After Heated Debate, U.S. Bans Importation of Slaves
It took a good deal of discussion and some heated debate, but by the end of February 1807 Congress finally passed a law banning the importation of slaves into the United States. The law was signed by President Thomas Jefferson on March 2, 1807, bringing to fruition a provision that was included when the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787, allowing Congress to ban the importation of slaves beginning in 1808. The ban signed by Jefferson went into effect Jan. 1, 1808.
However, the law placed no restrictions on the right of slaveholders to “breed,” trade or sell slaves already in the United States. Nor did it ban the involvement of American merchants, seamen or ships in the international slave trade, just as long as the slaves were not brought into the United States.
Some of the congressional debate swirling around the ban on imported slaves can be read in this newspaper article, especially the bitter and prophetic remarks of Rep. John Randolph of Virginia. This article was published by the United States Gazette (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) on March 2, 1807:
House of Representatives.
Reported for the U. States Gazette, Thursday, Feb. 26.
The bill against the slave trade as received from the Senate was considered. The bill is now modified according to the recommendation of the committee of conference. It contains a provision forbidding the transportation of slaves coastwise in vessels under forty tons with a view to sale.
Mr. Early was decidedly hostile to the provision. He spoke at length against it and in the course of his remarks he said the door of the bill was wide open to evasion and it would not prevent the introduction of a single slave.
Mr. J. Randolph extended the arguments of Mr. Early. The provision of the bill touched the right of private property. He feared lest at a future period it might be made the pretext of universal emancipation. He had rather lose the bill, he had rather lose all the bills of the session, he had rather lose every bill passed since the establishment of the government, than agree to the provision contained in this slave bill. It went to blow up the Constitution in ruins. Mr. R. said if ever the time of disunion between the states should arrive, the line of severance would be between the slave holding and the non-slave holding states…When the freemen of the southern states should depend for assistance on the northern against their slaves, he should despair. All he asked was that they should remain neutral; that they would not erect themselves into an abolition society. Mr. R. also observed, that he considered it no imputation to be a slaveholder, more than to be born in a particular country. It was a thing with which they had no more to do than with their own procreation.
…The question, after a long debate, was at length taken by yeas and nays, and carried—yeas 63, nays 49.
The bill against the slave trade now only awaits the approbation of the president to become a law.
President Jefferson gave his approbation on March 2, as reported by the Otsego Herald (Cooperstown, New York) on March 19, 1807:
From Washington, March 3.
A message was received from the President of the United States, informing that he had approved and signed the bill prohibiting the importation of slaves, after the 31st of December 1807.
On the day after the bill was signed this chilling advertisement was run, showing the very evil the new law would ban once it took effect on Jan. 1, 1808. (Note that the Africans are referred to as “cargo” and “produce.”) This advertisement was published by the City Gazette and Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina) on March 3, 1807:
Prime Congo Slaves
The sale of the ship Aspinal’s cargo, consisting of 300 prime Congo Slaves, will commence on board said ship at Gadsden’s wharf, on Monday, the 13th inst. This cargo is remarkably healthy. Produce will be received in payment at the market price. Apply to William Gray or William Timmons, No. 26, Bay.
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