Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves

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For the British statute passed the same year, see Slave Trade Act 1807.

The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 (2 Stat. 426, enacted March 2, 1807) is a United States federal law that stated that no new slaves were permitted to be imported into the United States. It took effect in 1808, the earliest date permitted by the United States Constitution.

This legislation was part of the general trend toward abolishing the slave trade, which individual U.S. States had restricted during the American Revolution, and the national Congress first regulated against in the Slave Trade Act of 1794. The 1807 Act ended the legality of all international slave trade with the U.S. However, it was not always well enforced, and slavery itself continued in the United States until the end of the Civil War and the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

Background[edit]

Article 1 Section 9 of the United States Constitution protected the slave trade for twenty years. Only starting January 1, 1808, could laws become effective to end the slave trade.

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.[1]

In the 18th century, Great Britain had become the world's largest slave trader.[2] During the revolutionary era, all its rebellious colonies banned or suspended the international slave trade. This was done for a variety of economic, political, and moral reasons depending on the colony. The trade was later reopened in South Carolina and Georgia.[3]

In part, to ensure passage of a law banning the trade when the time came, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was formed, and held its first meeting at the temporary Capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1794. On March 22, 1794, Congress passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which prohibited making, loading, outfitting, equipping, or dispatching of any ship to be used in the trade of slaves.[4] Then on August 5, 1797, John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, was tried in federal court as the first American to be tried under the 1794 law. Brown was convicted and was forced to forfeit his ship Hope.[5] On April 7, 1798, the fifth Congress passed an act that imposed a three hundred dollar per slave penalty on persons convicted of performing the illegal importation of slaves. It was an indication of the type of behavior and course of events soon to become commonplace in the Congress.[6]

On December 2, 1806, in his annual message to Congress, widely reprinted in most newspapers, President Thomas Jefferson denounced the "violations of human rights" attending the international slave trade and called for its criminalization on the first day that was possible (January 1, 1808). He said:

"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 interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe."[7]

The House and Senate agreed on a bill, approved on March 2, 1807, called 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 bound measure also regulated the coastwise slave trade. President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill into law March 2, 1807.[8] Many in Congress believed the act would doom slavery in the South, but they were mistaken.[9]

The 1807 Act was modified and supplemented by the fifteenth Congress. The importation of slaves into the United States was called "piracy" by an Act of Congress that punctuated the Era of Good Feelings in 1819. Any citizen of the United States found guilty of such "piracy" might be given the death penalty. The role of the Navy was expanded to include patrols off the coasts of Cuba and South America. The effective date of the Act, January 1, 1808, was celebrated by Peter Williams, Jr., in "An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade".[10]

Effectiveness[edit]

Carl C. Cutler's classic book on American clipper ships records:

"The act outlawing the slave trade in 1808 furnished another source of demand for fast vessels, and for another half century ships continued to be fitted out and financed in this trade by many a respectable citizen in the majority of American ports. Newspapers of the fifties contain occasional references to the number of ships sailing from the various cities in this traffic. One account stated that as late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports."[11]

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