January 1, 1808: Importation of Slaves into the US is Banned

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When the Constitution was drafted Congress was granted the power to ban the international slave trade into the US, but the power could not be exercised until January 1, 1808.  President Thomas Jefferson in his annual message to Congress of December 2, 1806, noted that January 1, 1808 was approaching:

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 of our country have long been eager to proscribe. Although no law you may pass can take prohibitory effect Ôtil the 1st day of the year 1808, yet the intervening period is not too long to prevent by timely notice expeditions which can not be completed before that day.

Congress in 1794 had passed an act to prohibit American ships from participating in the slave trade, so ships bringing slaves into the US could do so legally only if they were foreign ships.  Congress acted promptly in 1807 and a law banning the importation of slaves was signed by Jefferson on March 2, 1807.  Considering the furor that surrounded slavery in the coming decades, it should be noted that the banning of the international slave trade was not controversial and enjoyed broad support in Congress.

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  1. Hohum. Madison’s notes on the Constitution pointed out that everyone knew slave imports were unnecessary as slaves could be bred instead.

  2. Don: I don’t understand this comment: “Considering the furor that surrounded slavery in the coming decades, it should be noted that the banning of the international slave trade was not controversial and enjoyed broad support in Congress.” Could you expand on this a bit more? It seems this ban would have been controversial and that the slave states would have wanted to continue it. I’m guessing we had reached a point that importing more slaves would have lessened the value of all slaves and that the slave states were at a point where they could sustain the slave trade from internal sources??

  3. Bob S. …I believe Virginia had already banned importation; perhaps c.1777. Or maybe even 1753. Not sure.

  4. “Tomorrow’s Popewatch tonight!”
    What I read is that Pope Francis denies the individual sovereign person self-defense and unalienable human rights using the power of the church, as a community, to deprive person’s of their free will choice to love and to serve God.
    (Doing so, also deprives, Pope Francis of his free will to love and to serve God)

  5. It wasn’t until 1819 that Congress declared slavers to be pirates, a capital offense. A U S Naval African Slave Patrol was created which sailed the waters of West Africa, Cuba,and the Caribbean and seized slave ships. When feasible the slaves were returned to Africa and a prize crew sailed the ships to Philadelphia where they were declared salvage. Some of these ships sold and were soon back in the slavery business under different names. The anti slavery patrol operated from 1820 -1861. Descendents of a naval officer sometime in the 1990s donated to the USNA a diary of a then Midshipman who was an Officer -in -Charge of such a prize ship. (Midshipman in those days was a junior rank not to be confused with a student at the academy.) The diary provided eye witness information about the inhumane slave ships and the people who owned and crewed the slave ships.

  6. “Could you expand on this a bit more?”

    Condemnation of the international slave trade was one point on which North and South agreed in regard to slavery. The Confederate Constitution, for instance, banned the international slave trade.
    There were a few fire eaters in the 1850s who called for legalizing the international slave trade but they received little support. The horrors inflicted on slaves during the Middle Passage were too obvious to ignore. Partially the opposition to reopening the slave trade was because domestic slaves in the pre-war South were quite numerous, but some Southern slave holders condemned the horrors of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in terms that abolitionists could only agree with. In any case there was almost nil opposition to banning the international slave trade.

    In regard to Susan’s “ho hum” comment, here is James Madison from Federalist 42:

    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 long and so loudly upbraided the barbarism of modern policy; that within that period it will receive considerable discouragement from the Federal government and 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 oppression of their European brethren!

  7. The original sin of the founding fathers was baking slavery into the Constitution. It did not have to be so, and Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention (embargoed for fifty years) prove it – he quotes Rep. Elsworth as saying “…slaves also multiply so fast in Virginia& & Maryland that it is cheaper to raise than import them…” This reflects a consciousness that the import ban that *was* put in the Constitution would not prove to eliminate slavery by attrition, as so many defenders of the Constitution claimed would happen. In fact, slavery mushroomed after the import ban, largely by breeding. Madison could have averted this (demonstrably predictable) result by advocating a clause that banned the heritability of slavery (inheritance of slave status had been enshrined in colonial practice through the mercantile “Slave Codes” enacted in 17th century that formalized the slave status of children born to slaves).

  8. Wow! That was both interesting and surprising; thanks for the education – you as a group are amazing…God bless all who read and support TAC!

  9. “The original sin of the founding fathers was baking slavery into the Constitution. It did not have to be so”

    The Constitution would never have been ratified if an attempt had been made to end slavery. Slavery was viewed mostly as a state issue to be resolved by the states. Most of the Founding Fathers thought that slavery would gradually end, which did in fact occur throughout the Northern states, but there was little appetite, North or South, to have a newly created Federal government ban slavery.

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