The Atlantic slave trade usually comes up in American history as a footnote. The slaves came from Africa in miserable conditions. The trade fell into such disrepute that the Founding Fathers prohibited it in the nation’s infancy. The story ends there, though you may hear occasional references to either smugglers continuing the trade or the late antebellum movement to reopen it. As with just about everything, a sea of complications churns just beneath the surface. We neglect them as surplus detail in larger narratives. The action takes places largely away from the United States and before we conventionally begin the story of sectional strife, in an era where we imagine a national consensus against slavery. The story, while not entirely a litany of American sins, frequently demonstrates more national resolution to protect slavery than restrain it.
The Constitution provides that
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.
On the face of it this allows Congress to ban the Atlantic slave trade, and any other international trade in people, beginning in 1808. Already we have a problem for a perfectly celebratory history of the United States, as the law does not require such action. The Congress could decline to act and so leave the trade open in perpetuity. It also must permit the importation of slaves until 1808. In that function, the slave trade clause serves as one of the most proslavery passages in the document. Here we have slavery not tolerated or helped indirectly, such as by the apportionment of the Senate or the 3/5 Clause, nor explicitly preserved where it exists and obligating free states to aid in the institution’s preservation as in the Fugitive Slave Clause. Here the Constitution essentially declares an absolute right to import slaves into the United States for a term of no less than twenty years. South Carolina insisted.
That didn’t mean, however, that states could not prohibit the trade. All of them had during the Revolution and most continued to do so. South Carolina opted to reopen its trade in 1803, to considerable national controversy. Before them, Georgia (until 1798) and North Carolina (1790-4) did the same to less outcry. This human cargo might have reached ten thousand per year and dramatically facilitated the spread of plantation agriculture in Georgia and upcountry South Carolina, and reached further into the emerging Cotton Kingdom. Many enslaved people first taken in Charleston ended up in New Orleans.
This all still tells only part of the story. States could, if they so wished, import slaves for a minimum of twenty years. But the federal government had the explicit power to tax those imports at up to ten dollars a person. On Marcy 13, 1789, thirteen days after George Washington took his oath of office, a another Virginian war veteran, Josiah Parker, started the first argument over slavery in the new Congress. Parker presented his plan in an amendment to a tariff. It went simply enough: if Congress had the power to tax slave imports, it ought to do so to the maximum amount allowed. He explained, according to the Annals of Congress:
He was sorry that the constitution prevented Congress from prohibiting the importation altogether; he thought it a defect in that instrument that it allowed of such a practice; it was contrary to the Revolution principles, and ought not to be permitted; but as he could not do all the good he desired, he was willing to do what lay in his power. He hoped such a duty as he moved for would prevent, in some degree, this irrational and inhuman traffic
Parker gathered opposition from both sections. Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, one of the principals behind the Connecticut Compromise that gave us the familiar bicameral congress, declared his support in principle but
could not reconcile himself to the insertion of human beings as an article of duty, among goods, wares, and merchandise.
Others followed Sherman, either for his reasons or otherwise convinced that Parker proposed making a tariff bill into a slavery bill and so ought to instead introduce the matter on its own. James Jackson of Georgia, went further. Of course a Virginian wanted to curb the slave trade. As “an old settled State,” they had slaves to spare. Indeed, the Old Dominion proved
so careless of recruiting her numbers by this means; the natural increase of her imported blacks was sufficient for their purpose
But Georgia, established in the eighteenth century and still very much a frontier, lacked such advantages. Thus, Jackson
thought the gentleman ought to let their neighbors get supplied, before they imposed such a burthen upon the importation.
Jackson also went positively late antebellum in arguing that enslaving Africans improved their condition and free blacks, lazy by nature, because not solid members of the community so much as “common pickpockets, petty larceny villains”. If emancipation really worked so well, why hadn’t Parker’s Virginia tried it? After having thoroughly done so, Jackson insisted
He would say nothing of the partiality of such a tax; it was admitted by the avowed friends of the measure; Georgia, in particular, would be oppressed. On this account, it would be the most odious tax Congress could impose.
Most odious or not, inserting Parker’s tax into the general tariff bill proved a deal breaker. He withdrew the amendment and, as requested, put forward a separate bill. Four months later, the House opted to postpone consideration of it until the next session. Parker’s idea would come back in the future, but never became law.