Sat 4 Aug, 2007
Tags: 1808, Abolition, Legislation, Slave trade, Thomas Jefferson
I congratulate you, fellow citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may … constitutionally … withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights … which the morality, the reputation, and the best of our country have long been eager to proscribe.
— President Thomas Jefferson, in his annual message to Congress, Dec. 2, 1806
With these words, President Thomas Jefferson proposed abolishing the U.S. slave trade, effective on January 1, 1808, when the constitutional prohibition on outlawing the trade expired. Within four months, both the U.S. and Britain had passed historic legislation outlawing their trade in human cargo.
On January 1, 2008, the U.S. will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade. At least, it may do so. Despite legislation pending in the U.S. House of Representatives, it isn’t clear whether the U.S. will officially acknowledge, much less pause to observe, this early milestone on the road to abolition and racial equality.
For the first twenty years of its history, the United States was bound not to restrict the slave trade to its shores because of a compromise reached at the constitutional convention of 1787.1 A year before the compromise was to expire, Jefferson — who held an ambiguous position on slavery but had fought long and hard to end the slave trade — took a dramatic stance in favor of the total abolition of the slave trade. The very next day, on December 7, 1806, a bill to this effect was introduced in Congress, and after heated debate, the legislation was passed. Jefferson himself signed the bill into law on March 2, 1807.
Beginning in January 1808, the U.S. began to enforce this prohibition along its shores, as well as station naval squadrons along the African coast from time to time to search for offenders. Prior to the Civil War, the record of U.S. enforcement of the trade ban was decidedly mixed, and substantial illegal trading took place. But the outlawing of the slave trade by both the U.S. and Britain marked a major milestone in the fight against slavery. The ban restricted the growth of slavery and limited its spread within the new border states, which would affect support for the North and South during the Civil War. The prohibition also encouraged the growing abolitionist movement, lead to the view that slave trading was a crime against all nations, and helped to make slavery itself increasingly unthinkable during the course of the 19th century.
Yet the abolition of the British slave trade is far better known. The story of William Wilberforce, Olauda Equiano, Thomas Clarkson and other British abolitionists has been powerfully brought to our movie screens recently in the film Amazing Grace. And the United Kingdom is commemorating this bicentennial with leadership from the prime minister and the queen, with £20 million ($40 million) for exhibits and events; and with conferences, school program, stamps and coins.
Why isn’t the history of the U.S. abolition of the slave trade better known? In part, I think it is because we tend naturally to focus on the cataclysmic events of the Civil War and the abolition of chattel slavery in the South which accompanied that bloody struggle.
But the story runs deeper. To tell the story of the slave trade is to depart from the traditional narrative of Southern slavery and to tell the story of Northern ships, carrying Northern trade goods, with Northern financing and the involvement of thousands of ordinary, hard-working citizens. This is the story told in my family’s documentary, Traces of the Trade, and it raises troubling questions about the legacy of slavery for white and black Americans today.
On January 1, 1808, Absalom Jones delivered a sermon that issued a call:
Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of publick thanksgiving.
In response, free black communities throughout the antebellum North appropriated New Year’s Day as a black Fourth of July.
I believe that the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade presents a historic opportunity to set the record straight: to reject the myth of Northern innocence and sole Southern guilt, and to tell a more nuanced history of ordinary people, and an entire nation, caught in the grip of a peculiar – and dreadful – institution. We can look around the world today and face the challenge of ending the forms of slavery that still exist. And we can rededicate ourselves to the sacred work of tackling the many legacies of slavery that have, in one way or another, shaped all Americans.
- “The Migration or Importation of such Persons … shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight.” U.S. Constitution, Art. I, sec. 9. [↩]