Ending The Atlantic African Slave Trade: American Policies (1787-1862)

Figure 1.--

The Federal Government as allowed by the Constitution, outlawed the slave trade (1808). President Jefferson's support was crucial. Abolishing the slave trade proved to be the simplist part of the process. The difficult part was enforcing the law. Virginian James Monroe was elected president in 1816 and presided over the short-lived "Era of Good Feeling". The contentious struggle between Federalists and Republicans were over and the slavery issue was defused with the Missouri Compromise (1820). Monroe had been the U.S. Ambassador to Britain at the time of Chesapeake-Leopard affair. He had as a result become familiar with naval affairs. After Congress passed the Slave Trade Act (1819), Monroe ordered the small U,S. Navy "to seize all vessels navigated under our flag engaged in that trade." [Hagan, 93-94.] The Navy dispatched five ships to African waters (January 1820-August 1821). , beginning with the frigate Cyane. She was followed by the brig Hornet, frigate John Adams, and schooners Alligator and Shark, both fast 200-ton Baltimore clipper types, 86 feet long, mounting 12 guns, with crews of 70, which were well suited for running down slave ships. The numbers of Africans freed, however, were limited, primarily because of diplomatic reasons. Those freed from the slavers were transported to the American Colonization Society in what was to become Liberia. The Amercan squadron was recalled in 1824 and did not return to West Africa until 1843.

Contitutional Convention (1787)

Slavery was an issue that could not be resolved at the Constitution Convention (1787). There was agreement on a provision to end the slave trade. The new Constitution declared a provision giving the Federal Government the authority to end the slave trade after a 20-year period. The Constitution does not use the term slavery, but there are provisions in the Constitution that recognized slavery. A curious arrangement was written in to the Constitution by which for voting purposes slaves would be counted as 3/5s of a person. Many delegates believed or at least hope that slavery would gradually die out as individuals states abolished it. While the Constitution recognized slavery, it did not authorize it. Rather the Constitution established the principle that powers not specifically delegated to the Federal Government become the jurisdiction of the states. Thus authority over slavery and voting rights fell under the jurisdiction of each state. And this could only be changed by amending the constitution. And because of the difficult amendment process, the Southern slave states could block any effort to abolish slavery through amending the Constitution.

Abolishing the Slave Trade (1808)

Slavery was an issue that could not be resolved at the Constitution Convention (1787). There was agreement on a provision to end the slave trade. The new Constitution declared a provision to end the slave trade after a 20-year period. Congress after an extensive debate did 20 years later passed the Slave Importation Act (1807). The Act became effective in 1808 and prohibited the further importation of slaves. I am not entirely sure of the politics involved. President Jefferson's support was critical. There were several provisions to the bill, each hotly debated. There was, however, only minimal enforcement by the U.S. Navy which in 1808 was very small. At the time the U,S. Navy was miniscule and President Jefferson opposed naval shipbuilding. Thus the Federal government did not have a substabntial naval force to slave trading. But it was not only the Navy's ability, but the continued support for slavery in the southern states that impaired any effective American action. The Act only affected the slave trade, not slavery itself. Slavery itself was a matter that was the esponsibility of each individual state.


Abolishing the slave trade proved to be the simplist part of the process. The difficult part was enforcing the law. From the onset, the law was essentially not enforced. There was only minimal enforcement by the U.S. Navy which in 1808 was very small. At the time the U,S. Navy was miniscule and President Jefferson opposed naval shipbuilding. Thus the Federal government did not have a substabntial naval force to slave trading. The law was passed during the Napoleonic Wars in Europe which complicated enforcement. The British and French began stopping American vessels and impressing American sailors. This was to eventually lead to the War of 1812. And afterwards it made ccooperation between the United States and Britain to end the slave trade very difficult. But the most difficult problem was that so many people in both North and South benefitted from the trade. Even if the Navy managed to seize a slaver, the U.S. courts mostly refused to convict. It was also the continued support for slavery in the southern states that impaired any effective American action. The American Navy returned to the West African statin, but overall American actions had little impact on the slave trade until the Civil War radically changed American policies (1860s). It was the British Royal Navy that played the major role in ending the Atlantic slave trade.


Responsibility for enforcing the law was at first given to the Secretary of the Treasury. ventuakly it became a task assigned to the Secretary of the Navy. (Unitl after Wotld war II, the Secretary of the Navy was a separate cabinent-level department.) Because of the international complications, the Secretary of State also had some responsibility.

Violations of the Law

As there was no real eforcement of the law for several years, interests in both the North and South violated the law with impunity. Substantial numbers of Africans continued to be imported into the Unites States. The trade was driven underground, but eforcement was so slight that it did not hace to go very far underground. In later years southern slave interests would complain biterly about the Underground Railroad operated by abolitionists and free blacks. One historian points out that the first underground railroad was not the one operated by abolitionoists, but the one operated by slave interests to import more Africans into American slavery. [Franklin, p. 154.]

American Colonization Society (1816)

The American Colonization Society (ACS) was proposed by Robert Finley (1816). The Society had quite an illusrtrious list of founders, including James Monroe, Bushrod Washington, Andrew Jackson, Francis Scott Key, and Daniel Webster. Henry Clay presided over the first meeting at the Davis Hotel (December 1916). A Constitution wa adopted a week later. It was created to established a collony in West Africa where freed slaves could be resettled. There were at the time about 2.0 million blacks in Americ. Most were slaves in the southern states, but about 10 percent or 0.2 million were free persons. Ironically two very different groups were involved in the Society. One group was composed mostly of northern philanthropists (clergy and abolitionist) who wanted to free African slaves and allow them to return to Africa. For this group slavery was a strongly felt moral issue. Most of these philanthropists believe that freed slaves could not be assimilated into white society. Many saw blacks as inferior. Ohers like Hemry Clay saw white prejudice as a problem to assimilation. Thus the best solution was to promote ressettlement in Africa. The other group was the slave owners themselves. They did not want to free their slaves, but even in the South there were blacks that had obtained their freedom. Slaveowners saw the freed slaves as a pontential danger. Noted slave owner John Randolph labeled free blacks as "promoters of mischief. Thus they wanted to forcibly deport free blacks back to Africa. The Society set out to raise money for the project by selling memberships. They pressured both Congress and the President for money. Congress appropriated $100,000 (1819) which provided the finds needed to launch the project. The first ship, the Elizabeth, sailed from New York to West Africa. Aboard were three white ACS agents and 88 black emigrants (January 1820). The ship arrived at Freetown, Sierra Leone and then sailed south to what was to become Liberia. The ACS agents and 22 of the blacks quickly sucummed to yellow fever. The disheartened survivorss returned to Sierra Leone and waited for another ACS ship. The Nautilus made two voyages (1821). They managed to establish a settlement at Mesurado Bay on Perseverance Island. Most os the settlers were free-born blacks, who had never experinced slavery and had no memory of Africa. The Africans already living in the area opposed the expansion of the settlment and armed conflct resulted. Over te ensuing decade, 2,638 African-Americans migrated to the ACS settlement. The ACS also agreed to accept the Afticans freed from slavers. The ACS colony gradualy developed a viable ecomomy. The goverment was at first adng the next 20 years the colony continued to grow and establish economic stability, leading to the creation of the independent state of Liberia. Since the establishment of the colony, the ACS employed white agents to govern the colony. Joseph Jenkins Roberts became the first non-white governor of Liberia (1842). The legislature of Liberia declared itself an independent state (1847). J.J. Roberts was elected the first President.

President James Monroe (1817-25)

Virginin James Monroe was elected president in 1816 and presided over the short-lived "Era of Good Feeling". The contentious struggle between Federalists and Republicans were over. The slavery issue was not yet seen as a threat to the Republic. Obly toward the end of his first term did the slavery issue errupt with the Missouri statehood crisis (1919-20). Congress was, however, able to defuse it with the Missouri Compromise (1821). The President had not played a major role in fshioning the Missouri Compromise, but he willingly supportd it after it was passed by Congress. Monroe had been the U.S. Ambassador to Britain at the time of Chesapeake-Leopard affair. He had as a result become familiar with naval affairs.

Slave Trade Act (1819)

American policies on the slave trade were confused and often contradictory. The Federal Government had no authority to act on slavery. It did had the right to act on the slave trade. The U.S. Comgress passed the Slave Trade Act (1819). Congress in the Act gave President James Monroe the authority to use the U.S. Navy to end the slave trade. Congress also approved the creation of Liberia as a place where freed slaves could be returned to Africa. Congress next approved an amendment which equated slave trading with piracy, a stiff provision because piracy was punishable by death. The problem with these stiff-sounding measures was that the U.S. Navy was very small and did not have the ability to effectively patrol American waters, let alone African waters. And Ameeicans were strongly oppsed to giving the Royal Navy the right to inspect American vessels. The War of 1812 had been fought in part over the Royal Navy stopping American-flag vessels and impressing American sailors. Senator James DeWolfe of Rhode Island sponsored an amendment prohibiting Royal Navy searches. (Rhode Island was a major maritime state and slaving had been an important maritime activity. Dewolfe was himself a former slasver.) The abolition movement in America was not yet important in the North and slavery was a matter of law throughout the South. Nothing so exempified American attitudes than an exchange between the British Foreign Minister and American Secretary of State (and future president) John Quincy Adams in 1822. The Foreign Minister asked Secretary Adams if he could think of anything more atrocious than the slave trade. Adams, no friend of Adams, shot back, "Yes. Admitting the right of search by foreign officers of our vessels upon the seas in time of peace; for that would be making slaves of ourselves." [Booth, p. 81.]

Missouri Compromise (1820-21)

Subsequent American history after the ratification of the Constitution was a series of compromises meant to difuse the issue of slavery. The centerpiece of this effort was the Missouri Compromise (1821). Northern states had abolished slavery or were in the process of doing so. Many had thought that slavery would gradually disappear of its own accord. This had happened in the north, but the development of the cotton gin had given a new live to slavery in the South. Northerners began to see that the admission of more slave states would simply worsen the problem. The first in a series of sectional crisis occurred when Missouri applied for admission to the Union as a slave state. Many northern Congressmen opposed the admission of another slave state. from the North did not want another slave state. Maine in the asked to be admitted to the Union as a free state. Southern Congressman demanded the admission of Missouri in exchange for their support for admitting Maine. The result was the Missouri Compromise. This allowed Missouri to come into the Union as a slave state and Maine would be a free state. Congress also agreed to draw a line in the remaining territory acquired in the Louisana Purchse. That line was the southern border of Missouri. This line would be the border between free and slaves states. Any new state entering the Union that was south of the line could be a slave state. Any state north of the line would have to enter the Union as a free state. A look of the map of the Louisana Purchase shows that free states would be the real bulk of the Western territories at the time. Henry Clay's role in arranging the Missouri Compromise earned him the title, the Great Compromiser.

President Monroe and Slavery

James Monroe was a governor of Virginia (1799-1802) before persuing diplomatic assignments for President Jefferson. He was frced to suppress a slave rebellion shortly after taking office--Gabriel's slave conspiracy (1800). Monroe like the other Virginia presidents whic receeded him (Wshington, Jfferson, and Madison) saw slavery as a necessary evil. Heeven sought to deport sime of the participants rather than execute them. Over 30 participants were eventually hanged. It is believed that Monroe believed slavery should eventually be abolished, although because of the sensitivity of the issue did not write extensively about it. The Era of Good Feelings which was proclaimed during Monroe's first years as president quickly disapted as a result of the Missouri statehood crisis (1819-20). American political leadrs were shocked by depth of sectional hostility which surfaced. The Crisis was resolved by Congress. Jeffersonian Democratic-Republican doctrine did not provide for the President to attempto direct Congressional deliberations. President Monroe did strongly support the Missouri Compromise when passed by Congress. Monroe like many southeners did not think the Missouri Compromise sprang from northern concern over the welfare of slaves. Rather he saw it as Federalist and some Democratic-Republicans plot to split the Democratic-Republicans into northern and southern factions. In particular he suspected the motives of Governor DeWitt Clinton of New York.

American Anti-slave Operations: Naval Operations on the West African Station (1820-24)

The first significant American naval anti-slave trade operations were conducted by the Monroe Administration. After Congress passed the Slave Trade Act (1819), President Monroe ordered the small U,S. Navy "to seize all vessels navigated under our flag engaged in that trade." [Hagan, 93-94.] The Navy dispatched five ships to African waters (January 1820-August 1821). The first ship deployed was the frigate Cyane. Soon after the brig Hornet, the frigate John Adams, and the schooners Alligator and Shark. Both these scoomers were fast 200-ton Baltimore clippers. They were 86 feet long and carried 12 guns with a crew of 70 men. The speed and armament of these ships made them well suited for seizing slave ships.

American Slavers (1820s-40s)

The withdraw of the American squadron from West African waters made it impossible for the Royal Navy to interdict American-flag slavers. Without a treaty granting the Royal Navy the right to stop and search American-flag vessels, the Royal Navy was powerless to act even though the slave trade (but not slavery itself) was illegal in America. The Royal Navy was the only real threat to the slavers. The fledgling American Navy was much less f athreat because of its small size. But even this threat was delat with by obtaining Spanish papers. The American flag protected them from the Royl Navy. If an American naval vessel spotted them, they would hoist the Spanish flag and produce Spanish registration papers. They might even carry a few Spanish speaking crew members.

The Amistad Affair (1839)

Portuguese slavers loaded a cargo of 500 captive Africans on the slaver Teçora at Lomboko on the Gallinas River in modern Sierra Leone (April 1839). They managed to elude Royal Navy patrols. The ship's records note that about 200 of the captive Africans perished during the 2 month voyage. The slavers landed their surviving cargo at Havana, Cuba for sale to sugar planters. At Havana 49 adult Mende tribesmen and four children from the Tecora were secretely loaded on the schooner Amistad. They were to be delivered to Puerto Principe for labor on sugar plantations. [Jones] The Africans led by Joseph Cinqué managed, however, to seize control of the ship. The slavers were kille exceot for two men who the Africans needed to sail and navigate the vessel. They demanded to be taken back to their homes in Africa. They knew nothing about sailing and the ship’s navigator deceived them about their course. Strangely rather than putting into a southern port, he ploted a course north along the coast of the United States to Long Island, New York. There the schooner was seized by the U.S. Navy. The Africans who were described as Cubans were judged to be salvage and were transported to Connecticut to be sold as slaves. The Van Buren Administration mindful of the need to carry the Southern states in the up coming 1840 election attempted to return the Africans to Cuba. The issue became more complicated when it was discovered that they were not Cubans, but Africans. While slavery itself was legal in the United States and Cuba, the slave trade was illegal. This thus called into question the status as slaves. The ensuing court proceedings and diplomatic maneuverings that resulted energized the fledgling abolitionist movement in the United States. Former president John Quincey Adams took up the cause of defending the Africans. The First Congregational Church, Thomaston, Connecticut raised money for the Amistad captives (1840). After the Amistad Africans had been returned home, First Congregational and other churches formed the American Missionary Association. The Amistad Affair was of enormous importance. Whike it involved only 53 captive Africans, it proved to be the turning point which helped transform the American Abolitionist Movement from a fringe movement seen as extremists to an increasingly mainstream social movement--at least in the North.

Renewed Anti-Slavery Operations (1843-62)

The United States deployed a naval squadron off West Africa to cooperate with the Royal Navy in ening the slave trade. For a range of reasons including both lack of commitment at home and diplomatic problems, the American sqandon had little impact. The squadorn was withdrawn in 1824 and for nearly two decades the United States was absent from the West African station. American participation was brought up again in the negotiatins over the Webster-Ashburton Treaty (1842). The U.S. Navy returned to the West African Station under command of navalmluminary Commodore Matthew C. Perry (1843). The mission did not, however, focus exclusively on interdicting slvers and the results reflected this.

American Commitment to Ending the Slave Trade

Clearly the orders given by sucessive secretaries of the Navy did not encourage the commanders of the American squandron to focus on the slave trade. The orders issued commonly focused on "all violations of the rights and laws of fair trade" rather than ending the slave trade. This probably reflects the fact that several presidents from 1842-1862 were either souterners (including slave holders) or embattle presidents attempting to hold the Union together, in part by placating Southern slave holders. The presidents were: Tyler (Virginia, 1841-45), Polk (Tennessee, 1845-49), Taylor (Virginia/Kentucky, 1849-50), Fillmore (New York, 1850-53), Pierce (New Hampshire, 1853-57), and Buchanan (Pennsylvania, 1857-61). Clearly with a country careening toward disolution and possibke civil war, presidents were not anxious to stoke seceesionist sentiment. There were also nine secretaries of the Navy during this period. Seven were southern and sympathetic to slave interests. Thus their commitment to ending the slave trade was limited. And Isaac Toucey born in Connecticut was openly pro slavery. The only resolutely anti-slavery secretary of the Navy during this period was George Bancroft. One of the southern secretries, William Graham, recommended disbanding the American squadron. This would have left only the Royal Navy's Brazil Squadron and Home Squadron to intercept the slavers as they tried to reach South and North American ports.

Southern Attitudes toward the Slave Trade

Southern attitudes toward the slavectrade are not a simple as may be imagines. The U.S. Contitution called for ending theslave trade and this was done as soon as the appropriate time period wasreached (1807). Thus the ilegality od the slave trade was ehnsired in the Contitution and Congressionaln statute. Thus American presidents and naval sectrtaries were obligated to end the slave tradecno matter what their personal opinions about it and slavery. And not all all southeners or even slve holders supported the slave trade. A southerner, Henry A. Wise, serving as U.S. minister to Brazil was fervently opposed to the slave trade. Wise wrote to the State Department about the sale of American vessels to Portuguese slavers in Rio de Janeiro, at the time the capital of the Portuguese colony. He wrote, "I beseech -- I implore the President of the United States to take a stand on this subject. You have no conception of the bold effrontery and the flagrant outrages of the African slave trade. ... every patriot in our land would blush for our country, did he know and see, as I do, how our own citizens sail and sell our flag to the uses and abuses of that accursed traffic." (February 18, 1845) [Hill, pp. 127-28.] Wise proceeded to seize one of the ships. The State Department reprimanded him. There were other reasons why Southerners were not as committed to the slavec radec as slavery itself. The trade was not needed to perpetuate the slave system in the South. Slave breeding operaions in the eastern seaboard states Like Virginia) and the border states to supply the slaves needed on the cotton plantations of the Deep South. And new imported slaves helped to reduce the value of the existing slaves. Many slave owners were pleased to see scarityraise the value oif their slaves. It was the new, expanding plantations that wanted cheaper slaves.

American Slave Trade (1850s)

While the United States abolished the slave trade (1807), this did not mean that the slave trade ended. American Navy and especially the Royal Navy as accounted above did gradually reduce the Trans-Atlabntic Slave Trade. Slave ships we know did continue to arrive in America, both directlt from Africa and from the Caribbean, especiallt from Cuba after the British abolished first the slave trade (1807)and then slavery itself (1833-34). Most scholars believe that from the aboliton of the slave trade (1807) that American slavery was primarily conytinued through an internal slave trade. There were some illegal slaves brought in from overseas. We think that the numbers were relatively small. This was not because rthe Federal Government strictly enforced the laws, but because the mere existence of the laws and the covert sales made Trans-Atlantic operations expensive and thus unprofitable. And America's maritime fleet was largely operated by northeasterners and not southeners. The actual numbers are not, however, known with any certainty because of the covert nature of the enterprise. The last known Trans-Atlantic slave trip to the Inited Stsates occurred just before the Civil War--the Clotilda. It brought 110 childrenand young adults (5-23 years of age to Alabama (July 1860). [Diouf] The voyage is of special interest because detailed documentation exidsts on both the voyage and the subsequent lives of the Africans in America. The enterprise was organized by Timothy Meaher, a Mobile businessman, contracted the Clotilda to sail to Ouidah in the Bight of Benin. He bet that he could "bring a shipful of niggers right into Mobile Bay under the officers' noses." The circumstances suggest that it was not difficult to bring slaves into the southern stsates at the time, but also it was not being done very commonly, or obviousky no one would have taken the bet.


Booth, Alan R. "The United States African Squadron, 1843-1861," Boston University Papers in African History, vol. 1, Jeffrey Butler, ed. (Boston: Boston University Press, 1964).

Cummings, J.S. Manuscript journal, USS John Adams (Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport).

Diouf, Sylviane. Dreams of Africa in Alabama: Story of the Last Africans.

Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (Vintage Books: New York, 1969), 686p.

Hagan, Kenneth J. This People’s Navy: The Making of American Seapower (New York: Free Press, 1991).

Hill, L.E. Diplomatic Relations Between the United Stales and Brazil (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1932).

Jones, Howard. Mutiny on the Amistad.

Labaree, Benjamin W. et. al. America and the Sea: A Maritime History (Mystic: Mystic Seaport, 1998).

Lynch, William E. "Naval Life; or Observations Afloat and on Shore" (New York: Charles Scribner, 1851).

Soulsby, Hugh G. The Right of Search and the Slave Trade in Anglo-American Relations, 1814-1862 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933).


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Created: 5:05 AM 4/29/2006
Last updated: 8:14 PM 7/24/2012