Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves

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Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves
Great Seal of the United States
Long titleAn 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
EffectiveJanuary 1, 1808
Public law9-22
Statutes at LargeStat. 426
Legislative history

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 promoted by President Thomas Jefferson, who called for its enactment in his 1806 State of the Union Address. He had promoted the idea since the 1770s. It reflected the force of the general trend toward abolishing the international slave trade which Virginia, followed by all the other states, had prohibited or restricted since then. South Carolina, however, had reopened its trade. Congress first regulated against the trade in the Slave Trade Act of 1794. The 1794 Act ended the legality of American ships participating in the trade. The 1807 law did not change that—it made all importation from abroad a federal crime. The domestic slave trade within the U.S. was unaffected by the 1807 law. The United Kingdom, the major power involved in the Atlantic slave trade, had passed the comparable Abolition of the Slave Trade Act, on February 23, 1807 (achieving royal assent on March 25, 1807).


The laws discussed here affected only the import or export of slaves. It did not affect the internal trade inside states or between states. Article 1 Section 9 of the United States Constitution protected the international slave trade for twenty years from federal prohibition. By 1800 all states prohibited the international trade but South Carolina reversed itself and permitted it. At all times, before and after 1808, there was considerable illegal trade. Article 5 said this clause could not be affected by constitutional amendment. Only starting January 1, 1808, could there be a federal law to entirely abolish the international slave trade, although individual states could and did ban it at any time.

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 Europe's largest slave trader.[2] During the American Revolution (1775–1783) against Great Britain, all the states banned the Atlantic slave trade. This was done for a variety of economic, political, and moral reasons depending on the state. The trade was later reopened in South Carolina and Georgia.[3]

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, essentially limiting the trade to foreign ships.[4] On August 5, 1797, John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, became the first American to be tried in federal court under the 1794 law. Brown was convicted and was forced to forfeit his ship Hope.[5] In the 1798 act creating the Mississippi Territory, Congress allowed slaves to be imported from the rest of the United States to Mississippi Territory, and exempted the territory from the part of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance that abolished slavery in the Northwest Territory (modern-day Midwest) after 1800. However, the same act also abolished the importation of slaves to the Mississippi Territory from "foreign parts" (foreign nations).[6] The penalty for illegally importing slaves from abroad to the territory was a fine of $300.[7] In the Slave Trade Act of 1800, Congress outlawed U.S. citizens' investment in the trade, and the employment of U.S. citizens on foreign vessels involved in the trade.[8]

Passage of the Act[edit]

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.[9]

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 on March 2, 1807.[10] Many in Congress believed the act would doom slavery in the South, but they were mistaken.[11]

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" delivered in New York City.[12]

Effectiveness and prosecutions for slaving[edit]

While there are no exact figures known, historians estimate that up to 50,000 slaves were illegally imported into the United States after 1808, mostly through Spanish Florida and Texas, before those states were admitted to the Union.[13] However, South Carolina Governor Henry Middleton estimated in 1819 that 13,000 smuggled African slaves arrived every year.[14]:160

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. Onee 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.[15]

In 1820, slave-trading became a capital offense with an amendment to the 1819 Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy. A total of 74 cases of slaving were brought in the United States between 1837 and 1860, "but few captains had been convicted, and those had retrieved trifling sentences, which they had usually been able to avoid".[16] Nathaniel Gordon, who was hanged in 1862, was the only person to be executed for illegal slave-trading in the United States.[16]

In addition, after the 1808 abolition of the slave trade to the United States, many Americans continued to engage in the slave trade by transporting Africans to Cuba. From 1808 to 1860, almost one-third of all slave ships were either owned by American merchants, or were built and outfitted in American ports.[17] It is possible that U.S. citizens "may have transported twice as many Africans to other countries such as Cuba and Brazil as they did to their own ports".[17]

Antebellum proposals by Fire-Eaters to reopen[edit]

In the South, the Fire-Eaters—antebellum pro-slavery extremists—proposed repealing the act and once more legalizing the international slave trade in the United States. Historian Erskine Clarke writes that this call "was a shameless expression of their contempt for any antislavery sentiment and a part of their stratagem to divide the nation and create a slaveholding confederacy. Among other things, the Fire-Eaters hoped that a reopened international slave trade would incense the North, and that Northern outrage would cause white Southerns to unite and move toward secession."[18]

In addition to whipping up sectional tensions, Fire-Eaters advocated the reopening of the slave trade in order to drive down the price of slaves; to balance the millions of European immigrants who had settled in the North and maintain Southern representation in Congress; and assert the morality of slavery: "Slave trading had to be made right, otherwise slavery was imperiled."[19] Fire-Eaters essentially desired to "legitimize the slave trade in order to make the point that both slavery and the African slave trade were morally acceptable practices"—a view intended to be precisely opposite that of the abolitionists, who affirmed the immorality of both slavery and the slave trade. The view alarmed even pro-slavery figures, such as former President John Tyler, who in retirement wrote a widely republished letter condemning the Fire-Eaters' call to abrogate article 8 of the Webster–Ashburton Treaty (which barred the slave trade). Tyler noted that the South had voted to ratify the treaty.[20]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ U.S. Constitution – Article 1 Section 9
  2. ^ "European traders". International Slavery Museum. Retrieved 8 July 2014.
  3. ^ Finkelman, Paul (2007). "The Abolition of The Slave Trade". New York Public Library. Retrieved 25 June 2014.
  4. ^ Timeline: The Atlantic Slave Trade Archived March 11, 2010, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ Papers of the American Slave Trade
  6. ^ Arthur Scherr, John Adams, Slavery, and Race: Ideas, Politics, and Diplomacy in an Age of Crisis (ABC-CLIO, 2017), p. 198.
  7. ^ United States; Joseph Story (1827). The public and general statutes passed by the Congress of the United States of America: from 1789 to 1827 inclusive, whether expired, repealed, or in force: arranged in chronological order, with marginal references, and a copious index: to which is added the Constitution of the United States, and an appendix. Wells and Lilly.
  8. ^ "REGULATING THE TRADE". New York Public Library. Retrieved December 5, 2015.
  9. ^ John Paul Kaminski (1995). A Necessary Evil?: Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 256.
  10. ^ United States (1850). The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America. Charle C. Little and James Brown. pp. 426–430.
  11. ^ Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (1993) p 80
  12. ^ Pater Williams, Jr., An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade; Delivered in the African Church in the City of New-York, January 1, 1808, Paul Royster, Ed., online pdf version, Digital Commons, University of Nebraska—Lincoln, accessed 31 May 2012
  13. ^ Randy J. Sparks, Africans in the Old South: Mapping Exceptional Lives Across the Atlantic World (Harvard University Press, 2016), p. 80.
  14. ^ Garrison, William Lloyd (1832). Thoughts on African colonization: or, an impartial exhibition of the doctrines, principles and purposes of the American Colonization Society. Together with the resolutions, addresses and remonstrances of the free people of color. Boston.
  15. ^ Cutler, Carl C. (1984). Greyhounds of the Sea (3rd ed.). p. 39.
  16. ^ a b Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870 (Simon & Schuster, 1997), p. 774.
  17. ^ a b Matt D. Childs, "Cuba, the Atlantic Crisis of the 1860s, and the Road to Abolition" in American Civil Wars: The United States, Latin America, Europe, and the Crisis of the 1860s (ed. Don H. Doyle: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
  18. ^ Erskine Clarke, By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey (Basic Books, 2013), p. 324.
  19. ^ Erik Calonius, The Wanderer: The Last American Slave Ship and the Conspiracy That Set Its Sails (St. Martin's Griffin, 2006), pp. 43-43.
  20. ^ Edward P. Crapol, John Tyler, the Accidental President (University of North Carolina Press, 2006), pp. 247-48.

Further reading[edit]

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