Slavery in the United States


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We Present Here for your Research and Perusal, an Overview of the History of Slavery.  We Present this Material in Three Parts:

Part I: The Slave Trade: Early Roots in Britain

Part II: Slavery in the US

Part II: The Fugitive Slave Law

Part IV: Emancipation Proclamation

Part V: Missouri Compromise

Slavery and the Framing of the U.S. Constitution

The question of prohibiting the African slave-trade by a provision in the national Constitution caused much and warm debate in the convention that framed that instrument. A compromise was agreed to by the insertion of a clause (art. I., sec. 9, clause 1) in the Constitution, as follows: "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." The idea of prohibiting the African slave-trade, then warmly advocated, was not new. In 1774 the Continental Congress, while releasing the colonies from other provisions of the AMERICAN ASSOCIATION , had expressly resolved " that no slave be imported into any of the United States." Delaware, by her constitution, and Virginia and Maryland by special laws, had prohibited the importation of slaves. Similar prohibitions were in force in all the more northern States; but they did not prevent the merchants of those States from carrying on the slave-trade elsewhere, and already some New England ships were engaged in a traffic from the African coast to Georgia and South Carolina. These States were forgetful of or indifferent to the pledges they had made through their delegates in the face of the world by their concurrence in the Declaration of Independence, and seemed fully determined to maintain not only the slave system of labor, but the nefarious slave-trade. North Carolina did not prohibit the traffic, but denounced the further importation of slaves into the State as " highly impolitic," and imposed a heavy duty on future importations.

On the demand of Henry Laurens, of South Carolina, who entered into the negotiations for a preliminary treaty of peace, at a late hour, a clause in the treaty (1782) was interlined, prohibiting, in the British evacuation, the " carrying away any negroes or other property of the inhabitants." So this treaty of peace, in which no word had, excepting indirectly, indicated the existence of slavery in the United States, made known to the world that men could be held as property.

The legislature of Connecticut, early in 1784, passed an act that no negro or mulatto child born within that State after March 1 that year should be held in servitude longer than until the age of twenty-five years.

Plantation slaves

Plantation Slaves in the South

In 1788 the captain of a vessel in Boston seized three colored persons, took them to the West Indies, and sold them there for slaves. This event caused the legislature of Massachusetts to pass a law to prevent the slave-trade in that State, and for granting relief to the families of such persons as may be kidnapped or decoyed from the commonwealth. The law subjected to a heavy penalty any person who should forcibly take or detain any negro for the purpose of transportation as a slave, and the owner of the vessel in which such kidnapped man should be carried away incurred, also, a heavy penalty. The insurance on the vessel was made void; and the relatives of the person kidnapped, if the latter were sold into slavery in a distant country, were allowed to prosecute for the crime.

On May 12, 1789, a tariff bill having been reported to Congress, and being under discussion on the question of its second reading, Parker, of Virginia, moved to insert a clause imposing a duty of $10 on every slave imported. " He was sorry," he said, " the Constitution prevented Congress from prohibiting the importation altogether. It was contrary to revolutionary principles, and ought not to be permitted." A warm debate ensued. It called forth the opposition of South Carolinians and Georgians particularly. Jackson, of Georgia, made a vehement speech in opposition, in the course of which he said he hoped the proposition would be withdrawn, and that if it should be brought forward again it would comprehend " the white slaves as well as the black imported from all the jails of Europe—wretches convicted of the most flagrant crimes, who were brought in and sold without any duty whatever." This was an allusion to the indentured white servants who were sold by the captains of vessels on their arrival here to pay the cost of their passage, a practice which had been put a stop to by the Revolutionary War, but partially revived. The motion was finally withdrawn.

The Nation Continues to Grapple with the Slavery Issue

In 1804 a provision was inserted into the act organizing the Territory of Orleans, that no slaves should be carried thither, except from some part of the United States, by citizens removing into the Territory as actual settlers, this permission not to extend to negroes introduced into the United States since 1798. The object of this provision was to guard against the effects of an act recently adopted by the legislature of South Carolina for reviving the slave-trade after a cessation of it, as to that State, for fifteen years, and of six years as to the whole Union. This was a consequence of the vast increase and profitableness of cotton culture, made so by Whitney's cotton-gin.

On Feb. 15, 1804, the legislature of New Jersey, by an almost unanimous vote, passed an act to abolish slavery in that State by securing freedom to all persons born there after July 4 next ensuing, the children of slave parents to become free, masculine at twenty-five years of age, feminine at twenty-one.

Slave Cabin

A Slave Cabin

The rapid extension of settlements in the Southwest after the War of 1812-15, and the great profits derived there from the cultivation of cotton, not only caused the revival of the African slave-trade, in spite of prohibitory laws, but it gave occasion to a rival domestic slave-trade, of which the national capital had become one of the centers, where it was carried on by professional slave traders. They bought up the slaves of impoverished planters of Maryland and Virginia, and sold them at large profits in the cotton-growing districts of the South and West. This new traffic, which included many of the worst features of the African slave-trade, was severely denounced by John Randolph, of Virginia, as " heinous and abominable, inhuman and illegal." This opinion was founded on facts reported by a committee of inquiry. Gov. D. R. Williams, of South Carolina, denounced the traffic as " remorseless and cruel "; a " ceaseless dragging along the streets and highways of a crowd of suffering victims to minister to insatiable avarice," condemned alike by " enlightened humanity, wise policy, and the prayers of the just." The governor urged that it had a tendency to introduce slaves of all descriptions from other States, "defiling the delightful avocations of private life" " by the presence of convicts and male-factors." The legislature of South Carolina passed an act forbidding the introduction of slaves from other States. A similar act was passed by the Georgia legislature. This legislation was frequently resorted to on occasions of alarm, but the profitable extension of cotton cultivation and the demand for slave labor overcame all scruples. Within two years after its passage the prohibitory act of South Carolina was repealed. The inter-State slave-traffic was carried on extensively until slavery was abolished in 1863. A Richmond newspaper, in 1861, urging Virginia to join the Southern Confederacy, which had prohibited the traffic between them and States that would not join them, gave as a most urgent reason for such an act that, if it were not accomplished, the " Old Dominion " would lose this trade, amounting annually to from $13,000,000 to $20,000,000.

Slave Cabin Interior

Interior of a Slave Cabin

When Admiral Cockburn began his marauding expedition on the American coast in the spring of 1813, he held out a promise of freedom to all slaves who should join his standard. Many were seduced on board his vessels, but found themselves wretchedly deceived. Intelligence of these movements reached the plantations farther south, and, in the summer of 1813, secret organizations were formed among the slaves to receive and cooperate with Cockburn's army of liberation, as they supposed it to be. One of these secret organizations met regularly on St. John's Island, near Charleston. Their leader was a man of great sagacity and influence, and their meetings were opened and closed by singing a hymn composed by that leader—a sort of parody of Hail Columbia. The following is the last of he three stanzas of the hymn alluded to:

.. Arise! arise ! shake off your chains!

Your cause is just, so Heaven ordains ;

To you shall freedom be proclaimed !
Raise your arms and bare your breasts,

Almighty God will do the rest.
Blow the clarion's warlike blast ;
Call every negro from his task ;
Wrest the scourge from Buckra's hand,

And drive each tyrant from the land !
" Firm, united let us be.
Resolved on death or liberty!

As a band of patriots joined,

Peace and plenty we shall find."

They held meetings every night, and had arranged a plan for the rising of all the slaves in Charleston when the British should appear. At one of the meetings the question, " What shall be done with the white people?" was warmly discussed. Some advocated their indiscriminate slaughter as the only security for liberty, and this seemed to be the prevailing opinion, when the leader and the author of the hymn came in and said: " Brethren, you know me. You know that I am ready to gain your liberty and mine. But not one needless drop of blood must be shed. I have a, master whom I love, and the man who takes his life must pass over my dead body." Had Cockburn been faithful to his promises to the negroes, and landed and declared freedom to the slaves of South Carolina, no doubt many thousands of colored people would have flocked to his standard. But he was content to fill his pockets by plundering and carrying on a petty slave-trade for his private gain.

Developing Conflict over American Slavery

On March 13, 1824, articles of convention between the United States and Great Britain were signed at London, by diplomatists appointed for the purpose, providing for the adoption of measures to suppress the African slave-trade. The first article provided that the commanders and commissioned officers of each of the two contracting powers, duly authorized to cruise on the coast of Africa, of America, and of the West Indies, for the suppression of the slave-traffic, were empowered, under certain restrictions, to detain, examine, capture, and deliver over for trial and adjudication by some competent tribunal, any ship or vessel concerned in the illicit traffic in slaves, and carrying the flag of either nation. This convention was signed by Richard Rush for the United States, and by W. Huskisson and Sir Stratford Canning for Great Britain.

On March 6, 1857, Roger B. Taney, chief-justice of the United States, and a majority of his associates in the Supreme Court, uttered an extra-judicial opinion, that any person who had been a slave, or was a descendant of a slave, could not enjoy the rights of citizenship in the United States. Five years afterwards (1862) Secretary Seward issued a passport to a man who had been a slave to travel abroad as " a citizen of the United States." Six years later still (July 20, 1868) the national Constitution was so amended that all persons, of whatever race or color, born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. By the same amendment every civil right was given to every such person. And by a subsequent amendment (1869) it was decreed that " the rights of any of the citizens of the United States, or any State, on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude should not be abridged."

Southern Slave Town

Scene in a Southern Slave Town

By a provision of the national Constitution the foreign slave-trade in the United States was abolished, and Congress declared it to be " piracy." Encouraged by the practical sympathy of the national government, the friends of the slave-labor system formed plans for its perpetuity, which practically disregarded the plain requirements of the fundamental law. They resolved to reopen the African slave-trade. Africans were kidnapped in their native country, brought across the sea, and landed on our shores as in colonial times, and placed in perpetual slavery. In Louisiana, leading citizens engaged in a scheme for legalizing the traffic, under the guise of what they called the African Labor-supply Association, of which James B. De Bow, editor of De Bow's Review, published in New Orleans, was president. His Review was the acknowledged organ of the slave-holders, and wielded extensive and powerful influence when the flames of the Civil War were kindling. In Georgia, negroes from Africa were landed and sold, and when a grand jury at Savannah was compelled by law to find several bills against persons engaged in the traffic, or charged with complicity in the slave-trade, they protested against the law they were compelled to support. " We feel humbled," they said, " as men, conscious that we are born freemen but in name, and that we are living, during the existence of such laws, under a tyranny as supreme as that of the despotic governments of the Old World. Heretofore the people of the South, firm in their consciousness of right and strength, have failed to place the stamp of condemnation upon such laws as reflect upon the institution of slavery, but have permitted, unrebuked, the influence of foreign opinion to prevail." The True Southron, published in Mississippi, suggested the " propriety of stimulating the zeal of the pulpit by founding a prize for the best sermon on free-trade in negroes." This proposition was approved, and pulpits exhibited zeal in the cause. James H. Thornwell, D.D., president of the Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Columbus, S. C., asserted his conviction that the African slave-trade formed the most worthy of all missionary societies. Southern legislatures and conventions openly discussed the subject of reopening the slave-trade. The Southern Commercial Convention, held in Vicksburg, Miss., May 11, 1859, resolved, by a vote of 47 to 16, that " all laws, State or federal, prohibiting the African slave-trade ought to be abolished." It was warmly advocated by several men who became Confederate leaders in the Civil War. The late JOHN SLIDELL, of Louisiana, urged in the United States Senate the propriety of withdrawing American cruisers from the coasts of Africa, that the slave-trade might not be interfered with by them. When, in the summer of 1858, it was known that the traffic was to be carried on actively by the African Labor-supply Association, the British cruisers in the Gulf of Mexico were unusually vigilant, and in the course of a few weeks boarded about fifty American vessels suspected of being slavers. The influence of the slave-holders was brought to bear so powerfully upon the administration that the government protested against what it was pleased to call the " odious British doctrine of the right of search." The British government, for " prudential reasons," put a stop to the practice and laid the blame on the officers of the cruisers.

Plantation Scene

Plantation Scene

On April 7, 1862, a treaty was concluded between the United States and Great Britain for the suppression of the African slave-trade, and signed at the city of Washington, D. C. By it ships of the respective nations should have the right of search of suspected slave-ships; but that right was restricted to vessels of war authorized expressly for that object, and in no case to be exercised with respect to a vessel of the navy of either of the powers, but only as regards merchant vessels. Nothing was done under this treaty, as the emancipation proclamation and other circumstances made action unnecessary.

In his annual message to the Confederate Congress (Nov. 7, 1864), President Davis drew a gloomy picture of the condition of the Confederate finances and the military strength. He showed that the Confederate debt was $1,200,000,000, without a real basis of credit, and a paper currency depreciated several hundred per cent. It had been recommended, as the enlistments and conscriptions of the white people failed to make up losses in the Confederate army, to arm the slaves; but this was considered too dangerous, for they would be more likely to fight for the Nationals than for the Confederates. Davis was averse to a general arming of the negroes, but he recommended the employment of 40,000 of them as pioneer and engineer laborers in the army, and not as soldiers, excepting in the last extremity. " Should the alternative ever be presented," he said, " of a subjugation, or the employment of the slave as a soldier, there seems to be no reason to doubt what should then be the decision "; and he suggested the propriety of holding out to the negro, as an inducement for him to give faithful service, even as a laborer in the army, a promise of his emancipation at the end of the war. These propositions and suggestions disturbed the slave-holders, for they indicated an acknowledgment on the part of " the government " that the cause was reduced to the alternative of liberating the slaves and relying upon them to secure the independence of the Confederacy, or of absolute subjugation. There was wide-spread discontent; and when news of the reelection of President Lincoln, by an unprecedented majority, reached the people, they yearned for peace rather than for independence.




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