This week I am discussing Congress' decision to eliminate the international slave trade in 1808. While a key first step in the abolition of chattel slavery, the federal law did little to blunt the spread of slavery throughout the country.
Protected by federal law, the domestic slave trade flourished, leading to the forced migration of millions of human beings.
An Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves into any Port or Place Within the Jurisdiction of the United States, From and After the First Day of January, in the Year of our Lord One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight. The Avalon Project: Documents in Law, History and Diplomacy. Accessed August 27th, 2021. (LINK)
A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents & Debates, 1774-1875. Annals of Congress, House of Representatives, 9th Congress, 2nd session. (LINK)
DuBois, William Edward Burghardt. The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America. Longmans, Green and Company, 1904.
Martin, Michel. Interview with Eric Foner. Tell Me More. National Public Radio, NPR, January 10, 2008. “End of Slave Trade Meant New Normal for America.” (LINK)
Rothman, Joshua D. The Ledger and the Chain: How Domestic Slave Traders Shaped America. Basic Books: 2021.
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“Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, that from any after the first day of January, one thousand eight hundred and eight, it shall not be lawful to import or bring to the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of color, with the intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such negro, or person of color, as a slave, or to be helf to service or labor.” United States Congress, 1807.
Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey peeps, welcome back.
The institution of slavery is embedded in the story of America. From its origins with the first kidnapped arrivals in Virginia to the Freedmen's bureau in the aftermath of the Civil War, our history is filled with the impacts of that peculiar institution. I have covered the topic of slavery throughout this podcast to provide a roadmap of its evolution and provide a bit more context to something very complicated.
And since it is such a complex and nuanced issue, I will likely be covering it over a few more episodes as we continue along our linear history timeline. One of the various mile posts in the story of American slavery is the moment the United States decided to outlaw the importation of slave labor from Africa.
While the law went into effect in 1808, it did very little to curtail the economic system of using human bodies to work the lands to harvest crops for export. So what did the Slave Ban of 1808 do? Why is it important? And what impact did it have to the ongoing evolution of slavery in the south? Fair warning, this episode dives into the slave trade and will discuss human and sexual trafficking. Please exercise caution with proceeding. Okay, with that said.
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Lets do this.
On December 12, 1806 then president Thomas Jefferson commended congress for introducing legislation implementing a ban on the international slave trade. Writing,
I congratulate you, fellow citizens, 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 of our country have long been eager to proscribe. Although no law you may pass can take prohibitory effect until the first day of the year 1808, yet the intervening period is not too long to prevent by timely notice expeditions which can not be completed before that day.
Jefferson, a slaveholder himself, seems an odd choice as one to support a law marking the end of the international slave trade. Jefferson struggled with the question of slavery throughout his life, proposing various potential solutions in the hopes the practice would die out; but never quite made the jump of calling for its abolition outright.
Speaking of abolition, one factor likely contributing to Jefferson’s decision to publicly support the legislation came from the growing and vocal abolitionist movement who called out the inhumanity of the practice of trading in human beings. Abolitionists seemed focused on eliminating international trade, believing its end would also prove a natural end of the institution itself.
Whatever his reasons, Jefferson was not the only one who supported the legislation. Slave owners of the upper south, looking to purge their excess supply of human beings, knew the end of the international imports would provide an opportunity to unload their property while still making money. Specifically, planters in Virginia, faced with an increasing supply and a diminishing demand, saw the ban on importing Africans as an opportunity to corner the market, so to speak, in human trafficking.
Citizens of the upper south had already been participating in a version of domestic slave trade due to the evolving economy. As the demand for tobacco shifted and reduced the earning potential of the plantations who cultivated it, owners started looking for creative ways to maintain their profit share. While some freed their slaves, thereby saving money on their care and maintenance, others sold their bondsmen to the lower south where the demand for human labor was still on the rise. Seeing an opportunity to knock out the competition, representatives of Virginia and Maryland were only too happy to lend their support.
The bill was proposed by Vermont Senator Stephen R Bradley on December 1st, 1806 just a few days ahead of Jefferson’s state of the union. The bill attempted to address three main issues with implementing a ban: what to do with any illegally imported bodies into the United States, what punishment should be given to those who violated the law and the “proper limitation of the interstate traffic by water.”
The bill went through committee and several debates, which you can read through on the library of congress’s website. I’d suggest checking it out; it’s a pretty cool way to see how congress debated legislation in the times before CSPAN and twenty four hour news. There was a lot of back and forth and debate about the various provisions included in the law and just how severe the punishment should be. On one side, representatives argued the law could not be too strict in its punishment since anything seen as too severe would be unenforceable in the south.
Representative Nathaniel Macon is cited as saying, quote “We must pass a law as can be executed; such as one as every part of the union shall deem itself interested in carrying into effect. If we insert in it a clause, in the execution of which every part of the union does not consider itself interested, we shall prevent the law from going into full operation.” end quote
On the issue of what to do with any illegally imported human being, two camps emerged. One side felt the individuals should be sold into slavery, but withhold any profits from the importer and the other side argued the intended slaves should be left to go free. Southern representatives claimed giving the potential slaves freedom would again make the law unenforceable as southerners would not report anyone if it meant freedom to the people on board. Highlighting this belief, one representative said, quote “to inform will be to lead to an evil which will be deemed greater than the offense of which information is given, because it will be opposed to the principle of self-preservation, and to the love of family.” End quote.
As a compromise, the committee agreed that if caught, the importer would have no claim on the individuals imported but the fate of those on board would be determined by where they landed. So if they were unlucky enough to land in Louisiana, they were still likely to become enslaved, even though their importation was a violation of law.
The next issue debated was how violators of the law should be punished. Again a lot of the debate surrounded two options; one was to make the violation of the law a felony punishable by death and the other was to consider the violation a misdemeanor which would require a fine and potential jail time. Those who were in favor of death as punishment argued the violation of the law while not only immoral was also premeditated and therefore could never be considered a crime of passion. Anyone who knowingly defied the statute did so with intent; it wasn’t easy to secure a vessel, journey to Africa, kidnap human beings and ship them back to the United States. In making their argument for the death penalty, one representative said, quote “to free such negroes is dangerous; to enslave them, wrong; to return them, impracticable; to indenture them, difficult. Therefore, by a death penalty, keep them from being imported.” end quote.
Detractors argued that death was an excessive penalty. Representative Stanton of Rhode Island quipped, quote “I cannot believe that a man ought to be hung for only stealing a negro.” End quote. Opponents argued the punishment did not fit the crime and therefore ran the risk of making the law unenforceable. Representatives worried that such an excessive punishment would only serve to increase sympathy for those violating the law. In their argument, anyone who was aware of the punishment of breaking the law would simply look the other way, not believing death was the appropriate penalty. Ultimately, the committee agreed on fines over death.
The final issue addressed in the bill was how to deal with interstate coastal trading. Some representatives argued for the prohibition of all water based transportation, claiming that without banning ships from transporting intended human cargo that the whole law would become null and void as any ship could claim they were only involved in domestic, not international, slave trading. Again southern representatives objected and the bill passed with a compromise allowing for the use of rivers and waterways under United States jurisdiction to transport potential slaves.
The bill passed on March 2nd, 1807 and was signed into law by Thomas Jefferson the same day. The international slave trade ban went into effect January 1st, 1808 and is significant in that it marked the first time Congress stigmatized slavery, albeit in a very limited and specific way. So if the outside pipeline was cut off, how and why did slavery continue to flourish for another sixty years in the United States?
If you’ve been a long time listener of the pod, then you know I mentioned in a previous episode the practice of passing the status of enslavement from mother to child. This provided a guarantee of new bondsmen and women available to work the fields; and unlike other countries who also banned importing human beings to serve in bondage, the United States “benefited” from milder climates and as a result, enslaved individuals lived longer and produced more children.
The domestic slave trade exploded in the aftermath of the import ban. By ending international trade, but refusing to address domestic trading, Congress provided insurance for anyone dealing in human beings. White men set up shop throughout the south and as a result, thousands of human beings were shackled and forced to remain in servitude.
Between 1800 and 1860, roughly one million enslaved individuals were transported from the upper south to the lower south thanks to the domestic slave trade. The forced migration greatly increased the number of enslaved individuals in states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia who went from 160,000 slaves to 510,000 in a twenty year period. This equates to an over 200% increase in humans held in bondage.
Georgia was the central trading location, so much so that traders were nicknamed Georgia Men due to their frequent trips to the state. While some states attempted to curtail domestic trade by passing restrictive laws, they were often ignored or poorly enforced. In the states where the trade was embraced, human trafficking sometimes became the mainstay of the local economy.
While most who dealt in domestic trading treated it as a side business, those who focused their energy in human trafficking could see profits of twenty or thirty percent. In his book, The Ledger & The Chain, historian Joshua Rothman reviewed financial records and found traders who netted a profit of eighty thousand dollars, or roughly two million when adjusted for inflation.
Another contributing factor in the spread and increase of slavery was the availability of land for growing cotton. As the federal government forced indigenous tribes such as the Chickasaw and Choctaw off of their homeland, excited would-be planters snatched up the nearly eighteen million acres and turned it into cotton fields. As cotton prices increased, so too did the cost of the human property used to cultivate the crop. In just a five year period, the price for young black men almost doubled.
Of course, the domestic trade was the worst for black women. Thousands of women were traded and sold for the sole purpose of sex. This practice was so prevalent there was even a nickname for these women - fancy. Typically consisting of fair or light skinned young women, these “fancies” not only were sold at a premium to be used and abused by their male owners, but had to endure the extra insult and burden of passing their enslaved status to any child born as a result.
So while banning the importation of slaves was a good - and necessary - first step, it proved ineffective in stemming the spread of using human beings as a source of economic power, forcing the country to confront the issue in the run up to the Civil War in 1861.
Before I sign off for today, I do want to let you know I had an opportunity to be a guest on a podcast I’ve mentioned a half a dozen or so times here, The Presidencies of the United States. Jerry invited me on his show a couple of months back to discuss the life of and rank cabinet member and broadway super star, Alexander Hamilton. As usual, Jerry provided a detailed narrative of Hamilton and I got to sit back and judge. Go check out the conversation and go follow Presidencies of the United States if you haven’t already.
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Thanks for tuning and I hope you enjoyed this episode of Civics & Coffee. If you want to hear more small snippets from american history, be sure to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening and I look forward to our next cup of coffee together.