The overarching argument used by Republican commentators in this debate was that Gabriel’s revolt had drawn support from enslaved migrants from Saint-Domingue who had settled in the city after 1791, and that the Federalist administration of John Adams (1797-1801) had facilitated collusion between Dominguan and American slaves by providing assistance to Toussaint Louverture’s regime12 during the Quasi-War. The allegations of collusion between “Caribbean” and domestic slaves in the US propagated by the republican press seemed to reinforce the public policy argument for ceasing further slave importation that had dominated the Lower South political landscape since the beginning of the Saint-Domingue revolt in 1791 (Sidbury; Riley 82-85, 87-88). Then, during Jefferson’s first term as president (1801-1805), the dispatch of a vast military expedition by Napoleon in early 1802 to reestablish both French metropolitan sovereignty and slavery in Saint-Domingue further helped convince the new federal administration that slave societies in the Caribbean – fueled by the slave trade – were a source of internal unrest for neighboring countries (Egerton 156-60). It was only with the final defeat of the Napoleonic scheme at the hands of the indigenous Haitian army in early 1803 that the situation profoundly changed. Jefferson’s special envoys in Paris were faced with a political milieu no longer interested in the dwindling prospects of re-establishing a French commercial empire in the Americas and unsettled by the imminent return of hostilities with Britain (Geggus). If Jefferson had initially hoped only that the French would cede New Orleans and the Floridas, his envoy James Monroe was eventually offered the entire Louisiana territory by the French government in April 1803. The Louisiana Purchase was a striking diplomatic success for the Jefferson administration, and all the more for the population it was identified with, i.e farmers and small landholders on the western frontier who eagerly looked for fresh land. For Jefferson and his supporters, the vast territory acquired from France would provide the American republic with an “Empire of Liberty” west of the Mississippi where migrants could settle and become industrious and independent farmers able to secure the virtues of republicanism for the future. While celebrated as a resounding success, the Purchase also put the much enlarged country closer to the “troublesome” Caribbean region by establishing American sovereignty over New Orleans, a city which had been a slave-trading hub from both Africa and the Caribbean since Spanish governors had decided to reopen the slave trade there in 1777 (Ingersoll 184-85). Thus, the prospects for commercial and political expansion opened by the Purchase muzzled the more immediate concerns about domestic safety and servile insurrections that had characterized the national political landscape after Gabriel’s rebellion. And this set the scene for the most brutal period of slave-trading in the US since the beginning of British colonization.

  • 13 Since the decline of tobacco production in the mid-eighteenth century, Chesapeake slave owners had (...)

26The extension of political sovereignty to the vast Louisiana territory meant the extension of the institution of slavery on US soil from the Atlantic seaboard all the way to New Orleans and Lower Louisiana where a plantation economy had existed since the early eighteenth century. The heart of the colony’s plantation complex near New Orleans had enjoyed a sharp upturn since the reopening of the slave trade in the 1800s (United States and Sibley 44-46; Din 216-18). With the recent organization of the Mississippi territory including the sugar plantations of Natchez country under federal jurisdiction, the US was fully extending its political sovereignty over a region where the plantation economy was already entrenched and growing. For both yeoman farmers and slave traders, the Purchase was a golden opportunity. Indeed, news of the Louisiana Purchase drove a speculative frenzy in the Rhode Island slave trading community and in the states of the Upper South, the latter regarding the new territory as a ready market for their surplus slaves.13 In the Lower South, the atmosphere still favored non-importation as waves of French Caribbean refugees – many of them slave-owners who traveled with their slaves to the US – continued pouring into southern ports, reinforcing state authorities’ beliefs in the prohibitive measures taken during the 1790s to inoculate local slaves against the revolutionary virus carried by “French negroes” (Faherty 69-74). However, by the end of 1803, pressure from South Carolinian planters wanting more slaves for their fledgling cotton plantations, along with that from Charleston merchants eager to furnish Louisianan planters with slaves through the coastal trade, helped turn the tide for repeal; and the state’s slave ban was lifted, making the US “again, for the first time in at least five years, a legal slave mart” (Du Bois 86: Brady; Shugerman). This decision ignited a series of heated debates in Congress which, for the next four years, considered implementing slave trading restrictions to the new territories while simultaneously exploring new tax proposals to curb the traffic to South Carolina.

27In Louisiana’s case, robust support for strict regulations against the traffic in Congress initially produced a striking victory for opponents of the slave trade. Section 10 of the March 1804 Act for dividing Louisiana into two territories contained a clear provision aimed at preventing both the foreign slave trade as well as the introduction of slaves from within the country. On this occasion, minority Federalists allied with the Pennsylvania-Virginia axis that had first emerged during the Constitutional Convention to counter both the pro-slavery dispositions of the Lower South, and some New England representatives who wished to enjoy the economic benefits of carrying slaves to Louisiana, albeit through different routes. Fear of another Haitian-style insurrection was used as a potent argument here by regulation supporters who looked to position themselves as promoters of national security, and who hoped to restrict the trade as tightly as possible until a bill proposing total abolition could be presented to Congress (Hammond, “Rethinking the Expansion of Slavery in the Louisiana Purchase Territories” 361-62).

  • 14 U.S Statutes at Large, vol. II, 8th Congress, 1st session, “An erecting Louisiana into two territor (...)

28This decision inflicted a severe defeat to the planters’ interests in the new Federal Territory of Orleans. While Congress was organizing the new territory, US authorities reported that prohibition would be seen as “a serious blow at the Commercial and agricultural interest of the Province” whereas the opposite course “would go farther with them, and better reconcile them to the government of the United States, than any other privilege that could be extended to this country.” (Rowland, vol.2, 10-11, 25-26). Discontent did not decline with news of the Act and its anti-slave trade clause. US and foreign traders took advantage of the Purchase and the still fragile rule in Louisiana to smuggle slaves into the territory before the law came into effect.14 Charleston merchants again began exporting fresh captives to New Orleans while the older intra-Caribbean trade routes remained intact. After the first Orleans Territory bill entered into force in October 1804 Act, authorities demonstrated they were determined to close the trade to the city, but this effort was rather short-lived. Within a year, Congress eventually reversed its regulatory stance in a new bill, the March 1805 Act “further providing for the government of the territory of Orleans”, which extended the privileges granted to Mississippi Territory settlers in 1798 concerning slavery: all slaves from within the limits of the US could be moved and traded freely whereas the foreign slave trade remained illegal. In effect, for slave dealers and holders, this Act was interpreted as the legalization of both the domestic and coastal slave trades (Le Glaunec 215-16; Lachance 180-81).

29The coastal slave trade from Charleston represented close to 30% (2,000 slaves) of all slaves introduced into the Territory of Orleans during the four years prior to federal prohibition. This certainly ran counter to the fearful expectations of planters before the first March 1804 Act who muttered that “Congress must connive at the importation into South Carolina […] with a view to make South Carolina the Sole importer for Louisiana(Rowland, vol.2, 25). Lower Louisiana was an attractive market for Charlestonians who looked to profit from their local prerogatives as legal slave traders under federal law to mediate the supply between Africa and the newly expanded American market. In this strategy, the apprehensions of Louisianan planters did not stand the test of time as Charleston firms readily set up business ties with local elites after the March 1805 bill. Political support for regulation at the federal level could not overcome the dangers of alienating a ‘‘foreign’’ population who might break away from the new government and fuel secessionist aspirations throughout the Old Southwest.

30As regards South Carolina, government efforts proved even less effective at limiting what remained the mainstay of the post-1803 slave trade rush. Between 1804 and 1807, 67,000 slaves were brought to South Carolina, or about 20% of the entire number sold and delivered to North American markets since the beginnings of British colonization (McMillin 31-32). While some were re-exported to other markets by sea (Orleans) or land (Georgia), the large majority of these captives were purchased by Carolina cotton planters. In Congress, before the final abolition bill, the idea of implementing the Article I Section IX tax on imported slaves was raised several times to limit slave trading to South Carolina. Shortly after the repeal, David Bard (Pennsylvania) introduced the first motion to commit Congress to a $10 tax on each imported slave. Lower South representatives and House speaker Nathaniel Macon (North Carolina) took the lead in defending the measure as constitutional, denouncing previous bans as unenforceable, and using equivocatory language to deny that the decision was a direct attack on one state by the Government for the purpose of raising revenue. Unlike the first Louisiana government debate, pro-regulation representatives were now unable to defeat southern opposition. Indeed, as the tax motion affected a state constitutive of the Union, opponents from the Lower South were able to alter their strategy and win new support from both the Upper South and parts of New England (Annals of Congress, vol. 13, 1804, 991-95, 998, 1008-10). Over the next year and a half, several other proposals were submitted to Congress to either stop or limit the growing traffic before the 1808 deadline; these all met a fate similar to that of Bard’s motion. By and large, these attempts were unsuccessful for one simple reason: as revolting and calamitous as the South Carolina repeal was, it was entirely within the prerogatives of the state’s sovereignty (Annals of Congress, vol. 15, 1806, 435-38, 472-73).

31Therefore, it was not until the Act to prohibit the Slave Trade was eventually passed in March 1807 that the long series of slave trade debates that began in the aftermath of the Louisiana Purchase came to a close. Stretching from December 1806 to the final vote of February 13, 1807, the final debates on federal abolition saw a sectional unity of the Upper and Lower South crystallized in their opposition to abolition. In a moment of reconciliation between the two southern sections, Peter Early (Georgia) and John Randolph (Virginia) led the assault against restrictionists with unprecedented determination. The representative from Georgia bemused his opponents by rejecting an amendment to inflict the death penalty to slave traders, stating that Southerners “do not consider slavery as a crime. They do not believe it immoral to hold human flesh in bondage.” Later in the debate, Randolph, in opposition to an amendment forbidding the interstate trade by sea for ships under forty tons, branded the measure “the pretext of universal emancipation” on the part of Northerners willing to “erect themselves into an abolition society.” Profoundly amended to appease southern opposition, the bill was eventually signed into law on March 2, 1807, and became effective on January 1, 1808 (Annals of Congress, vol.16, 1807, 238, 626-27; Mason, “Slavery Overshadowed”). In the last year of legal importation, Charleston saw the arrival of nearly 33,000 slaves. As the Federal Government ended its twenty-year legislative experiment in attempting to regulate the trade, it had to stand by for another nine months watching impotently as the largest flow of captives ever landed on its shores.


32Dubois was undoubtedly correct in 1898 when he highlighted the “real weaknesses” of the Constitution as the reason for the government’s failure to suppress the slave trade in the early national period. It is indeed tempting to characterize this history as a lingering conflict “resolved” in the most unexpected and tragic manner by the Machiavellian act of South Carolina in 1803. Yet, this interpretation fails to take into account the previous difficulties state officials as well as the Federal Government encountered in either effectively stopping importation to the Lower South or prosecuting New England merchants and ship owners. The real weakness of the Constitution lay in the inception of the contentious Article 1 Section IX that sheltered one branch of commercethe importation of slaves – from Congressional regulation. As most importing states eventually chose to ban the trade during the period before South Carolina’s final reopening, this clause at first seemed harmless, even to abolitionists. Then, in 1803, the Louisiana Purchase reawakened fears, in both abolitionists and advocates for restriction, of the potential restoration of slave importation. Later that year, the decision by South Carolina – a member of the Union – to exploit the Constitutional loophole on the slave trade only confirmed these apprehensions. Combined, the opening of a new slave market in the Lower Mississippi Valley and South Carolina’s sudden reopening dismantled the cautious though partially effective legislative arsenal Congressional abolitionists had assembled since 1794. Barnabas Bidwell (Massachusetts) eloquently described the issue at stake in 1806, first by recalling that previous prohibitions on the trade had been passed by the legislature “under the general power to regulate commerce,” then by emphasizing the necessity “that our system on this subject must be now established […] and that the world may know the policy we mean to pursue” (Annals of Congress, vol.15, 1806, 438). The Louisiana Purchase and subsequent reopening of the slave trade in South Carolina revealed the complete absence of a truly coherent national “system” so ardently desired by Bidwell, a system that was only finally achieved with the March 1807 “Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States.”

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1 Marques claimed another 70,000 Africans were delivered to foreign territories in the twenty years following the drafting of the Constitution. Among these foreign markets prized by American traders, Cuba remained the leading one throughout the period with 45,000 slaves sold there or 29% of all the slaves carried under US flag from 1787 to 1808. Behind Cuba stood a series of minor destinations such as the Spanish American province of Rio de la Plata, near Buenos Aires (7,5 %), and the Dutch Guianas (4,6%).

2 Later during the 22 August 1787 debate on the slave trade clause, Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut underscored this argument by warning: “This widening of opinions has a threatening aspect. If we do not agree on this middle & moderate ground he was afraid we should lose two States” (Farrand, 375).

3 Contrary to this exception, Article I Section VIII of the Constitution established Congressional power “to regulate commerce with Foreign nations.” The slave trade, understood in the document as the “Importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” had to be placed outside the field of commerce to be properly protected from Congressional intervention: National Constitution Center, Interactive Constitution: <> (accessed 12 March 2020).

4 Luther Martin was the first delegate to propose federal taxation of imported slaves during the Convention on August 21, 1787 (Farrand 363).

5 The 1787-1793 period saw US merchants transporting 23,000 captives to Cuba representing 45 % of the volume herein exported. Slave trading expeditions to the US represented 30 % of the total. “Slave Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database” <> (accessed 2 March 2020).

6 In February 1793, France opened its Caribbean colonies to American shipping. Britain retaliated by issuing two Orders in Councils in June and November 1793 targeted at merchant ships laden with produce from “enemy” territory (France and its colonies). Preserving the neutral status of American traders was therefore crucial for the Federal Government which hoped that American ships would take the place of European vessels carrying colonial produce to Europe (Rossignol 88-89, 144-45).

7 The French colony of Saint-Domingue was located on the western half of the island of Hispaniola. On the eve of the French Revolution, it was the most productive slave colony of the Caribbean. In 1791, after two years of intense internal strife, a large slave revolt broke out in the Northern Province – the colony’s largest province – near Cap Français. Within a few weeks, the magnitude of the revolt had devastated many of the sugar plantations throughout the Northern Province, as news of the revolts began to circulate in nearby ports in the Caribbean and North America.

8 The 1794-1800 period saw a 71% increase in the overall traffic compared to the six-year period prior to passage of the 1794 Act (1787-1793). The domestic trade increased 98% while the foreign trade – stimulated mainly by Cuba – increased 109%. “Slave Voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database”: <> (accessed 2 March 2020).

9 Absalom Jones (1746-1818) founded the Free African Society with Richard Allen in 1787. He also co-founded the African Episcopal Church of Saint-Thomas in 1794 and became a leading voice of Philadelphia’s free black community. As a lay reader in the Church, his sermons advocated the abolition of slavery, and he also helped to organize petition drives to Congress.

10 The US slave carrying trade fell markedly in 1801 (-54%) in the aftermath of these captures. This was the second largest drop in the overall US slave trade after 1798 when Georgia banned importation. The trade rebounded in 1802-1803 when Rhode Island slavers relocated from Newport to Bristol and when new trading routes were attempted to the growing markets of Rio de la Plata (Buenos Aires) and Cuba. “Slave voyages: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database” <> (accessed 2 March 2020).

11 On August 30, 1800, near the state capital of Richmond, Virginia, a 24-year-old slave named Gabriel Prosser, a blacksmith by profession, attempted, with the help of a dozen armed allies, to rally the city's slaves. This insurrection failed because of torrential rains on the morning of August 30, and because one of the participants revealed the plot to his master shortly before it took place.

12 Toussaint de Bréda Louverture (1743-1803) was an emancipated slave who had participated in the initial August 1791 uprising in Saint-Domingue. In the summer of 1798, he became the de facto leader of the Northern Province of Saint-Domingue after successfully negotiating the evacuation of British troops from the region. In the aftermath of this military victory, he engaged diplomatic talks with the US government to encourage the return of US-flagged shipments to Saint-Domingue’s ports under his control.

13 Since the decline of tobacco production in the mid-eighteenth century, Chesapeake slave owners had stopped relying on the African slave trade. Meanwhile, the enslaved population in this region had achieved a natural rate of reproduction. Thus, slaves from Virginia and Maryland were being sold, on a modest scale, to other states starting in the 1780s (Deyle 93-94).

14 U.S Statutes at Large, vol. II, 8th Congress, 1st session, “An erecting Louisiana into two territories, and providing for the temporary government thereof”, 283-289. Section 16 of the March 1804 Louisiana Act indicated that all previous Congressional legislation on Louisiana should have full force until October 1, 1804.

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Andy Cabot, « “Why may not our country be enriched by that lucrative traffic?”: The slave trade and the failed politics of federal proscription in the early American Republic (1787-1808) »XVII-XVIII [En ligne], 77 | 2020, mis en ligne le 31 décembre 2020, consulté le 27 février 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Andy Cabot

Enseignant ATER à l’Université de Paris pour l’année 2020-2021, il est l’auteur d’une thèse intitulée « Esclavage, Empires et Diplomatie (France, Grande-Bretagne et États-Unis) : Abattre ou Consolider l’esclavage dans le monde atlantique après Saint-Domingue (c. 1795 – c. 1815) » qui sera soutenue le 12 janvier 2021. Il a publié un article (« Esclavage et empires durant les guerres révolutionnaires : les mondes caribéens coloniaux à l’épreuve des ruptures d’empires (1794-1802) ») dans l’ouvrage La France et les Amériques entre révolutions et nations, 1776-1865, dont la parution est prévue au printemps 2021.

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