As I’ve noted previously, this year marks the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the U.S. slave trade. Thomas Jefferson’s ban on the slave trade on U.S. ships, and to U.S. ports, took effect on January 1, 1808. And Britain’s own ban, which was enacted mere weeks after Jefferson signed the U.S. prohibition into law, took effect a few months earlier.

Despite the significance of the abolition of the trade—encouraging the movement to abolish slavery itself, restricting the growth of slavery in old and new territories in the U.S., affecting the balance of the U.S. Civil War, and promoting the development of international human rights norms—this historical milestone has been widely celebrated in the U.K., while receiving far less attention here in the U.S.

I’ll be attending one event next week which commemorates the bicentennial: a symposium on “Abolition and the Road to Freedom: the 200th Anniversary of the Slave Trade Act of 1808.” This conference will be held on January 10 at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. (The publication of Tom DeWolf’s book, Inheriting the Trade, has been timed to coincide with the bicentennial and the launch event will take place the evening before.)

There are other events, including workshops for teachers, planned this month. And there will occasionally be other conferences and assorted events throughout the year.

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.

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