The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America Part 10

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Southern interests now being safe, some Southern members attempted, a few days later, to annul the “bargain” by restoring the requirement of a two-thirds vote in navigation acts. Charles Pinckney made the motion, in an elaborate speech designed to show the conflicting commercial interests of the States; he declared that “The power of regulating commerce was a pure concession on the part of the Southern States.”[20]

Martin and Williamson of North Carolina, Butler of South Carolina, and Mason of Virginia defended the proposition, insisting that it would be a dangerous concession on the part of the South to leave navigation acts to a mere majority vote. Sherman of Connecticut, Morris of Pennsylvania, and Spaight of North Carolina declared that the very diversity of interest was a security. Finally, by a vote of 7 to 4, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia being in the minority, the Convention refused to consider the motion, and the recommendation of the committee pa.s.sed.[21]

When, on September 10, the Convention was discussing the amendment clause of the Const.i.tution, the ever-alert Rutledge, perceiving that the results of the laboriously settled “bargain” might be endangered, declared that he “never could agree to give a power by which the articles relating to slaves might be altered by the states not interested in that property.”[22] As a result, the clause finally adopted, September 15, had the proviso: “Provided, that no amendment which may be made prior to the year 1808 shall in any manner affect the 1st and 4th clauses in the 9th section of the 1st article.”[23]

36. ~Settlement by the Convention.~ Thus, the slave-trade article of the Const.i.tution stood finally as follows:–

“Article I. Section 9. The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

This settlement of the slavery question brought out distinct differences of moral att.i.tude toward the inst.i.tution, and yet differences far from hopeless. To be sure, the South apologized for slavery, the Middle States denounced it, and the East could only tolerate it from afar; and yet all three sections united in considering it a temporary inst.i.tution, the corner-stone of which was the slave-trade. No one of them had ever seen a system of slavery without an active slave-trade; and there were probably few members of the Convention who did not believe that the foundations of slavery had been sapped merely by putting the abolition of the slave-trade in the hands of Congress twenty years hence. Here lay the danger; for when the North called slavery “temporary,” she thought of twenty or thirty years, while the “temporary” period of the South was scarcely less than a century. Meantime, for at least a score of years, a policy of strict _laissez-faire_, so far as the general government was concerned, was to intervene. Instead of calling the whole moral energy of the people into action, so as gradually to crush this portentous evil, the Federal Convention lulled the nation to sleep by a “bargain,”

and left to the vacillating and unripe judgment of the States one of the most threatening of the social and political ills which they were so courageously seeking to remedy.

37. ~Reception of the Clause by the Nation.~ When the proposed Const.i.tution was before the country, the slave-trade article came in for no small amount of condemnation and apology. In the pamphlets of the day it was much discussed. One of the points in Mason’s “Letter of Objections” was that “the general legislature is restrained from prohibiting the further importation of slaves for twenty odd years, though such importations render the United States weaker, more vulnerable, and less capable of defence.”[24] To this Iredell replied, through the columns of the _State Gazette_ of North Carolina: “If all the States had been willing to adopt this regulation [i.e., to prohibit the slave-trade], I should as an individual most heartily have approved of it, because even if the importation of slaves in fact rendered us stronger, less vulnerable and more capable of defence, I should rejoice in the prohibition of it, as putting an end to a trade which has already continued too long for the honor and humanity of those concerned in it.

But as it was well known that South Carolina and Georgia thought a further continuance of such importations useful to them, and would not perhaps otherwise have agreed to the new const.i.tution, those States which had been importing till they were satisfied, could not with decency have insisted upon their relinquishing advantages themselves had already enjoyed. Our situation makes it necessary to bear the evil as it is. It will be left to the future legislatures to allow such importations or not. If any, in violation of their clear conviction of the injustice of this trade, persist in pursuing it, this is a matter between G.o.d and their own consciences. The interests of humanity will, however, have gained something by the prohibition of this inhuman trade, though at a distance of twenty odd years.”[25]

“Centinel,” representing the Quaker sentiment of Pennsylvania, attacked the clause in his third letter, published in the _Independent Gazetteer, or The Chronicle of Freedom_, November 8, 1787: “We are told that the objects of this article are slaves, and that it is inserted to secure to the southern states the right of introducing negroes for twenty-one years to come, against the declared sense of the other states to put an end to an odious traffic in the human species, which is especially scandalous and inconsistent in a people, who have a.s.serted their own liberty by the sword, and which dangerously enfeebles the districts wherein the laborers are bondsmen. The words, dark and ambiguous, such as no plain man of common sense would have used, are evidently chosen to conceal from Europe, that in this enlightened country, the practice of slavery has its advocates among men in the highest stations. When it is recollected that no poll tax can be imposed on _five_ negroes, above what _three_ whites shall be charged; when it is considered, that the imposts on the consumption of Carolina field negroes must be trifling, and the excise nothing, it is plain that the proportion of contributions, which can be expected from the southern states under the new const.i.tution, will be unequal, and yet they are to be allowed to enfeeble themselves by the further importation of negroes till the year 1808. Has not the concurrence of the five southern states (in the convention) to the new system, been purchased too dearly by the rest?”[26]

Noah Webster’s “Examination” (1787) addressed itself to such Quaker scruples: “But, say the enemies of slavery, negroes may be imported for twenty-one years. This exception is addressed to the quakers, and a very pitiful exception it is. The truth is, Congress cannot prohibit the importation of slaves during that period; but the laws against the importation into particular states, stand unrepealed. An immediate abolition of slavery would bring ruin upon the whites, and misery upon the blacks, in the southern states. The const.i.tution has therefore wisely left each state to pursue its own measures, with respect to this article of legislation, during the period of twenty-one years.”[27]

The following year the “Examination” of Tench c.o.xe said: “The temporary reservation of any particular matter must ever be deemed an admission that it should be done away. This appears to have been well understood.

In addition to the arguments drawn from liberty, justice and religion, opinions against this practice [i.e., of slave-trading], founded in sound policy, have no doubt been urged. Regard was necessarily paid to the peculiar situation of our southern fellow-citizens; but they, on the other hand, have not been insensible of the delicate situation of our national character on this subject.”[28]

From quite different motives Southern men defended this section. For instance, Dr. David Ramsay, a South Carolina member of the Convention, wrote in his “Address”: “It is farther objected, that they have stipulated for a right to prohibit the importation of negroes after 21 years. On this subject observe, as they are bound to protect us from domestic violence, they think we ought not to increase our exposure to that evil, by an unlimited importation of slaves. Though Congress may forbid the importation of negroes after 21 years, it does not follow that they will. On the other hand, it is probable that they will not.

The more rice we make, the more business will be for their shipping; their interest will therefore coincide with ours. Besides, we have other sources of supply–the importation of the ensuing 20 years, added to the natural increase of those we already have, and the influx from our northern neighbours who are desirous of getting rid of their slaves, will afford a sufficient number for cultivating all the lands in this state.”[29]

Finally, _The Federalist_, No. 41, written by James Madison, commented as follows: “It were doubtless to be wished, that the power of prohibiting the importation of slaves had not been postponed until the year 1808, or rather, that it had been suffered to have immediate operation. But it is not difficult to account, either for this restriction on the General Government, or for the manner in which the whole clause is expressed. It ought to be considered as a great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever, within these States, a traffic which has so long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period, it will receive a considerable discouragement from the Federal Government, and may be totally abolished, by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic, in the prohibitory example which has been given by so great a majority of the Union. Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!

“Attempts have been made to pervert this clause into an objection against the Const.i.tution, by representing it on one side as a criminal toleration of an illicit practice, and on another, as calculated to prevent voluntary and beneficial emigrations from Europe to America. I mention these misconstructions, not with a view to give them an answer, for they deserve none; but as specimens of the manner and spirit, in which some have thought fit to conduct their opposition to the proposed Government.”[30]

38. ~Att.i.tude of the State Conventions.~ The records of the proceedings in the various State conventions are exceedingly meagre. In nearly all of the few States where records exist there is found some opposition to the slave-trade clause. The opposition was seldom very p.r.o.nounced or bitter; it rather took the form of regret, on the one hand that the Convention went so far, and on the other hand that it did not go farther. Probably, however, the Const.i.tution was never in danger of rejection on account of this clause.

Extracts from a few of the speeches, _pro_ and _con_, in various States will best ill.u.s.trate the character of the arguments. In reply to some objections expressed in the Pennsylvania convention, Wilson said, December 3, 1787: “I consider this as laying the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country; and though the period is more distant than I could wish, yet it will produce the same kind, gradual change, which was pursued in Pennsylvania.”[31] Robert Barnwell declared in the South Carolina convention, January 17, 1788, that this clause “particularly pleased” him. “Congress,” he said, “has guarantied this right for that s.p.a.ce of time, and at its expiration may continue it as long as they please. This question then arises–What will their interest lead them to do? The Eastern States, as the honorable gentleman says, will become the carriers of America. It will, therefore, certainly be their interest to encourage exportation to as great an extent as possible; and if the quantum of our products will be diminished by the prohibition of negroes, I appeal to the belief of every man, whether he thinks those very carriers will themselves dam up the sources from whence their profit is derived. To think so is so contradictory to the general conduct of mankind, that I am of opinion, that, without we ourselves put a stop to them, the traffic for negroes will continue forever.”[32]

In Ma.s.sachusetts, January 30, 1788, General Heath said: “The gentlemen who have spoken have carried the matter rather too far on both sides. I apprehend that it is not in our power to do anything for or against those who are in slavery in the southern States…. Two questions naturally arise, if we ratify the Const.i.tution: Shall we do anything by our act to hold the blacks in slavery? or shall we become partakers of other men’s sins? I think neither of them. Each State is sovereign and independent to a certain degree, and they have a right, and will regulate their own internal affairs, as to themselves appears proper.”[33] Iredell said, in the North Carolina convention, July 26, 1788: “When the entire abolition of slavery takes place, it will be an event which must be pleasing to every generous mind, and every friend of human nature…. But as it is, this government is n.o.bly distinguished above others by that very provision.”[34]

Of the arguments against the clause, two made in the Ma.s.sachusetts convention are typical. The Rev. Mr. Neal said, January 25, 1788, that “unless his objection [to this clause] was removed, he could not put his hand to the Const.i.tution.”[35] General Thompson exclaimed, “Shall it be said, that after we have established our own independence and freedom, we make slaves of others?”[36] Mason, in the Virginia convention, June 15, 1788, said: “As much as I value a union of all the states, I would not admit the Southern States into the Union unless they agree to the discontinuance of this disgraceful trade…. Yet they have not secured us the property of the slaves we have already. So that ‘they have done what they ought not to have done, and have left undone what they ought to have done.'”[37] Joshua Atherton, who led the opposition in the New Hampshire convention, said: “The idea that strikes those who are opposed to this clause so disagreeably and so forcibly is,–hereby it is conceived (if we ratify the Const.i.tution) that we become _consenters to_ and _partakers in_ the sin and guilt of this abominable traffic, at least for a certain period, without any positive stipulation that it shall even then be brought to an end.”[38]

In the South Carolina convention Lowndes, January 16, 1788, attacked the slave-trade clause. “Negroes,” said he, “were our wealth, our only natural resource; yet behold how our kind friends in the north were determined soon to tie up our hands, and drain us of what we had! The Eastern States drew their means of subsistence, in a great measure, from their shipping; and, on that head, they had been particularly careful not to allow of any burdens…. Why, then, call this a reciprocal bargain, which took all from one party, to bestow it on the other!”[39]

In spite of this discussion in the different States, only one State, Rhode Island, went so far as to propose an amendment directing Congress to “promote and establish such laws and regulations as may effectually prevent the importation of slaves of every description, into the United States.”[40]

39. ~Acceptance of the Policy.~ As in the Federal Convention, so in the State conventions, it is noticeable that the compromise was accepted by the various States from widely different motives.[41] Nevertheless, these motives were not fixed and unchangeable, and there was still discernible a certain underlying agreement in the dislike of slavery.

One cannot help thinking that if the devastation of the late war had not left an extraordinary demand for slaves in the South,–if, for instance, there had been in 1787 the same plethora in the slave-market as in 1774,–the future history of the country would have been far different.

As it was, the twenty-one years of _laissez-faire_ were confirmed by the States, and the nation entered upon the const.i.tutional period with the slave-trade legal in three States,[42] and with a feeling of quiescence toward it in the rest of the Union.


[1] Conway, _Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph_, ch. ix.

[2] Conway, _Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph_, p. 78.

[3] Elliot, _Debates_, I. 227.

[4] Cf. Conway, _Life and Papers of Edmund Randolph_, pp.


[5] For the following debate, Madison’s notes (Elliot, _Debates_, V. 457 ff.) are mainly followed.

[6] Cf. Elliot, _Debates_, V, _pa.s.sim_.

[7] By Charles Pinckney.

[8] By John d.i.c.kinson.

[9] Mentioned in the speech of George Mason.

[10] Charles Pinckney. Baldwin of Georgia said that if the State were left to herself, “she may probably put a stop to the evil”: Elliot, _Debates_, V. 459.

[11] _Affirmative:_ Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia,–7.

_Negative:_ New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Delaware,–3.

_Absent:_ Ma.s.sachusetts,–1.

[12] _Negative:_ Connecticut and New Jersey.

[13] Luther Martin’s letter, in Elliot, _Debates_, I. 373. Cf.

explanations of delegates in the South Carolina, North Carolina, and other conventions.

[14] Elliot, _Debates_, V. 471.

[15], Aug. 25, 1787.

[16] Elliot, _Debates_, V. 477.

[17] Elliot, _Debates_, V. 477. d.i.c.kinson made a similar motion, which was disagreed to: _Ibid._

[18] _Ibid._, V. 478.

[19] _Ibid._

[20] Aug. 29: _Ibid._, V. 489.

[21] _Ibid._, V. 492.

[22] Elliot, _Debates_, V. 532.

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