We left the First Congress with Josiah Parker’s bill to put a ten dollar per head tax, the constitutional maximum, on slave imports. Parker hoped that the tax would raise the price of newly-imported slaves enough to reduce the demand for them. James Jackson agreed that it just might, and so opposed it to the point of using the kind of radical language one would expect from the later antebellum. He damned Parker for aiming to crush the economy of Georgia, retard its development, and sacrifice it to fix Virginia’s surplus slave problem. Along the way, he lamented the fashion for emancipation. That doesn’t make Jackson into Calhoun’s imitator by anticipation, but it does testify to the existence in the Lower South of at least some committed to perpetual slavery all the way back in the 1790s. The debate ended, for the moment, with Parker’s bill postponed to consideration at a later session.
That’s all interesting in itself, but what happened next undermines a popular myth or two about the founding era much-beloved by the Confederacy’s fans and, on occasion, by the Confederates themselves. The first session of the first Congress ended September 29, 1789. The second began on January 4, 1790. In the interim, the Quakers got busy. They petitioned Congress to do something about the slave trade. Don Fehrenbacher’s The Slaveholding Republic, from which I have this story, quotes them terming it a “licentious wickedness.” Some Southern representatives objected so strenuously that the House tabled the petition rather than refer it to a committee.
So much for that petition. The next day, Congress had a new one. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society did the Quakers one better. The petitioners
earnestly entreat your [Congress’] serious attention to the Subject of Slavery, that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage, and who, amidst the general Joy of surrounding Freemen, are groaning in Servile Subjection, that you will devise means for removing this Inconsistency from the Character of the American People, that you will promote Mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, & that you will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our fellow Men.
The petition ran over the signature of the Society’s president, Benjamin Franklin. Later generations, and some of the then-present generation, would tell you that the founders to a man believed in strictly limited powers for the general government. Alexander Hamilton might think otherwise, but that made him a singularly wicked man. No person should dream to follow the example of such a miscreant. The consensus, everywhere and in everything, was that Congress had limited powers and could not ever stretch beyond them lest tyranny ensue.
And then Ben Franklin writes asking that Congress at the very least read its powers as broadly as it could in order to restrict the slave trade and consequently undermine slavery. His advocacy of broad -maximally broad, in fact- construction in a time allegedly innocent of such things (again excepting Hamilton) deserves noting. The Pennsylvania Abolition Society didn’t just want Congress to do something. They asked Congress to throw the book at the slave trade, possibly invent some new ones to toss along with it. And, explosively, they proposed “the relief of those unlawfully held in bondage.” In other words, Congress had the power to free slaves. It might only reach to those brought into the country illegally, but the federal government would directly emancipate.
This could not go unmarked. Thomas Tudor Tucker, of South Carolina, spoke first. He expressed his amazement at Franklin, “a man who ought to have known the Constitution better.” Tucker
thought it a mischievous attempt, as it respected the persons in whose favor it was intended. It would buoy them up with hopes, without foundation, and as they could not reason on the subject, as more enlightened men would, they might be led to do what they would be punished for, and the owners of them, in their own defence, would be compelled to exercise over them a severity they were not accustomed to.
Franklin would give the slaves crazy ideas and so require the planters to reach new heights of cruelty to keep them subjugated. Did he care nothing for the tender consciences of the men with the whips? Or the slaves, who he proposed to help, who must suffer under them? Think of the slaves, Ben.
Did all of that point toward a general emancipation? Tucker thought it might. The South would never accept that “without a civil war.” Tucker’s impressively named fellow South Carolinian, Aedanus Burke, declared the whole idea unconstitutional. If the House did so much as referred the petition to a committee, it would exceed its powers. Such a thing
would sound an alarm, and blow the trumpet of sedition in the Southern States.
The House listened to all the fiery speeches and voted 43-14 to send the Franklin and Quaker petitions to a select committee appointed by the Speaker, a Pennsylvanian. He declined to name a single Lower South member to that body.
This may not show later-era sectionalism, but we certainly have from the first Congress a profound division over slavery. It might not burn so brightly or split the nation so neatly, but the happy story that the founding generation all agreed that slavery not only would end, but also ought to, takes a well-deserved beating. All the way back then, one could find southerners who wouldn’t even go for vague, indirect, and future schemes of emancipation right there alongside northerners who at least considered measures designed, if indirectly, to attack slavery where it then existed.