1807 - Congress votes to ban slave importation
On this day in 1807, Congress enacted a law to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States ... from any foreign kingdom, place or country.” The ban took effect on Jan. 1, 1808. By the time the lawmakers acted, every state except South Carolina had already abolished the slave trade.
The legislation was promoted by President Thomas Jefferson, who called for its enactment in his 1806 State of the Union address and who had favored acting on the issue since the 1770s. His views reflected the trend toward abolishing the international slave trade, which Virginia, followed by all the other states, had banned, or restricted, since the prior decade. (South Carolina, however, had reopened its trade.)
With a self-sustaining population of more than 4 million slaves already living in slave-owning states, some Southern congressmen joined with Northerners to enact the ban. However, internal slave trading throughout the South remained unimpeded by the legislation. Children of slaves also became slaves, ensuring a growing slave population.
Moreover, historians estimate that up to 50,000 slaves were illegally brought into the United States after 1808, mostly through Spanish Florida and Texas, before those states were admitted to the Union.
In 1820, slave-trading became a capital offense with an amendment to the 1819 Act to Protect the Commerce of the United States and Punish the Crime of Piracy. A total of 74 cases of slaving were brought in the United States from 1837 to 1860, but few ship captains were convicted, and those who were usually received trifling sentences, which they often could avoid.
In 1619, the first African slave ships had arrived in Jamestown, Virginia. In appealing to basic human liberty, the American Revolution against Britain’s King George III, which began in 1776, put the institution of slavery into sharp focus. Many of the Founding Fathers assailed slavery, singling out the slave trade from Africa for condemnation. Several of the founders, however, including Jefferson, George Washington and George Mason, were slave owners.
At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, the slave trade emerged as an acrimonious issue. Finally, a compromise was reached with the Southern states that guaranteed the continuance of the slave trade for 20 years after the adoption of the U.S. Constitution. That deal set the earliest possible expiration date as 1808 — one which Congress met.
Great Britain also banned the African slave trade in 1807. But the trade of African slaves to Brazil and Cuba continued until the 1860s. By 1865, some 12 million Africans had been shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. More than 1 million of them had died from disease and mistreatment during the cruel “Middle Passage” voyage from West Africa. In addition, more many Africans died in periodic slave revolts and in forced marches.