The first Congress under the Constitution met during the summer of 1789. The American Convention for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery and Improving the Condition of the African Race met for the first time on January 1, 1794. The four years between were years of retrogression for the cause of human freedom -- about as black as any similar period in history. Benjamin Rush was not far from the truth when he said in the Address of the Convention to the Citizens of the United States: "Freedom and slavery can not long exist together. An unlimited power over the time, labor, and posterity of our fellow-creatures, necessarily unfits man for discharging the public and private duties of citizens of a republic."1
The ink was hardly dry on the Constitution when the powers of Congress relative to slavery were called into question, the right of petition was challenged, and the first talk of civil war was heard -- all in Congress and by congressmen from South Carolina and Georgia. The Quakers, meeting in annual assembly in September 1789, and representing Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, had prepared a petition to Congress relative to the slave trade. The Quakers of New York had prepared another petition. These were introduced in the House of Representatives February 11, 1790. They spoke of the "licentious wickedness" of the trade, and of the "inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it." They said that the "debasing influence" of the trade "tends to lay waste to virtue, and, of course, the happiness of the people," and requested Congress to abolish it.
Bitter debate followed the reading of the petitions on the question of reference to a committee. The question carried over until the following day, when another petition more general in character was presented. This was the antislavery petition of the Pennsylvania Society which Benjamin Franklin signed as president. It said in part: "From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the portion, and is still the birthright of all men; and influenced by the strong ties of humanity, and the principles of their institution, your memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavors to loosen the bonds of slavery, and promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of freedom. Under these impressions, they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the subject of slavery; that you will be pleased to countenance the restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage, and who, amidst the general joy of surrounding freemen, are groaning in servile subjection; that you will devise means for removing this inconsistency from the character of the American people; that you will promote mercy and justice towards this distressed race, and that you will step to the very verge of the power vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men."2
These petitions were finally referred to a committee by a vote of 43 to 14, all of the opposition votes coming from South Carolina and Georgia with two exceptions: Isaac Coles of Virginia and Michael Stone of Maryland.3 The leaders of the opposition were William Smith and Thomas Tucker