“General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Four

David B. Mitchell

Parts 1, 2, 3, American State Papers (pages 957-75, PDF), Shingleton’s paper (JSTOR)

It didn’t take long for David Brydie Mitchell to put his position as Creek Agent to work for him. He received his appointment from James Monroe on November 4, 1817. By December 8, the first shipment of contraband slaves from Amelia Island had arrived there. I have to this point worked entirely from the American State Papers, but last night discovered that one historian took it upon himself to do more than cite them and move on. Back in 1973, Royce Gordon Shingleton published his version of events in the Journal of Negro History. He had access to the original papers on which William Wirt drew for his report and adds some important information, whilst also wrestling them into a coherent narrative. From him I have it that Bowen set out for Amelia Island on October 18, prior to Mitchell taking up his post as Indian agent. That suggests that Mitchell may have stumbled on a scheme already afoot and insisted on buying in, but he could just as easily have learned about his appointment well in advance and participated from the start. It seems unlikely that the plan’s financiers would have such confidence in him to agree to make good any expenses he called on them for had he just popped in at the last minute.

Either way, Erwin, Groce, & Company of Augusta and Savannah fronted Bowen the $25,000 he used to buy 110 slaves and bring them into the United States in defiance of the 1807 ban on slave importation. Those slaves, in two groups, came and stayed at the Agency for some time. During that time, Mitchell fed them and he and the other partners marked out the ones they claimed for themselves. Mitchell’s share may have come for both services rendered and from a direct investment of embezzled funds meant to support the Creek Nation.

The matter came to the attention of John Clark, soon governor of Georgia, through the Agency’s blacksmith. He found letters in Mitchell’s desk about the business and sent them on. Clark appears to have done much of the subsequent investigation. However, Shingleton’s paper clarified for me the role of General Gaines in the matter. According to him, Mitchell passed through the Agency in early December to attend a meeting of the Creek chiefs. On the return trip through, toward the middle of the month, Mitchell came back to the Agency in the company of General Edmund Pendleton Gaines. Gaines had the job of surveying the boundaries of Indian territory. On seeing all these slaves, he became suspicious. Mitchell did keep slaves he legally owned at the Agency as well, but it seems he kept the imported people separate from them and that stood out to Gaines. Mitchell, as he would when defending himself later, insisted he didn’t know anything about them. Gaines thereafter sent men to make sure those slaves didn’t conveniently vanish.

Per Wirt in the ASP, a

Captain Melvin, of the fourth infantry, states the had observed fifteen of the Africans (the choicest of those brought to the agency by Bowen) building huts and clearing land at the agency, the plantation of General Mitchell

A few days later the Inspector of the Port of Darien, McQueen McIntosh, caught wind of this. He probably found out much like the federal marshal did, when Mitchell offered to sell him some of the slaves. They must have elected governors for their subtlety in those days. McIntosh went out to the agency aiming to seize the contraband slaves and found many of them four days gone toward Alabama with Jared Groce. McIntosh set off in pursuit and overtook Groce and the slaves on the road to Alabama. Groce claimed the slaves as his own, which prompted McIntosh to arrest him. They turned back for the Creek Agency.

McIntosh employed a man named Langham to escort him, but Langham

perfidiously hurried on to the agency for the purpose of giving notice of McIntosh’s approach and intention, enabling those who had charge of the negroes there to put them out of the way.

Mitchell himself had left the agency again, putting it in the hands of his son William. Melvin tipped McIntosh off to that and led him the mile and a half to their huts. McIntosh opted not to take them out of doors in the cold, which had hit the slaves hard, but went to the younger Mitchell and told him to consider the slaves seized. Mitchell fils agreed to that without objection, but didn’t volunteer any information about other slaves. Groce had forty-seven slaves with him. That accounts for sixty-two of the hundred and ten slaves, leaving forty-eight unaccounted for. Five of those probably went off with Long as his payment for helping with the transport, leaving forty-three to slip William Mitchell’s mind.

The slaves had not forgotten their fellows. When McIntosh came for them in the morning, he learned

from the negroes [Wirt’s emphasis] that General Mitchell’s overseer had the night before supplied a great many Africans with provisions, and taken them into the woods; that Captain Melvin himself fell upon their trail, and found about fifteen in the woods, who tried to make their escape, but were apprehended, and the whole thirty were brought to the agency; Captain Mitchell then delivered up eleven small Africans (children, I presume) from the huts in the yard.

Wirt clearly means the fifteen Melvin and McIntosh found in the huts and woods, respectively. So we can account for eighty-two, ninety-three with the children. As McIntosh took them off, William Mitchell followed him down the road a few miles. McIntosh had left behind “two or three” people. I don’t know what to make of this. McIntosh may have genuinely misplaced a few people or Mitchell might have tried to hand over a few more in a desperate bid to deflect suspicion. Regardless, McIntosh came to the Creek Agency expecting to collect fifteen contraband slaves and departed with forty-one.

Discussion of all this came into the letters between Bowen and Mitchell pere that William Moore found in the latter’s desk and sent on to John Clark. Bowen feared that Groce would spill the beans and wrote that he had gotten himself worked up to the point of incoherence, so they needed to do something to shut him up. A letter from Mitchell declaring Groce a bondsman engaged in removing the slaves might do the trick.

Wirt spends the rest of his report discussing the arguments Mitchell and Bowen made in their defense and reporting on Clark’s investigation of the affair. He goes on at considerable length and with diligence, but writes little new for it. To cut his long, rather circuitous story short, the parties told improbable lies, could not keep their stories straight with one another, and none of it withstood scrutiny. He couldn’t prove, to the standards admissable in court, that Mitchell profited from the importation and actively conspired for it, but the evidence supported his having an understanding with Bowen. Even if Mitchell and Bowen didn’t have some kind of arrangement, they clearly entered into one when the slaves arrived at the agency. He concluded:

that General Mitchell is guilty of having prostituted his power, as agent for Indian affairs at the Creek agency, to the purpose of aiding and assisting in a conscious breach of the act of Congress of 1807, in prohibition of the slave trade-and this from mercenary motives.

The presidential inquiry wound down in February of 1821. Monroe reviewed the evidence, agreed with Wirt, and had Secretary of War John C. Calhoun write his pink slip.

That leaves the matter of what happened to the slaves. Wirt devotes some time to discussing whether or not responsibility for them fell to the president under new anti-slave trade laws passed in 1817 and pleads a lack of recent information on the question. According to Shingleton, eighty-eight of them passed into the hands of Georgian authorities for sale. State law required a public notice and period of delay before action, during which the Governor Rabun -Clark did not win the office until November- placed them in households around Milledgeville, the state capital, to provide for their maintenance until the waiting period ran out. They appear to have all passed into private ownership by August, grossing $34,736.18. Expenses reduced that to $27,571.82. Somewhere along the way, twenty-two of the slaves slipped through the cracks. Most probably they ended up just like the rest, but enslaved in Alabama.

Yellow and Red Strings: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Three

David B. Mitchell

David Byrdie Mitchell, late governor of Georgia and present Indian agent, had looked to all the world like a guilty man. Letters and sworn statements, albeit some of the latter hearsay, implicated him in a slave smuggling ring. He didn’t personally bring in contraband slaves, in defiance of the nation’s 1807 ban on importing people, but his employee at the Creek Agency did. That man, William Bowen, had written letters to Mitchell discussing the business in candid terms. Bowen got seed money from the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company. He took that money to Amelia Island on St. Mary’s river, a well-known smuggling hot spot just outside the United States. He claimed to have gone for coffee and sugar, but finding them too expensive bought human merchandise. He took his slaves into Georgia via the St. Mary’s and Flint Rivers up to Mitchell’s agency. There they awaited sale and/or transport elsewhere, probably to Alabama Territory.

Mitchell tried to defend himself. He insisted, truthfully, that Bowen brought the slaves to the Creek Agency while he was away. On receiving news of the slaves, “a SMALL parcel of African negroes” numbering only sixty, Mitchell went back and accused Bowen of importing them. Bowen produced a fake bill of sale to prove that he bought the slaves off a privateer in Georgia, which still left him in defiance of the law. Mitchell then, he says, told Bowen that he needed to get those slaves out of the country. The Indian agent also took time in his statement (page 964) to gripe about the insufficiency of state and national laws against importation, ultimately he

reflected upon the facility with which such an order could be evaded, by just carrying them over the Spanish line, and re-introducing them; and believing, too, that the negroes were actually intended for the use of the parties interested, who, I have no doubt, are large land-holders on the Alabamaby purchase at the recent sales, and not for sale, I declined detaining them.

In Mitchell’s version, all that has come and gone. He did not detain the slaves, so they moved along into Alabama or wherever. Wirt noticed that right off, calling Mitchell out for implying that no contraband slaves remained at the agency. Instead, his explanation to the Secretary of War looked forward to future events. If this happened again, Georgia’s former governor would like advice on how to handle it. Mitchell wrote all of this in a report to the Secretary of the Treasury on the same Christmas day that Bowen wrote to him, with about sixty slaves in residence at the Agency and forty more coming.

Wirt broke it down. At the time of Mitchell’s writing, December 25, 1817, he knew

  1. That those Africans had been unlawfully brought into the United States, and that Bowen’s tale of the purchase in Camden county, from the owner of a privateer who had brought them in, even if true, would not have altered the case. He must, consequently, have known that, under the act of Congress of 1807, neither Bowen, nor those for whom he acted, nor any person claiming under them, could have any right or title whatever to those negroes or to their services.
  2. That certain mercantile houses in Savannah and Augusta were interested in them; and, if Bowen had not previously informed him, the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. by Colonel Morgan, and the visit of that gentlemen to the agency, could not have left him in ignorance of the fact that the house of Erwin, Groce, & Co. was one, at least, of those houses.
  3. He knew that these Africans were intended for Alabama, and to be settled on the lands of those gentlemen in that Territory.
  4. General Mitchell must have known that to carry them  to Alabama was as clear a violation of the act of Congress as to carry them into any one of the United States; for General Mitchell is a man not only of uncommon intelligence and acuteness, but, as it appears by these documents, a lawyer by profession; and his talents, which are manifest, leave no doubt that he was a lawyer of distinction.

Mitchell also tried to claim that he needed to place a bond on the slaves under a confused interpretation of Georgia law on exporting slaves clearly invented for the purpose of excusing himself. Even if that law applied, the responsibility for such bonds lay with the governor.

A business this involved has many stakeholders and they all looked to their investments. A Jared Groce, as in Erwin, Groce, & Company, took forty-seven slaves across the Creek Nation under Mitchell’s passport. James Erwin, as his father Andrew testified, had gotten notes from Bowen for half the slaves. Taking out the five slaves given to Long for his part in the affair, that matches up awfully well.

Mitchell didn’t do all his looking the other way for free, of course. A John Lambert, who worked at the agency as a gardener, swore that he fed the slaves out of Mitchell’s pantry and that he saw Mitchell, his son, Long, Bowen, and others divide up the slaves. The elder Mitchell’s “part was distinguished from the others by a piece of yellow ferret or tape tied in their hair.” John Oliphant, who had helped bring the slaves to the Agency, reported that Bowen and Mitchell gave the slaves regular examinations and that

thirty or thirty-five of said negroes had a red flannel string tied around their wrists, which the witness understood, was to distinguish General Mitchell’s from Mr. Bowen’s”

The difference in marking reflects the two consignments of people. Oliphant speaks specifically of the second group, whereas Lambert left his position at the Agency before they arrived.

Mitchell seems to have gotten his share of the slaves for more than services rendered. Rumors, deemed credible by a federal marshal, circulated that he embezzled money meant for the Creek nation to buy himself a share. That Mitchell tried to sell him some of the slaves may have put the question on the marshal’s radar. He declined unless Mitchell would write out proper deeds for them in his own name, which Mitchell refused. If they wanted that, then they should talk to Bowen. The Creek Agency had nothing at all to do with the smuggled slaves, except that Bowen proved he had not smuggled them and so held the slaves legally. If we departed all good sense and took Mitchell at his word, then that still makes him a man trying to sell someone else’s people.

“It is useless for me to deny it” Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part Two

David B. Mitchell

William Bowen, David Byrdie Mitchell’s employee at the Creek Agency, had quite the close call. He smuggled the last forty-two of his hundred slaves out of Amelia Island less than a week before the United States Navy sailed in and ended its usefulness as a depot for slave smuggling. We might expect a man who claimed that he scared so easily he risked breaking American law by taking his slaves to the Agency instead of Spanish West Florida based on rumors to take that as a lesson and get himself out of slave smuggling. If nothing else, he ought to at least stop doing it around St. Mary’s River.

That same crippling anxiety surely gripped Bowen as he wrote, on Christmas of 1817, that he heard that someone moved group of a hundred sixty contraband slaves off Amelia before the Navy arrived and they remained somewhere nearby on the mainland. We must imagine him rending his garments and weeping as he informed (page 962) Mitchell

excellent bargains could be had in the purchase of those [slaves] that were run off to the main from Amelia.

and furthermore

I would make another purchase, but my other business is too much neglected to take the necessary time to accomplish the security of them.

Also Mitchell’s friend Captain Thomas really ought to have come so he could have gotten in on those profits. Of course Bowen had handed over supervision of his smuggling operation to a Creek named Tobler, who had fake papers indicating that he had bought the slaves in Georgia. That made the trade domestic and legal, or at least someone else’s problem if he got caught.

Bowen parted company with Tobler to tend to some of that neglected business, but two men came across the Creek and his charges. Lodowick Ashley and Jason Brinson later made sworn statements on the matter. They saw Tobler in charge of the slaves and in the company of a white man, John Oliphant. Tobler informed Ashley and Brinson that he owned those forty people. That took place on December 26, 1817, the day after Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing.

Ashley and Brinson went to Drummond’s Landing and found Bowen still there. They told Bowen the slaves might run afoul of army movements. The army would likely have other priorities than rounding up slave smugglers, but if they blundered into a group then they might take action. Bowen tried to hire the two to go and turn the contraband slaves to a safer route. They could have their pick of the slaves so long as they made sure the rest got to the home of a Timothy Barnard or to the Creek Agency.

The witness [Ashley] observed that he should not like to be caught there with the negroes by General Mitchell; to which Bowen replied that he believed General Mitchell was his friend; and that, if the negroes were left or set down in the back part of the agent’s field, it should entitle the witness to the negro before mentioned.

Brinson confirmed all of that. Attorney General Wirt’s report doesn’t say, but it sounds like Ashley and Brinson turned Bowen down.

It might have all ended there, but Bowen sent his letter -the same letter I have quoted from- to Mitchell with Tobler. That letter found its way into Mitchell’s desk, where the Agency blacksmith. There William Moore, found it along with a bill of sale. (Mitchell, going away for a while, asked Moore to repair the desk in his absence.) Moore gave the letter to John Clark, who become governor of Georgia in 1819. Clark in turn confronted Bowen with the document. Had he written and signed his name to he incriminating latter?

To which Bowen replied, “It is useless for me to deny it”, as my handwriting is so well known;” which I [Wirt] understand to mean, “I would deny it, if I did not know that my handwriting could be so easily proved; but, since it can, it is useless for me to deny it.”

Clark insisted on a straight yes or no and got the former. Nor did Bowen recant when questioned later, which makes things look very bad for Mitchell. Asked to explain just why he consulted so closely with the Indian agent on slave smuggling, Bowen finally clammed up.

Meanwhile, Mitchell had the illegal slaves on his agency and entertained interested parties. On December 20, 1817, before the second group of slaves arrived, Tennessean Gideon Morgan, stopped by Mitchell’s at the request of some of Bowen’s financiers. He had a letter from the partners in the firm identifying him as their agent, addressed to Mitchell by name. So the men who fronted Bowen the cash to go buy slaves and smuggle them into the country knew that their slaves either had already or would soon arrive at Mitchell’s Creek Agency. Those papers don’t mention slaves, but refer tellingly to Morgan carrying out business near the Agency and then into Alabama Territory. Morgan had a letter from a General Gains -who did not know about the slaves and made it his business to expose Mitchell when he learned of them- asking Mitchell to write him a passport through Indian country.

Georgia might prove too close to prying eyes for a safe resale of slaves, but less settled and more labor-hungry Alabama would probably  look the other way.

To further link Mitchell, Morgan, and the firm of Erwin, Groce, & Company (the aforementioned financiers), his introductory letter to the agent includes this passage:

“Should he,” says the letter, “have occasion for funds or any other services in your power, you will confer a singular favor on me by rendering him any service in your power. We will accept his drafts at any sight for any sum he may think proper to draw on us for.” [Wirt’s emphasis.]

That bespeaks considerable trust in Morgan and a similar degree of confidence in Mitchell not to bleed them dry. Wirt spells it out:

The engagement in the letter of Erwin, Groce, & Co. that they would pay at any sight the drafts of Colonel Morgan in favor of General Mitchell, to any amount, is certainly calculated to suggest inquiries which it would not be easy to answer satisfactorily.

In other words, they wrote Mitchell a blank check. They would not do such a thing unless they both trusted him extremely well and expected extraordinary service of him.

Odd Accidents: Smuggling Slaves with David Brydie Mitchell, Part One

David B. Mitchell

Gentle Readers, without meaning to I have gotten away from doing posts on events prior to the 1850s. Kansas remains my focus, but I want to write about earlier subjects more often than I have. This post goes to remedying that, though I can’t promise I will make it a regular feature. When I do these posts, I intend to put them in the new Deep Dives category. Enough about programming, let’s get into some history.

The United States outlawed the importation of Africans to the country, effective January 1, 1808. Many at the time took this as a banner antislavery achievement, pointing especially to the remarkable fact that the House of Representatives managed only five votes against the law. If one wants to find an antislavery consensus in the Early Republic, that makes for an appealing data point. In the broader context, the United States covered itself in rather less glory. The ban permitted the sale of people brought illegally into the nation. Judges and juries didn’t work that hard to convict slave smugglers. Except for the president, no one had a clear chain of command to the federal marshals, attorneys, and customs officials who might enforce the prohibition. Even had all that existed, the vast spaces involved and the presence of Spanish on just the frontier where one would most want to smuggle human cargo into the nation presented a serious logistical challenge to widely-scattered officials. Some pleaded for revenue cutters and naval vessels to patrol coastal waters. Others protested flagrant violation of the law, particularly in Louisiana after its purchase.

We have had to revise early estimates of the number of slaves smuggled into the nation downward substantially, but it would not do to overcorrect and assume that little to no smuggling took place after 1808. In the 1810s, probably a few thousand enslaved people did enter the United States in defiance of the law. Some of those came in the conventional way we imagine: a ship goes to Africa and comes back with a human cargo sold in port, but slavers had more subtle methods. Large operations existed on either side of the nation. Jean Lafitte and other pirates took the slaves they stole from Spanish slavers to Galveston Island and sold them to middlemen, including Jim Bowie, who took them overland through Spanish Texas to Louisiana for a tidy profit. Amelia Island, at the mouth of St. Mary’s river on the border between Georgia and Florida, housed a similar operation with far less overland travel involved. Both came to the attention of the United States, which eventually sent the Navy to suppress them, but before that many Americans happily wet their beaks in the trade.

David Brydie Mitchell resigned from his third term as governor of Georgia in March of 1817 to accept an appointment to the Creek Agency in western Georgia. Mitchell cited high principle as the main reason: he would earn the same salary in either post, but Indian agents served at the pleasure of the president during good behavior and so he could expect to collect that salary for rather longer than a governor’s two year term. He wanted tenure and got it, until his behavior came to official notice in a scandal that ended with his dismissal by James Monroe.

Documentation of the scandal comes mainly from a report (pages 957-75) of Attorney General William Wirt, which does not make for the most enchanting reading. Wirt himself complains of having to sort through about seventy documents full of claims and counterclaims, many of them inadmissable in a court of law and some not given under any kind of oath. They concerned men he did not know, some of whom others vouched for. As best he could determine, something like the following happened.

Mitchell took up residence at the Creek Agency, with his son and another man going ahead to plant corn for him. Shortly after Mitchell arrived, men began coming up to him and saying things, thinking aloud style, about how it would be nice to make money by importing slaves from Florida. Amelia Island was the main prospect, but really anywhere would do, so long as he could manage safely and legally. Mitchell thought that a capital idea and said that he’d considered the trade himself. It would be easy enough to bring the slaves in through Creek country to the agency. Mitchell and the other man, John Loving, then got to discussing details of the best route. Loving took notes.

Another man, Thomas Woodward, reported that another man, Joseph Howard, tried to hire him to go off and do the same thing. Woodward protested that it would break the law and anyway, he could not afford the upfront cost of buying the slaves on Amelia Island. Howard told him that Mitchell would front the cash in exchange for a share of the profits. Some Georgia financiers also got involved; one of their agents later talked.

In the main, the Mitchell affair begins with a Captain William Bowen. Bowen had worked for the man who held the Creek agency before Mitchell. Wirt says he doesn’t know much about any prior relationship Bown and Mitchell had, but Bowen claimed he got ten thousand dollars from Mitchell to use in buying things for the Creeks, probably in the spring or early summer of 1817. Apparently Mitchell apparently trusted him.

Bowen left the west for a visit to South Carolina and then called at the homes of some of those Georgia financiers. Somewhere along the way, he caught word that you could make a tidy buck trading on Amelia Island for coffee and sugar. Honestly, he only wanted coffee and sugar. Life handed him lemons when he learned that just then Amelia Island considered sugar and coffee too dear for the funding his backers had staked him. Bowen wanted to give up just then, but

By accident [Wirt’s emphasis], however, he is left by the vessel in which he had intended to embark; and, while he remains waiting for another conveyance, by another casualty (the arrival of a cargo of negroes in one of Commodore Aury’s privateers) he is induced to change the subject of his speculation

He bought the slaves, about a hundred of them. Some accident! Bowen arranged lodgings for about forty of them and took the sixty “most prime and able”with him across Florida. Bowen decided, or “decided” to settle with his new slaves in West Florida. He cites concern for the security of his property in making that decision. In other words, he realized that if he took them into the country straightaway he might get caught. Taking slaves between Spanish jurisdictions probably still broke a law, but not the famous slave import ban. All went well until Bowen suffered another coincidence. He got news at the Flint River, sixty miles downstream from the Creek Agency, of the Seminole War. Also, curiously, he had the forethought to arrange provisioning for the slaves he left behind but lacked it for the sixty or so slaves he had with him. So he just had to go to Mitchell’s agency “by chance, over the exact route with Loving states General Mitchell to have indicated to him.”

Wirt didn’t buy it and had witnesses who said otherwise. Moving that many slaves took more than one white man, so Bowen hired help and his help informed on him. The contraband slaves ended up on the south end of Mitchell’s field, “where they built houses for the negroes, and put them to work; a step certainly not deficient in boldness.”

Mitchell claimed absence when Bowen arrived, but returned in time to see him, the quarters, and the slaves. They talked things over and Bowen came away not at all alarmed by the agent’s return. He had frayed nerves right up until he didn’t. After the talk, Bowen went again to Amelia Island and came back with the remainder of his human merchandise. Those he took directly to Mitchell. The forty-two enslaved people left on Amelia got to come to the Creek agency with Bowen and his helpers, now including an Indian named Tobler. Along the way, Bowen resold four to a Captain Drummond. Accidents happen, you know? From Drummond, he wrote to Mitchell. Wirt includes the full letter:

I have got the balance of the stock that I had left on Amelia, (say forty-two,) and am just starging them under the care of Tobler. I believe I am narrowly watched, but think I have evaded discovery as yet. The risk of getting this lot through, I believe to be more -considerably more- than the first. A party was made up for the purpose of following me and Long, three days after we left St. Mary’s river. Mr. Clark, the collector, was at his mills, and some persons lodged information that they were gone up the river, and had crossed; he offered half to the inhabitants in that neighborhood to detect us.

More pressing still, the United States had seized Amelia Island on the twenty-third of December. Bowen wrote from Drummond’s Landing on Christmas day. In leaving the island on the twenty-first, he just barely missed them. All that said, Bowen remained a silver lining kind of guy:

The channel through which Africans could be had being obstructed, they will rise considerably.

Debunking a White Power Meme: An Extension of the Black, Muslim Slave Trade? No.

Gentle Readers, I have come this far so I may as well finish with the white power meme I found a few weeks ago. To recap, neither Anthony Johnson nor any other black person holds the distinction of first slaveholder in the Americas, nor in North America, nor British North America, nor even in Virginia. Free blacks in the South did own slaves at a greater rate than whites, but they chiefly owned their loved ones who circumstance, funds, and law prohibited them from freeing. In neither case would these claims, even if true, change the fact that New World slaver overwhelmingly involved whites enslaving blacks. Thinking that might make people with a skin color like mine feel better about our past. We have the long habit of carving our self-esteem, along with our wealth, from the lives of those we make into others and declare inferior. Should we neglect that, as we often prefer, then we still have a past disinclined to changing itself to suit our whims.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

This leaves us with one last choice morsel of hatred:

the New World slave trade was an expansion of the slave trade in Africa run by black Muslims

Like the other claims, this has so much wrong packed into a single line that it requires significant unpacking. For the sake of argument, let’s say our meme author got something right. Black Muslims ran a slave trade in Africa, from which white Europeans bought people to take to the New World. Sub-saharan Africans did sell people to European traders. As the New World trade ramped up, they provided to it more people to cross the Atlantic from Africa than would from Europe up into the nineteenth century. The New World demand for slaves proved so great that African polities developed around serving it. They extended their networks deep into the African interior to enslave more and more people. You can read about this in any decent history of American slavery; I recommend David Brion Davis’ Inhuman Bondage and Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone.

By the conventional typologies of race, we consider those Africans black. Some of them may have subscribed to Islam. In all of this, we have ignored who bought the slaves. White Europeans came to Africa and bought people. They carried those people across the ocean in foul-smelling, deadly ships to distant ports. There Europeans enslaved them and turned their toil and misery into profits for those same Europeans. Our meme’s author would have us believe that it took the great arts of black Muslims to convince Europeans to do all that. Otherwise, why would it matter who conducted the first sale or two? The involvement of a black person and a Muslim wipe any guilt away.

But we must pull back further. It transpires that a slave trade did operate in Africa prior to the Atlantic trade. Slavers did capture large numbers of sub-Saharan Africans and take them to distant fields for exploitation. The buyers in this case often professed Islam. The distant fields where their slaves toiled existed in North Africa and the Middle East. It did not expand into European hands, with wily Muslims hoodwinking innocent white Christians into buying slaves. Nor did those same racist stereotypes cross the Atlantic with the slaves and whisper in the ears of Caribbean, Chesapeake, or Carolina planters that they must -they simply must!- keep the people they bought as slaves for life and exploit them to the utmost. White people didn’t require any such instruction, but rather proved entirely capable of figuring it out on their own. That does not excuse those Africans who chose to sell to Europeans, but no one compelled Europeans to join in.

Leave that aside, if you wish. Grade school geography refutes the notion that the Atlantic slave trade constituted an expansion of the Muslim slave trade. Muslims wanted slaves to take to North Africa and the Middle East. Europeans wanted slaves to take to islands in the Atlantic Ocean, Iberia, and ultimately the Americas. We cannot reasonably call the Atlantic slave trade an expansion of the Muslim trade based on personnel; Europeans did most of the buying and transporting. We likewise cannot call it an expansion geographically, as Europeans want to take slaves in, literally, another direction entirely.

Slaving is slaving. Taking the slaves to a different distant land doesn’t make it better. Nor do the colors or religions of the practitioners mitigate it at all. To argue otherwise, we must presume that the misdeeds of adherents to unfamiliar faiths or with different skin colors have sins more weighty than our own. Unless we think that, we would not introduce them into evidence. White supremacists never think their imagined inferiors suitable role models, except when they become handy to pass off some blame. Then we must study those unfortunates with great vigor, as their doing something excuses our doing it. So we transmigrate sins to where they belong: a hated minority we wish to continue exploiting. We cannot be asked to feel even a few pangs of conscience, but they must bear the burden of any sins they committed on top of those we did. They must feel guilty for the things we did to them.

 

Debunking a White Power Meme: Was the first slaveholder in America a Black Man?

Gentle Readers, last week I dug into the question of whether African-Americans held more slaves, proportionately, than white Americans did. A white power meme I found circulating made that claim, which has the unusual benefit of factual accuracy. The percentage of slaveholders among free black Americans is greater than that of their white counterparts. The meme declines to inform the reader that the vast majority of these people held as slaves relatives whom they could not easily free. In other words, most occasions of black slaveholding in the antebellum United States happen in the context of resisting the slave system imposed upon them by whites, rather than direct continuance of it. They owned loved ones to protect them from ownership and exploitation by whites.

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy

Which brings me to the second of the meme’s noxious claims, which lacks the warm factual coating for the first:

What about the fact the first slave owner in America was a black man?

Let’s take this from the top. Say, for the sake of argument, that no one owned a slave in the Americas until some black man came over and taught white people how to do it. Bending over backwards to the point of falsehood still leaves us with an irrelevant, if illustrative, point. However slavery originated in the New World, it became the system we remember. In that system, whites owned blacks. White skin meant freedom and black skin meant stolen labor, loved ones, and lives.

We have here a despicable case of white power projection. Whites must do nothing wrong. If white people did do something wrong, then it could only be because some black person corrupted them. This remarkable person, an alleged member of an alleged inferior race, had such power that his example seduced and corrupted thousands of whites for centuries on end. From him, and him alone, they learned the arts of slavery. If not for that example, they would have had no labor shortage, nor decided to meet it by buying the lives of “heathens” and “savages” from Africa who could turn sweat, blood, tears, and screams into money.

Maybe all of that makes sense if you believe white skin betokens moral virtue and black skin singular perfidy. Millions of white Americans still believe just that, but we don’t have to count ourselves among them. Like the fantasy of inferior races, the first slaveholder’s blackness doesn’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. To begin with, American Indians practiced slavery on a small scale in the Americas long before any people from Europe arrived. Indian vs. Indian slavery didn’t set the pattern for whites any more than black vs. black slavery did. By the time whites came to the New World, our white ancestors already had long experience with slavery. In the later half of the fifteenth century, with the traditional supply of slaves from Eastern Europe cut off by the fall of Constantinople, the Mediterranean basin turned from using Slavs -we got our name from the practice- to grow their sugar and cotton to the use of sub-Saharan Africans.

You may remember from grade school that these explorers sought a way to the Spice Islands and China. If you learned it like I did, they left out what happened along the way. Iberian explorers bought and brought back people from their voyages. Initially, the Portuguese just landed and stole what and who they liked. The discovery of more organized and powerful states nearer the equator changed plans. Further out to sea, Iberians found Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands. The last had native inhabitants, the Guanche. They had olive skin, if one wishes to keep score of such things. Lacking metallurgy and isolated for centuries, the Guanche had difficulty resisting conquest. That conquest did not go smoothly, all the same. It required decades of fighting for the Spanish to seize Grand Canary. A combination of violence and disease finished off the Guanche, to the point where only nine sentences of their tongue survive.

That left the Spanish in possession of a islands in subtropics better suited to sugar cultivation than their plantations back home. They went right to work, enslaving the Guanche and putting them to work. The Guanche didn’t last long, thanks to the violence and disease, but Europeans didn’t want to just give up making money off sugar. Soon the Portuguese brought the first black slaves to the first of the sugar islands. On these and other islands down the African coast, Europeans perfected the arts they would also practice on the other side of the ocean.

One might object here that islands in the Eastern Hemisphere don’t constitute any part of the Americas. Geography agrees, but the Spaniards took the lessons learned with the Guanche and others with them to the West Indies. They had established colonies and plantations worked by black slaves there well in advance of settlement on the mainland. A few Slavic slaves also appear in sixteenth century Havana, remnants of the old Mediterranean trade.

A person deeply wedded to white supremacy might object that Iberians hardly count as white, but even if we unwisely grant such a concession it helps them not at all. In fact, let’s take this one all the way and declare only Anglo-Saxon Protestants white. This means we must confine our inquiry to British colonies. Roanoke did not practice slavery that we know of which brings us to Virginia. (A similar process happens at about the same time in Barbados, but as both your author and you Gentle Readers know more about Virginia I shall focus on it.) The first slaves to arrive in Virginia came courtesy of the Dutch:

About the latter end of August, a Dutch man of Warr of the burden of a 160 tunnes arrived at Point-Comfort, the Comandors name Capt Jope, his Pilott for the West Indies one Mr Marmaduke an Englishman. They mett with the Treasurer in the West Indyes, and determined to hold consort shipp hetherward, but in their passage lost one the other. He brought not any thing but 20. and odd Negroes, which the Governor and Cape Marchant bought for victualls (whereof he was in greate need as he pretended) at the best and easyest rates they could.

We should take care, however, to bear in mind that the Englishmen of 1619 did not have an elaborate concept of racial hierarchy such as we have so often prosecuted. The Dutch probably intended to sell their cargo as slaves, or just didn’t care, but it seems that except for the circumstances of their arrival these twenty people faced no worse treatment than white indentured servants. One can count them as slaves, but doing so projects back a system still decades in the future.

In Virginia, we now have black indentured servants owned for a term of years by whites. Up in New England we have something else. White Englishmen arrive there not long after those twenty Africans arrive unwillingly in the Chesapeake. Samuel Maverick arrived in Massachusetts in 1624, bringing with him black slaves. If you want a first slaveholder in British North America, he makes for a good candidate. After the Pequot War, the Puritans enslaved many Indians. They sold most of the men to the West Indies but kept the women and children for themselves. The Pequot, by no common racial theory, count as black but they got very similar treatment. The 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties includes possibly the first formal slave law in British North America:

91. There shall never be any bond slaverie, villinage or Captivitie amongst us unles it be lawfull Captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly selle themselves or are sold to us. And these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the law of god established in Israell concerning such persons doeth morally require. This exempts none from servitude who shall be Judged thereto by Authoritie.

Incidentally, the seventeenth century’s spelling practices constitute one of the more prosaic reasons this blog doesn’t have a great deal of colonial America content.

One can argue that Yankees don’t count on the same grounds that we could object that even if the first enslaver in North America had black skin it doesn’t matter. The system whites imposed made black people slaves to whites. It also, from a fairly early period, saw prosecution far more aggressively in the Chesapeake and points south than it did in New England. The Middle Colonies offer an exception in the middle eighteenth century, where they appear well into a transition from societies with slaves to slave societies, but the American Revolution put paid to that and it takes us well beyond any consideration of firsts.

Anthony Johnson's mark (via Wikipedia)

Anthony Johnson’s mark
(via Wikipedia)

This brings us back to Virginia again, and the man that many people claim as the first slaveholder in the colony: Anthony Johnson. Johnson came to Virginia as a slave, found himself an indentured servant, and became free at the end of his term. He did well for himself, able to gain property and sponsor the transport of indentured servants from England. He sued a neighbor to secure the return of a black man he held as a slave, John Casor. The court sided with Johnson, indicating that by 1655 the idea of lifetime slavery had established some purchase in Virginian culture.

The court did not, however, make Casor the first slave as we would understand the term. Even within Virginia’s jurisdiction, and bearing in mind that Massachusetts has already crossed the finish line with a white enslaver, the first known case of lifetime slavery appears to come in the person of John Punch. Punch and some other indentured servants absconded with themselves. They got caught. All three received some lashes for their trouble. Punch’s companions, both white, received a year added to their time under indenture, then a further three serving the colony. Punch, a black man, got slavery for life on July 9, 1640.

Debunking a White Power Meme: Did free blacks really own more slaves than whites?

Gentle Readers, studying the things I do often brings one in contact with the part of the internet which has forgotten its real purpose as a source of gentlemen’s special interest media. The nineteenth century insulates me to some degree from modern expressions of white supremacy, though not so much as one would hope. White power devotes its tremendous creative energies to strategy more than ideology, even when not spreading lies about the Confederacy. What I do see of modern racist discourse consequently has tight connections to proslavery and anti-Reconstruction arguments, the latter of which I have begun to familiarize myself with.

I haven’t found any proslavery writing that justifies slavery on the grounds that more free blacks than whites owned people, though I found a meme that does:

The latest in white supremacy

The latest in white supremacy, coming soon to a Facebook feed near you.

The stock photo of a darker-skinned gentleman looking puzzled by whites should feel guilty about slavery, which the text insists lays at the feet of black people, deserves credit for taking the logic of white supremacy to a nauseating conclusion. It implicitly both excuses whites by the proxy of a black man and encourages us to see ourselves deserving of an apology from black Americans for our national ancestors enslaving theirs. Ordinarily, our narratives grant no agency at all to non-whites; we treat them as objects which we act upon so consistently that it takes conscious effort to do otherwise. We learn our whiteness in schools, from our media, and every other cultural channel available to us.

Yet the moment white agency involves white people behaving in ways we have decided that we must, at least in mixed company, condemn, white agency vanishes. Then we must speak of black agency. Black people in Africa sold slaves to us, which washes away any injustice we might have done. We find the real racists with black skin, just as we find the real miscreants in every other possible sin. In this crazy, upside-down world it doesn’t matter that whites bought black slaves, but only that blacks sold them.

A full debunking of this meme would run very long. I may make a series of it, but today I want to focus on the first the first factual claim:

A greater percentage of free blacks owned slaves than whites.

This kind of argument would have made no sense to someone in the middle nineteenth century. I don’t know that any antebellum white considered that a mitigation of slavery, as it turned their racial caste system on its side. Black skin meant enslaved, not enslaver. That the slaves still had the “right” color would not have charmed them much. They did not understand black slaveholders as entering a class with themselves, even if those same free people of color sometimes aspired to that role.

The author of the meme found a real fact, rare enough for white supremacists, but naturally used it in a profoundly misleading way. Just taking it on its face, you would think free blacks constituted the great slaveholding caste of American history. We may know otherwise, but the presentation encourages us to let that slide by. They accounted for a trifling fraction of the number of whites who owned slaves, not even close to a significant fraction of all free people of color in the Antebellum South. The author asks us to ignore almost every slaveholder, indeed the nature of American slavery as a race-based caste system itself. We may as well declare the Pacific Ocean one vast desert, neglecting all that water.

Our author also neglects the multitude of ways in which slavery still constrained the lives of free black Americans. In no way did being free, but black, make many black Americans even near-equals to white Americans. In slave states, where the great majority of them lived, free blacks led lives still governed by the slave codes. They and their children lived in real fear of being kidnapped and sold as slaves somewhere far away. Whites and white law frequently, though with notable exceptions, restricted to low status and/or economically marginal work. Their marginality extended, thanks to the system whites built, to treatment often similar to slavery. In many slave states, especially in the later antebellum, freeing a slave required deporting the slave from the state at the owner’s expense. The whites literally wanted them gone, rather than around to contradict how black skin inherently meant enslaved, and whiteness alone made one free. At the least, this meant separation from homes and loved ones, just as a slave sale did. The impulse to purge the land of free blacks recalls twentieth century forced population transfers.

One finds successful, even wealthy, free black Americans in the historical record but they appear few in number. Many of these tried to make distinctions based on their lighter skin color, inherited from rich white fathers. They don’t make fair representatives of free blacks in general, and still faced considerable disabilities on account of their ancestry. In rare conditions, enough free and freed black Americans lived in one place to form their own class, particularly in New Orleans and Charleston, but whites insisted they occupy a sort of middling position well short of whiteness. Most were dependent on maintaining close relations with white patrons, often their relatives, to remain in that status. Complicating this further is that in most of the Cotton States have far fewer free blacks than they the Upper South (the Chesapeake, Kentucky, etc.) where no such “brown” class develops.

This began with black enslavers, so it would do to come back to them. Free blacks owned slaves in every slave state, but it pays to mind the details. When most of us read that someone owned slaves, we probably picture a plantation, a whip-wielding master, and all the rest. We imagine the actual experience of the great majority of slaves in the United States, sensibly enough. But free blacks almost always held very modest amounts of human property. Though a few operated plantations, for the most part we find circa one or two people owned. Specifically, we find family members of the free person.

Whites insisted that freeing slaves constitute a difficult legally and socially challenge on top of any financial burden from lost investment or labor. It could literally required an act of the state legislature, something far beyond the means of a person hoping to buy a spouse or child to save them from the full horror of slavery. The more freed people appeared locally, the stronger the local whites would object and the harder they might fight to make the lives of freedpeople impossible. Purchasing a loved one could thus mean taking the least worst option.

All of this requires us to grapple with a slavery that actually existed in the real world: a system of violence, theft, torture, and rape spread across two continents by white Europeans and their descendants. The Atlantic world that whites built on constraining, controlling, and exploiting blacks does not go away because we pretended otherwise. We can imagine a strange world where cunning black enslavers coerced or corrupted virtuous whites into buying human beings. We can pretend that they sat on the shoulders of white enslavers on their plantations, whispering in their ears: whip them, rape them, steal their children. We can tell ourselves whatever stories we like, use whatever startling facts out of context might distract us. The reality remains, as we all know. Declaring ourselves innocent and demanding apologies from those we still studiously afflict for how they hurt our feelings doesn’t depart from the system we built long ago, but rather continues it. We know that too.

New England and the Slave Trade to 1808

Something different today, Gentle Readers. I undertook a light research project the past few weeks, at the suggestion of one of the mods over at Reddit’s AskHistorians. African slaves did not arrive in the New World on their own. It took Africans capturing and enslaving them, moving them to ports, and then Europeans buying and transporting them across the ocean. The lion’s share of that traffic in the later decades of the Atlantic trade took place on British-flagged vessels until 1808, and thence forward under Portuguese registry. Every seafaring power got a finger in the pie at some point, the United States included. Most of the American vessels that plied the trade did not, as one might imagine, come from South Carolina. Instead, slavers hailed primarily from New England. Yankee shipwrights built their vessels, owned them, crewed them, invested in them, and profited from their voyages. Did that investment have any influence on the eventual debates over banning slave importation on January 1, 1808? I set off to find out. I also used a more conversational, casual tone than I usually do here.

 

The Short Version

It’s complicated and the context matters. The short version is “probably a little, but some and some decisive stuff back earlier.” Ok then, everyone’s satisfied so we can all go home, consume the beverages of our choice, and call it good. Or we could go deeper.

The Long Version

Right then, let’s roll the clock back to Philadelphia, 1787. It’s summer, that time of year when rich white guys sit down to fix the Articles of Confederation, good and hard. The Committee on Detail gets to work based on general things settled by the convention. Its members are John Rutledge (SC), Edmund Randolph (VA), James Wilson (PA), Nathaniel Gorham (MA), and Oliver Ellsworth (CT). That’s two New Englanders, two Southerners, and a dude from Pennsylvania. The rest of the convention takes a break while they go to work, but not before Charles Pinckney (SC) tells everybody that

“that if the Committee should fail to insert some security to the Southern States ag[ain]st an emancipation of slaves, and taxes on exports, he sh[oul]d be bound by duty to his State to vote ag[ain]st their Report.”

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (p. 89). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

As if they could have forgotten.

The Committee on Detail’s report bans taxes on exports and slave imports, and by the way there’ll be no banning of those slave imports either. A few clauses down is a requirement for a two-thirds majority to pass any acts which would regulate trade, “navigation acts” in the parlance of the time. That first appears in Rutledge’s hand. Together this tilts wildly Southern: The South’s exports can’t be taxed. Its slave imports can’t be taxed. What can the South do that would get taxed? It’s either excise taxes, which had gone not so well previously, or a tax on imports that be a drain on shipping. Who did the shipping? New England, New York, and Philadelphia, mostly.

This was enough to get some pretty serious debate going. The arguments against involved much of the obvious: the Constitution they were drafting was proslavery. The 3/5 compromise would promote slave imports, since the South could literally buy votes in the House and Electoral College. If slavery weakened the South by requiring more military spending to keep it together, as the section sometimes argued, then the whole union would be on the hook. And really, we fought a revolution for freedom and now we’re going to protect slavery?

Rutledge, who chaired the Committee on Detail, gets up and argues otherwise: Hey, we’re not saying import slaves. We’re saying importing slaves shouldn’t be forbidden. Two, the South doesn’t need your dirty Yankee help protecting itself. The fact that we’re all paranoid about slave revolts and sore at how the British made off with so many of our slaves? Doesn’t count. But ultimately:

Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is whether the South[er]n States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.

Waldstreicher, David. Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification (pp. 94-95). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.

Rutledge said what everybody knew. There was a kind of alliance between New England and the Lower South operating. Ellsworth helped prove it by calling the antislavery element out for hypocrisy. If slavery was wrong, why were they just banning the import of slaves? This from a guy from Connecticut.

The convention soon found they were at a serious impasse, so they got together another committee to work out a compromise: Yes to a tax on slave imports but it couldn’t go higher than the average of existing duties. No ban on slave imports permitted until 1800. Cool? Not cool. South Carolina moved to kick the date back to 1808. The change passed with the votes of New England, the Lower South, and Maryland.

Since New England was being so nice about the slave trade, the Carolinians flipped on the navigation act clause, which was then deleted. We end up with this, the slave trade clause:

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.

New England gets commerce-regulating power that it wants and the Lower South does not. The Lower South and New England team up to save the slave trade they’re both interested in.

As everything subsequent in this post flows in one way or another from those words, let’s unpack them a little. You have the usual constitutional circumlocution around slavery. The framers were sensitive to the notion that the Constitution would not explicitly sanction what they called “property in man”. This fooled no one, but the distinction would eventually become very important in antislavery constitutionalism largely thanks to the efforts of Salmon P. Chase and James G. Birney, but getting well outside the scope of the question. (Fair game for follow-ups or subsequent questions, of course.)

The key parts:

  1. Congress will have the power, come 1808, to impose a total ban on the importation of slaves to the United States.
  2. Congress does not have that power until 1808, though it may impose a tax of up to ten dollars a head on such imports. Congress could literally make that the first act of the first Congress, pass it on the first day, and have it be the first thing to cross George Washington’s desk.
  3. The clause applies to states, not to the United States in general. Congress can do whatever it likes with regard to territories. It can even ban taking slaves already in the US into territories. It will do so, banning the import of slaves to the Northwest, Mississippi, and Orleans Territories. Only the first of these bans is well known, and then as an absolute prohibition. That’s how it was written, but the choice of the first governor and indifference in Washington ensured it was never more than a questionably-secure ban on imports. The bans on imports to Mississippi territory (modern MS and Alabama, mostly) and Orleans (Louisiana, naturally) were more explicitly that, but only in effect briefly and are allowed to lapse. These precedents are relevant to later antebellum stuff, but again that takes us well past the bounds of the question.
  4. The clause allows Congress to exercise its power to ban the importation of slaves to the United States in general on, or at any point after, January 1, 1808. It’s not required to do so on that date or any other.
  5. None of this requires states to import slaves. All of them had enacted bans on it during the Revolution as part of the non-importation movement. But those bans were state law and could be reversed. They would be by Georgia (1787-98), North Carolina (1790-4), and of course South Carolina (1805-7).

 

Incidentally, all of these constitutional provisions are unamendable. They’re entrenched in the Constitution to exactly the same degree as the two senators per state rule.

Josiah Parker

Josiah Parker

That’s the lay of then land when the first Congress gets together. It took them literally thirteen days into the Washington presidency to get into a fight over slavery. Josiah Parker, of Virginia, got up in the House and suggested: hey, we have the authority in plain English to impose a ten dollar tax on slave imports right now. Why don’t we tax the crap out of them? In the ensuing debate representatives from Georgia and South Carolina made arguments that sounded downright 1850s, up to and including early attempts at a positive good defense of slavery. James Jackson (no relation that I’m aware of to Andrew or Thomas) of Georgia condemned it as “the most odious tax Congress could impose.”

That’s very far from New England, though. Roger Sherman, of Connecticut Compromise fame (and, you know, Connecticut) opposed Parker’s proposal on the grounds that it was an amendment to a general tariff bill. It really ought to come as its own bill, even though a tariff is exactly what Parker was proposing. The objection might sound a little suspicious, and maybe it was, but it was held so generally in the House that Parker agreed to withdraw his amendment and resubmit it as a freestanding bill.

Parker’s tax came back up and the House voted to postpone it to the next session, at which point it would get mixed up in a firestorm over antislavery petitions from some Quakers and Ben Franklin who also wanted the Congress to do something about the slave trade. Franklin’s petition asked that they “step to the very verge” of their power and…and maybe think about freeing any slaves illegally imported? The prospect of the United States government turning into an agent for active emancipation must have been wildly popular in the South, right? You’d expect the kind of slightly manic cheer that fills media aimed at very young children or certain hygiene products. History’s full of heartbreaking stuff, though. The Lower South went ballistic.

It didn’t get them much. A House committee took in the petitions and reported out a summary of Congress’ powers with regard to slavery. That report laid out much of what I summarized above, particularly that no ban would come before 1808. It also established accepted constitutional wisdom, even by Republicans, all the way to 1860:

  1. The Congress had no power to interfere with slavery in any way within the bounds of a state, either to emancipate the slaves or to regulate their treatment. However…
  2. Congress had the power to prohibit US citizens from carrying slaves to foreign ports and
  3. Could prohibit foreigners from setting up slavers for voyages in US ports, plus
  4. Congress could set standards for the treatment of slaves on ships bound for the US.

This report didn’t become law of any kind; the Senate never signed off on it. But the House as a whole endorsed it, over Southern objections, and antislavery societies took it as a how-to for their future slavery fighting.

Let’s look at items #2 and #3. This is a part of the slave trade that is almost invisible in the story of American antislavery, but it’s an important one. Remember above that the Constitutional restrictions apply to importation of slaves to the United States. They do not apply in any way to operations in the carrier trade, taking slaves from Africa to Cuba (mostly), the West Indies (number two), or ports in South America (fairly rare, but it happened).

That’s actually where most American slavers did their business. They were primarily New Englanders. We can narrow that down still further. The majority of American slave ships (~70%) were owned and built in Rhode Island. There were operations elsewhere in New England and in New York that registered on the contemporary radar, but the Rhode Islanders were conspicuously all over this. The trade was a major factor in their state’s economy in a way that it no longer was elsewhere, if it had ever been. (I honestly don’t know. Colonial-era slaving is well outside my expertise.) About two-thirds of their voyages brought slaves from Africa, mostly in exchange for rum distilled right back home in the smallest state, and took them to the Caribbean. The other third supplied the American South, but most slave imports to the United States arrived on foreign ships.

So here we have an explicit declaration of congressional power over a trade which isn’t actually that important to the South, since they get their slaves from foreigners, and which limiting would only really hurt Rhode Island. Thus, there’s some real action…eventually. Congress took until 1794, but then they passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794. George Washington put his John Hancock on it on March 22.

What’s the law do? American citizens, and anybody setting out from a US port, are prohibited

for himself or any other person whatsoever, either as master, factor or owner, build, fit, equip, load, or otherwise prepare any ship or vessel […] for the purpose of carrying on any trade or traffic in slaves, to any foreign country; or for the purpose of procuring, from any foreign kingdom, place or country, the inhabitants of such kingdom, place or country, to be transported to any foreign country, port, or place whatever, to be sold of or disposed of, as slaves

Do that particular dirty deed and your ship and all its accessories could be libeled, condemned, and forfeited to the United States in whatever district or circuit court happened to have jurisdiction. Furthermore, if you were involved with this sort of business, or aiding and abetting, you would take a $2,000 fine to be split between the United States and whoever prosecuted you. If you were a owner or master of a ship and even looked dodgy, and someone reported you to the customs officials, you could be required to swear an oath and give a bond that you would not embark any African or other natives to take elsewhere and sell as slaves for the following nine months. Congress wasn’t quite done yet. It also assessed a $200 per-head fine on any slaves you tried to traffic in, again split halfsies between the US and the prosecution.

You might anticipate a big controversy here and a law that just squeaked by, but it doesn’t seem so. I went looking for debates and the roll-call vote on the measure, but couldn’t find them. Don Fehrenbacher tells me that the law got “ready acceptance […] in both houses”. I’m inclined to believe him, but his footnote led me to a dead end. This is all in the Annals of Congress, which were compiled retrospectively from newspaper accounts decades later rather than recorded live, as it were. So it’s possible a debate happened and no one took much notice, but I’ve spent a couple of hours looking and I can’t even give you the vote totals. Beats me. (If anybody has found records of this stuff, please let me know; I’m desperately curious.) The law was, Fehrenbacher says, the result of some very carefully written antislavery petitions. In particular, they took great pains to avoid any request for abolition.

So the 1794 act becomes law. It’s not the most draconian thing, but the fines are quite high. It lacks for a good enforcement regime, though. Basically you’re looking at private prosecutions, which half the fine would buy the government. Those would mostly have to happen in the very places where the trade was most popular and its wealthy practitioners most influential. Long odds, right? Maybe, maybe not. It was enough to get Cyprian Sterry, one of Providence’s slaving bigwigs, to quit the business when the local antislavery groups promised to come after him.

And then there’s John Brown. No, not that John Brown with the wild beard and the badass mural in Kansas. (But seriously, look at that mural!) John Brown of the Brown University Browns. John Brown is having none of this crap about fines. The Congress can take its slave trade act and shove it. He’d been doing the same thing with Rhode Island’s state law against slave trading voyages since 1787. He sent a ship, the Hope, off a-slaving. Hope called at the Guinea coast, bought some people, and took them off to Cuba where the sale of the 229 survivors turned a handy profit.

Brown had clearly fitted out and set off a slaving voyage. His brother Moses, a Quaker convert, and the local Abolition Society came after him in a private prosecution. They made it their business to do this, but usually things got to the point where someone would sign an agreement to renounce the trade (as Sterry did) and they would drop the prosecution. Negotiations to that end did not budge Brown at all. Moses threatened him with more than the loss of an older ship if he kept at things, but Brown sucked up the loss of the Hope. Eventually it became clear that Brown was trying to push things to trial. If someone got nailed for illegally importing slaves they would have to face a jury, and a Rhode Island jury would probably not convict. Once that became an established fact, the law would be a dead letter.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Which it was, for the most part. The Washington administration did not bend over backwards to see the law enforced. Rhode Island’s commerce dipped for a year after passage, but then came right back. Between 1794 and 1804, Rhode Island saw twenty-two prosecutions but we know of at least two hundred voyages to Africa in the same time. It seems that the volume of the trade significantly increased after it became illegal. Good lawyering, friendly juries, and occasional intimidation kept it safe until Jefferson appointed one of the big name slavers to the customs post at Bristol in 1804. Shockingly, African clearances from there shot way up. Prosecutions did not.

I told you most of that to set this up. Come 1800, things are looking a little better for the 1794 law. The Adams administration is encouraging prosecutions and has a few ongoing. Congress decides to revisit things and improve on the old law with a supplementary bill. This one is going to jack the fines (double the value of vessels forfeited and price of the slaves), outlaw investment in slaving ventures (at the pain of losing twice your stake in them), and if you’re actually on the ship you could get two years’ jail. This applies to Americans doing their own trading destined for foreign ports, as well as Americans on board or investing in foreign vessels. If the Navy, or equivalent, does the capturing then its officers and crew are entitled to prize money. And if a private prosecution brings any of this about, the fines go halfsies to the US and the accuser again.

By this point, John Brown is 50% of Rhode Island’s House delegation. He has some things he needs to say. Quoting from the Annals of Congress here:

it [was] improper to prevent the citizens of the United States enjoying the benefits of a trade enjoyed by all the European nations. […] Many members of the House, he observed, knew how the former act was passed; they knew that Congress was drilled into it by certain persons who would not take *no* for an answer. It was well known that the Abolition Society, otherwise the Society of Friends, as they were called, were very troublesome until they got that act passed.

Cheeky of him to name the outfit his brother was a member of, and which had prosecuted him, by name. Brown went on to say that no American law forbade exporting Africans from Africa. So why not just let Americans take Africans where they pleased? Better to enjoy the proceeds than leave money laying on the table. They were slaves either way, ok? Cutting Americans out of such a lucrative business was just bad policy and, anyway:

it was wrong, when considered in a moral point of view, since, by the operation of the trade the very people themselves much bettered their condition.

He said it. Having crossed that Rubicon, which pitched him all the way down with the Lower South, Brown noted that Congress could fill up the Treasury with slave-produced revenues. Far better to do that then debt finance things, right? And it’s not like US law would prevent “one more slave” from being taken. It would just be some foreigner that did the taking. With distilleries idle, why not have the rum go off to buy people? Brown

had been well informed that on those coasts New England rum was much preferred to the best Jamaica spirits, and would fetch a better price.

This is, as I mentioned before, literally how Rhode Island bought slaves. Brown had been well informed by his own ledgers. I don’t know about Brown personally, but some of the traders owned their own distilleries.

I don’t know that any other New Englander spoke in opposition to the 1800 law. It passed on on May 10, 1800, clearing the house with all of five votes against. Who are those guys? Brown, of course, George Dent (MD), Joseph Dickson (NC), John Rutledge Jr. (SC), and Benjamin Huger (SC). It’s by no means a prefect indicator, but the fact that Brown alone votes against the bill paints him as a pretty marginal figure. The commerce is mostly a Rhode Island affair and the other Rhode Islander in the House didn’t vote against it. But one does have to consider that all previous acts turned out to be paper tigers. Even forfeited ships often got bought back by their previous owners for pittances. The 1800 revisions had as much effect as the 1794 original: a brief downturn followed by resumption and increase of voyages. Between the international situation and American non-enforcement, the US share of slave exports from Africa goes from an estimated 2% (1780s) to 9% in the following decade and then 16% for the first Jefferson administration.

Stephen Row Bradley

Stephen Row Bradley

Skipping a few minor episodes (making imports of slaves to a state that has closed the trade a federal offense that inspires SC, along with the money to be made importing slaves for further transit to Louisiana, to reopen the trade and a revival of the ten dollar tax that goes nowhere in retaliation against SC) we get to 1808…almost. We have to come up for a moment in December of 1805, when a New Englander gets conspicuous again. Stephen Row Bradley, of Vermont, gets up in the Senate and suggests they get cracking on a bill to prohibit slave imports, effective the first of 1808. The time might have seemed ripe, with states calling for a constitutional amendment to permit banning slave imports then and there not that long before, but Bradley’s proposal was taken as too soon all the same. There’s an undercurrent of doubt in all of this as to whether it’s proper for Congress to even consider an import ban before 1808, let alone years in advance.

December, 1806. Jefferson’s annual message (the equivalent to our State of the Union) recommends that Congress get an import ban together, effective January 1, 1808. Jefferson defended getting it done in advance on the grounds that it would mitigate against catching any vessels en route who may have started out legal but become illegal in passage. Bradley introduces his bill on December 3. There’s a broad consensus that now’s the time to do something and a ban should happen at the first available moment. Southerners even carp at the suggestion that they want anything else. The fights start over the details, with there being three big ones:

  1. What to do with people imported illegally? Should they be freed? If so, what does the nation do with them? Take them home? Settle them somewhere? Or do they remain slaves to be sold at auction? And if so, by whom? Was the federal government to become a slave trading operation? (Decided by the local jurisdiction, which meant kept as slaves and sold by state governments in the South.)
  2. What kind of penalty should violators face? (Original version: fines and forfeiture. Seen by most of the North as too little. Amended: death. Split the North, with many feeling it was too much. Final version: jail time.)
  3. Should Congress regulate the domestic maritime trade in slaves? Later on, this is often called the coastwise trade. Most of it runs from the Chesapeake to South Carolina, Georgia, and eventually Mobile and New Orleans. (Yes, but not much.)
John Randolph

John Randolph

These debates are not heavily studied, at least as of Matthew Mason’s Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States 1806-1807 (2000). Even contemporaries paid far more attention to other issues, despite often fiery rhetoric. The distinction is very much sectional, though Mason notes that the South prevailed as usual with the help of some northern cooperation. He doesn’t call out any New Englanders as conspicuous. This nuts and bolts wrangling took place in the House. The Senate recorded no debates or votes -thanks a lot, jerks-. Peter Early (Georgia) and John Randolph (Virginia) were conspicuous on the southern side, but if there was a particular locus of resistance in the New England delegations Mason doesn’t note it and I think he would have.

On the key vote as to what would happen with those people imported illegally, the House came to a 60-60 tie broken by the Speaker (Nathaniel Macon, NC). It got to that point with thirteen northerners voting against their section, eleven of them from mid-Atlantic states. They were Joseph Clay (PA), Henry Livingston (NY), Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), John Russel (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Uri Tracy (NY), Phillip Van Cortlandt (NY), Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY), Daniel C. Verplanck (NY), Eliphalet Wickes (NY)

What about those other two? I had to do a little hunting here, since it’s one of those things where you have to figure out which side is which and which is the relevant vote. It’s here. My method: I recognize the names of several southerners on sight, particularly the hard-liners, and know the section voted pretty solidly one way. So we want the nays. To be doubly-sure, and do the further sifting, I compared the nays with the roster here (PDF). I came out with, in addition to the previous list, Samuel Tenney (NH) and Peleg Wadsworth (MA).

Both are New Englanders, though neither is a Rhode Island man. I don’t know if Tenney and Wadsworth had any personal or constituency connections to the slave trade or not. This isn’t quite an up or down vote against slavery, though it’s close, so there may have been tactical considerations involved too. The strong New York connection to southern interests, political and economic, must be a factor for the others. New York’s remaining slave population might have served as another, but I’ve got my doubts considering they can’t have expected a whole lot of slavers to aim for their ports and so end up depositing human cargo locally where it would matter on a personal level that much. What slave ship is going to take a hold even partially full of people to a state that passed gradual emancipation in 1799 when there are so many more hospitable and profitable ports?

Which brings us to regulation of the coastwise trade, with the question being whether to limit the trade to vessels displacing forty tons or more. Twelve Upper South men voted for it, only ten northerners opposed. This was a significant limitation, as while an Atlantic-going slaver would run around 158 tons, the coastwise trade involved mostly vessels smaller than that.

So let’s fine those dissenting Yankees again. The vote is here. We want the Nays. There are seven repeat offenders from the last vote here: Josiah Masters (NY), Gurdon Mumford (NY), Martin Schuneman (NY), Samuel Tenney (NH), Uri Tracy (NY), and Killian K. Van Rensselaer (NY). That leaves us three to find. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), Samuel Dana (CT). One wonders just what Martin Chittenden and Stephen Bradley said to each other when they got home.

So there’s four New Englanders in the mix, counting Tenney with the three new arrivals. That’s not a lot (35 New England reps total, 20 of them Federalists) but it is something. The New England of the very early 1800s is not the New England of the 1840s and 1850s. It’s a place where antislavery is popular, but it’s not the region-defining thing it would be in future years. That begins to emerge when it becomes clear that the Federalists are done as a national party and they don’t need to be appealing to enslavers anymore as their partners in Virginia and South Carolina in particular are no longer interested. I don’t know what’s going on with the Chittenden in Vermont at all, and Rhode Island is conspicuous in its absence (both RI reps are Republicans at the time, so maybe party whip and certainly the impotence of previous laws would be a factor), but they must have had their reasons. The state didn’t lose interest in slave trading for a while yet hereafter.

I fired up my Biographical Directory of the United States Congress to see if there was a partisan angle. All four are federalists. Party lines aren’t as hard as they would become, but they could be looking to keep alive a national Federalism by resisting Jefferson’s program in hopes of wooing back southern coalition partners. But it’s only an inclination, against the general trend of their party’s vote, and it’s not too long after this that the party try to position themselves as a New England sectional party with an antislavery bent. On the balance, and absent any meaningful biographical data about them, I don’t think partisanship is the main factor. I can’t say for sure that there are personal or constituency interests driving them, but it seems likely.

I haven’t gone looking in the debate myself to see if any of the against-the-grain guys spoke up in an interesting way, but between my sources I think if they said anything useful and it survived, I’d have seen it quoted. It’s rare for them to even be mentioned by name. Mason notes that for all the fireworks in Congress, the slave trade prohibition doesn’t seem to have drawn many eyeballs. With the exception of Bradley, few of the antislavery party even seem to have felt it was the main event of the Ninth Congress. (Though it was the big event of their generation of antislavery activism.) The papers took little interest, and the Annals were collected largely from newspaper reports, so things probably have slipped away.

The bill passes on March 2, 1807, which brings us to our last vote. Only five men vote to keep the trade open. It is actually open at this point, because SC still has it going. They are Silas Betton (NH), Martin Chittenden (VT), James M. Garnett (VA), Abram Trigg (VA), and David R. Williams (SC). No Rhode Islanders but two New Englanders willing to take it to the bitter end and go on record, both Federalists. Chittenden remains the real mystery to me. New Hampshire at least has a coastline. He was born in northwestern Connecticut, but left there when he was thirteen. That’s old enough to have opinions, maybe. He was educated at Dartmouth and may have picked up his position there, but that would be a question for his biographer.

Sources

It’s very likely that I’m forgetting some.

The Slaveholding Republic by Don Fehrenbacher on the mechanics of the slave trade and law in particular, but also John Brown.

James, Sydney V. Of Slaves and Rum. Reviews in American History 10.2 (1982): 168-72. Web. A book review that gives some details from The Notorious Triangle, about Rhode Island and the slave trade which I desperately want to read, but is well outside my research budget.

Mason, Matthew E. Slavery Overshadowed: Congress Debates Prohibiting the Atlantic Slave Trade to the United States, 1806-1807. Journal of the Early Republic 20.1 (2000): 59-81. Web for fine-grain details of the votes and debates.

Slavery & Politics in the Early American Republic by Mason was helpful or situating the New England Federalists.

Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification by David Waldstreicher for the Constitutional Convention and Yankee-Carolina alliance.

And a finding aid for the John Brown Papers (PDF) at the Rhode Island Historical Society for more information about Brown and how the Abolition Society operated.

The First Congress and Antislavery Petitions

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.

Franklin's signature on the petition

Franklin’s signature on the petition

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.

Thomas Tudor Tucker

Thomas Tudor Tucker

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.

Aedanus Burke

Aedanus Burke

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.

The First Congress and the First Slavery Debate

Josiah Parker

Josiah Parker

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

James Jackson

James Jackson

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.