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.
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.
The Constitutional Convention largely side stepped the issue of slavery in the new Federal Constitution. As powers vested in the Federal Government has to be specifically enumerated, the question of slavery became a state matter. The Constitution did contain two provisions on slavery. First slaves were to partially counted in determining the apportionment of Congressmen and thus presidential electors. This in effect gave extra voting power to slave states. Second, the Federal Goverment was authorized to end the African slave trade in 1807. The abolitionist movement in the north had already begun to grow at the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified. And it gradually grew in importance leading to abolition in the original northern colonies and the new states formed in the Northwest Territory. Slavery did not, however, emerge as a major national issue until after the War Of 1812 when the number of free states began to outmumber the number od slave states making the slaves states a minority in the Senate. The debate in the Congress over Missouri statehood brought out some empassioned speeches for and against slavery. Movements were a foot to abolish slavery in the northern states and more criticim was being directed at the South's "peculiar institution". Representative Livermore (New Hampshire) asked "How long will the desire for wealth render us blind to the sin of holding both the bodies and souls of our fellow men in chains?" The Abolitionist movement in America was built around Protestant churches in the northern states. At first Quakers were the most prominent voice, but other religious groups in the North also began to question slavery. Southern churches, however, saw no religious problem with slavery.
While some northern states prohibited slavery, slavery was by now means disappearing in the southern states. Cotton was proving to be a valuable crop and more slaves were needed for cotton plantations as settlers moved into the territories west of the Appalachins. Here southerners were divided. One historian explains, "The slave interests found themselves in a curious dilemma. They feared the wholesale importation of raw and unruly Negroes from Africa or the revolutionary and resourcefuk Negroes from the Caribbean. On the otherhand, they were in desperate need of a larger number of slaves to cultivate the cotton that was now in great demand. The practicality, if not the venality, of the merchants and plsanters compeled them to decide in favor of continued importation, hoping that the safeguards erected by the national and state governmentds would stem any tide of insurection that might develop in the United States." [Franklin, pp. 152-53.]
President Jefferson was a Virginian and a slave holder. His views on slavery were equivocal. His writings indicate thathe saw blacks as inferior. He believed, however, that slavery was evil, but did not know how to address it. Politically his hands were tied by the power of the slave interests. Personally his financial situation depended on slave labor. And he never freed his slaves. We also now know he was willing to take advantage of a least one young girl--Sally Hemmings. While Jeffereson did not act against slavery, he did take the step that was politically possible--abolishing the slave trade as permitted under the Constitution. The American Government at the time was led by Congress and the Presidency was a less important office than it is today, but President Jefferson did mention in his State of the Union message to Congress that the date specified in the Constitution after which the slave trade could be prohibited was approaching (December 2, 1806). And Jefferson even attached some urgency so that slave expeditions that could not be completed before that date could be stopped.
Congressmen began introducing bills to end the slave trade when the Contitutionally-set time frame was reached. Senenator Bradley of Vermonr introduced the first such bill in the Senate (1805). Congressman Bidwell of Massachusetts intriduced a similar bill to the House of Representatives (1806). These bills got little attention. President Jefferson's message, however, generated considerable attention. There were several provisions to the bill, each was hotly debated. The debate and eventual vote was largely sectional in nature. Some southern Congressmen were definatly opposed to some of the provisions. [Franklin, p. 154.]
Congress after an extensive debate passed the Slave Importation Act (March 2, 1807), precisely after the 20 years period set by the Constitution. I am not sure what the votes were in the two houses.
The Act became effective in January 1, 1808 and prohibited the further importation of slaves. Fines wre specified. Buying illegally imported slaves was punished by a $800 fine. Equipping a slave vessel bought a fine of $20,000. Very few people were procecuted and even fewer found guilty despite widespread viloation of the law. The desposition of Africans found to be imported illegally was left up to each state. This required states to pass supplemental state laws. Some of the southern sates did so, others did not. The domestiv coastal slave trade was also prohibited, but an exception was made for small vessels (less than 40 tons). [Franklin, pp. 153-54.]
I am not entirely sure of the politics involved. Southern Congressmen were a minority in the House, but the division was very close in the Senate. Here the principle of unlimited debate was becoming established, but the fiibuster, an extra-constitutional accident of Senate, had not yet been established. Both the House and Senate began work in 1789 with a measure called a "previous question motion". This meant that only a simple majority was needed to cut off debate. The House has kept this rule. The Senate dropped it in a housecleaning measure without the members fully understanding the parlimentary implications (1806). [Binder]
Thus legislative issues were still being could be settled by simple majorities, not the super-majority 3/5s vote that would subsequently be necessaey to invoke clocture in the Senate. Thus the Southern slave interests could not block passsage without some northern support. Here President Jefferson's support was critical.
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. 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. 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.
The Act only affected the slave trade, not slavery itself. Slavery itself was a matter that was the responsibility of each individual state.
Binder, Sarah A. Politics or Principle: Filibustering in the United States Senate.
Franklin, John Hope. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of Negro Americans (Vintage Books: New York, 1969), 686p.
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