Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States, 1806-1807

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States, 1806-1807

Article excerpt

In December 1806, as the Ninth Congress of the United States convened in its second session, rumors of a frightful conspiracy in the West circulated about Washington. The reports in the following months implicated Aaron Burr, past vice president of the United States (from 1801 to 1805) but already notorious, in part for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel, as the leader of the plot. Over the next several weeks, Americans in all regions read with great interest further details of Burr's alleged plans to stir the southwestern states and territories to fight for independence from the United States, aided by a foreign power such as Great Britain or Spain. At the same time, the press and word of mouth brought tidings of Napoleon's invasion of Prussia. In the next few months Americans learned of Napoleon's Berlin Decree, announcing a blockade of Great Britain in retaliation for Britain's Orders in Council that had first proclaimed a blockade around the Continent.

Congressmen that winter debated bills of great importance, but their words drew less attention than developments in the West and in Europe. One of those bills would prohibit the importation of slaves into the United States after January 1, 1808. This act, signed into law at the end of the session, had a great impact on American history.1 Yet Americans in 1806 and 1807 paid little attention to these historic debates, distracted as they were by the doings of Burr and Napoleon. Their distraction tells us more about the nature of early sectionalism and the perception of other dangers in the new Republic than does the rhetoric ringing through the halls of Congress.2

William Freehling, in his recent account of the growth of America's sectional crisis, places the end of the African slave trade near the heart of his interpretation. For Freehling, "no other early action so shaped the later slavery controversy" as did the slave trade proscription. The restriction reduced black population growth in the South, he argues, and thus diminished that section's representation in the national government. The ban meant that states such as Kentucky and Missouri would face a permanent shortage of slave labor; that Virginia and Maryland would continue to be "whitened" as they exported excess slaves to the Deep South; and that the Old Northwest never would develop a slave system. As a result the Border South would be less committed to slavery than the Deep South, and the Northwest would not be committed at all. For Freehling, "the closure of the African slave trade was probably the most important slavery legislation Congress ever passed and among the most important American laws on any subject."3

Freehling makes a powerful case for the significance of the effects of the bill, but there is more to it than he recognizes, for the debates leading to its passage themselves reveal the depth of sectional feeling attached to slavery. Yet historians have devoted very little attention to the legislative history of the slave trade ban and even less to responses to the bill outside of Congress. The congressional slave trade disputes of 1806-1807 exposed a dangerous form of American sectionalism and a willingness to tap its rhetoric. There was broad support from all regions for proscribing the slave trade, but the crafting of the measure was riddled with sharp and revealing disputes in which feeling ran high between North and South. What was said in these debates, though not widely scrutinized at the time, foreshadowed the danger of engaging the slavery question.

According to the Constitution, Congress could not prohibit the foreign slave trade before the year 1808, although it could impose a duty of up to ten dollars on each slave imported (Article I, Section 9). This controversial clause provoked emotional arguments during the ratification debates, especially in the North. From Massachusetts to Virginia, advocates of the Constitution who opposed the slave trade looked with hope to this provision: after all, the Articles of Confederation set no date at which Congress could legislate in this area. …

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