Tag

slave trade

The transatlantic slave trade took place across the Atlantic Ocean from the 16th through the 19th centuries. Between 1501 and 1866, about 12.5 million captives were shipped from African ports to be sold as slaves elsewhere. Of those, about 12% never made it to shore and only about 400,000 reached what is now the United States. Article 1, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution stipulates 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," and later in the document, it is specified that this clause of Article 1, Section 9 may not be amended, implying the Founders' belief that the United States economy heavily relied on the slave trade.

When Ellsworth says, “as he had never owned a slave [he] could not judge of the effects of slavery on character,” he is not only establishing his own moral purity with respect to slavery, he is delivering a barb aimed directly at Mason.  George Mason, who owned more slaves than anyone else at the Convention, had just finished proclaiming that “every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.”  (Paragraph 2755) Ellsworth therefore echos many modern scholars who today excoriate Virginia slaveowners for their hypocritical posturing against slavery.  Seen from the other side, however, the situation ought to remind us that it in fact took a great deal of courage for Virginian slaveowners to make these arguments, because they thereby opened themselves up to this kind of jeering. 

By contrast, Ellsworth proves himself to be, not only hypocritical on this subject, but also callous.  The moral barrenness of this argument, and its warped notion of justice, should not be overlooked or downplayed.  Ellsworth is saying that, since South Carolina and Georgia are killing off their slaves so rapidly by forcing them to work in unhealthy conditions, it would be “unjust” if states like Virginia were to deprive them of fresh slaves from Africa.  Speeches such as these demonstrate that it would be a mistake to regard the Deep South as having a monopoly on pro-slavery sentiment.

Ellsworth’s hypocrisy can be seen by comparing his speeches in the Convention to those he makes during the Ratifying debates.  During the Constitutional Convention, he twice urged that his fellow delegates should ignore any moral considerations with respect to the slave trade and leave the matter entirely to the discretion of the Southern States (here and at Paragraph 2748).   When he later addressed his fellow Northerners during the Ratification debates as The Landholder (No. VI), however, he reverted to a more pious posture.  He there insisted that “all good men wish the entire abolition of slavery,” and “the only possible step that could be taken towards it by the convention was to fix a period after which [slaves] should not be imported.”  He even had the impudence to accuse George Mason of opposing the slave trade on purely self-interested grounds (a calumny which has often been repeated against the Virginia Framers, but for which no one has ever provided any supporting evidence). 

If it is indeed legitimate to vilify Mason because ñhis objections [to the slave trade] are not on the side of freedom, nor in compassion to the human race who are slaves,” then that would imply that “all good men” should allow their moral principles to guide federal policy on the slave trade.  That position was not the one he took within the debates of Constitutional Convention.  It would have been more to Ellsworth’s credit if he had expressed that view when it might have made a difference.  But what goes around comes around.  Forrest McDonald has said of this passage that “even Ellsworth could not perceive the problem as anything other than a practical one” – the same accusation that Ellsworth leveled against George Mason, with less justification.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

It would not be unreasonable to accuse Oliver Ellsworth of some hypocrisy on this subject.  During the Constitutional Convention, he twice urged that his fellow delegates should ignore any moral considerations with respect to the slave trade and leave the matter entirely to the discretion of the Southern States (here and at Paragraph 2756).   When he later addressed his fellow Northerners during the Ratification debates as The Landholder (No. VI), however, he reverted to a more pious posture.  He there insisted that “all good men wish the entire abolition of slavery,” and “the only possible step that could be taken towards it by the convention was to fix a period after which [slaves] should not be imported.”  He even had the impudence to accuse George Mason of opposing the slave trade on purely self-interested grounds (a calumny which has often been repeated, but for which no one has ever provided any supporting evidence). If it is indeed legitimate to vilify Mason because "his objections [to the slave trade] are not on the side of freedom, nor in compassion to the human race who are slaves,” then that would imply that “all good men” should allow their moral principles to guide federal policy on the slave trade.  That was not the position he took within the debates of Constitutional Convention.  It would have been more to Ellsworth’s credit if he had expressed that view when it might have made a difference.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

Delegates from the Deep South on several occasions threatened to reject the Constitution unless their “right” to import slaves were protected in the Constitution.  In this passage, John Rutledge of South Carolina inaugurated the threatened exodus by claiming that “the true question at present is, whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union.”  It was soon followed by his fellow South Carolinian, Charles Pinckney, who threatened: “South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave trade. (Paragraph 2749)  The following day, Abraham Baldwin took up the drumbeat by declaring: “Georgia was decided on this point. . . . she could not prudently purchase [the advantage of a general government] by yielding national powers.”  (Paragraph 2759) After he had assembled his troops, Rutledge then became even more emphatic, and took it upon himself to act as spokesman for the entirety of the Deep South bloc: “If the Convention thinks that North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, will ever agree to the plan, unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is vain. The people of those states will never be such fools as to give up so important an interest.”  (Paragraph 2767) And even the mild North Carolinian Hugh Williamson “thought the Southern States could not be members of the Union, if the clause should be rejected; and that it was wrong to force any thing down not absolutely necessary, and which any state must disagree to.”  (Paragraph 2763)

            These threats certainly had an effect on the outcome of the slave trade clause.  David B. Davis has described how “angry southern threats shifted the contest back from the high ground of abstract principle to the easier terrain of immediate interests and mutual concessions.”  Nonetheless, Paul Finkelman expresses his belief that the Southern States were bluffing: “Although some southerners talked of not joining the Union unless the slave trade were allowed, it seems unlikely they would have risked going it alone over a temporary right of importation.”  He later partially retreats from that position, stating only that “there might have been greater room for tough negotiation or actual opposition to this position.”  Even among those who believed the threats were real, some, such as Winthrop P. Jordon, interpret this stalemate as a moral failing for those in the North who relented: “The founders wanted union more than an end to the slave trade.”  Then again, if the Northern States had refused to budge, and the Southern States had followed through on their threats, then they would have achieved neither Union nor an end to the slave trade.

            William Wiecek has probably rightly summed up the circumstances: “In this mediation, the most determined parties to the bargaining, the deep-South bloc, were able to secure more for their position than the other groups because they were demanding where their opponents were tepid and ambivalent, and because they knew just what they wanted, where their opponents had no particular program concerning slavery.”  Some of the opponents of the slave trade were in fact impassioned and determined, but taken as a body they were in disarray.  That fact worked to the advantage of the intransigent Deep South.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

There was considerable disagreement at the time about the relative value of free labor over slave labor.  Those who were opposed to slavery generally insisted that slave labor was inferior (from a purely economical perspective) to free labor.  Delegates from the Deep South tried to counter that their slaves were just as efficient as the laborers of the North (and they deserved equal representation for their slaves for that reason), but they won few adherents to that belief.  See also, paragraphs 1226, 1284, 2085, and 2755

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

Even the states that had opposed the original 20-year compromise on August 25 (Paragraph 2978) now agreed to remain faithful to the agreement by making it exempt from amendment.  

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This speech by Rutledge reveals two important truths about the compromise over the slave trade at the Convention.  In the first place, the Deep South was exceedingly jealous of its freedom to import slaves from Africa, and they would go to great lengths to protect it.  And in the second place, the continuance of the slave trade was exceedingly unpopular with the rest of the states.  The Deep South evidently feared that without this double surety (which appears in Article I, Section 9 and Article V of the Constitution) the other states in the Union, driven by their eagerness to achieve an immediate end to the slave trade, would easily garner the two-thirds majority in Congress and the three-fourths majority of state legislatures necessary to accomplish prohibition by amending the Constitution.  South Carolina and Georgia were determined to put it out of the power of the rest of the states to outlaw the slave trade before 1808.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This speech by Rutledge reveals two important truths about the compromise over the slave trade at the Convention.  In the first place, the Deep South was exceedingly jealous of its freedom to import slaves from Africa, and they would go to great lengths to protect it.  And in the second place, the continuance of the slave trade was exceedingly unpopular with the rest of the states.  The Deep South evidently feared that without this double surety (which appears in Article I, Section 9 and Article V of the Constitution) the other states in the Union, driven by their eagerness to achieve an immediate end to the slave trade, would easily garner the two-thirds majority in Congress and the three-fourths majority of state legislatures necessary to accomplish prohibition by amending the Constitution.  South Carolina and Georgia were determined to put it out of the power of the rest of the states to outlaw the slave trade before 1808.

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

George Van Cleve, in his book, A Slaveholders’ Union, sadly distorts King’s speech:

“In his August 8 speech, King offered the slave states their choice of accepting the possibility of export taxes or accepting slave-trade limitations.  While King was undoubtedly opposed to the slave trade, his approach strongly suggests that the Northern states were not interested in trying to prohibit the slave trade in the abstract, but instead saw it as part of the issue of central government control over international trade, which they believed should encompass all Southern trade as well as Northern trade.” 

Van Cleve’s misinterpretation of King’s speech demonstrates the dangers inherent in approaching the debates with a conscious intention (as he explains in the Introduction) to narrow an examination’s “approach and goals.”  In this case, he acknowledges that he intends to forego an examination of “the evolution of republican ideology” in order to concentrate on “understanding the political and economic processes that made it possible to create a functioning early American national government.”  That narrowing might work fine in theory, but its practitioners all too often merely begin by ignoring the arguments from morality and principle.  They usually end by claiming that such arguments don’t even exist.  In this case, King plainly says that “he could so little persuade himself of the rectitude of [the slave trade], that he was not sure he could assent to it under any circumstances.”  Apparently ignoring or misunderstanding the meaning of rectitude, Van Cleve asserts that “King’s opposition on the slave-trade issue was not framed primarily in moral or religious terms, but was based instead on prudential arguments.”  By ignoring statements of principle such as were made by Framers like King, Van Cleve concludes that his “approach strongly suggests that the Northern states were not interested in trying to prohibit the slave trade in the abstract.”  That contention is plainly untrue, as well as cryptic.  Just what does “prohibiting the slave trade in the abstract” even mean?

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

This vaguely worded and innocuous-sounding provision is of tremendous importance.  If it had passed as it stands here, it would have prohibited Congress from ever outlawing the African slave trade.  It is therefore worth noting that its inclusion into the draft report of the Committee of Detail was not preceded by any vote within the Convention.  The topic of the slave trade had been broached on more than one occasion during the debates (some members of the North were particularly galled by the inclusion of the three-fifths clause because it might prove an unintended encouragement for the importation of more slaves).  But no serious discussion had yet commenced on whether the trade should be outlawed by the central government or whether the Southern states should be allowed to import African slaves in perpetuity.

The five-man committee that added this clause in their report, on their own initiative, included John Rutledge (the delegate who was possibly the most fiercely pro-slavery representative of the most fiercely pro-slavery state of South Carolina), Edmund Randolph (a Virginia slaveowner who nonetheless harbored serious antislavery sentiments), Nathaniel Gorham (a delegate from Massachusetts who had often been ready to make common cause with Southern slave interests, such as when he would later second General Pinckney’s motion on August 25 to extend the period during which the Deep South could import slaves), Oliver Ellsworth (who had proven throughout the Convention that he could be a willing accomplice to Southern slavery interests), and James Wilson (a delegate who represented the antislavery state of Pennsylvania, but who nonetheless readily compromised with the South whenever the subject of slavery was broached).  According to William M. Wiecek, it was Randolph that inserted the protectionist clause for the slave trade in the committee of detail, but the document he cites as evidence is inconclusive.  This clause would almost immediately inflame the ire of some delegates, for instance Rufus King’s outburst on August 8 (Paragraph 2079).

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013

As the debates that preceded this motion show, the position that the Framers took on the question of whether or not to place a duty on imported slaves was not necessarily an indication of whether they were opposed to slave importations as such.  Rufus King, John Langdon, George Mason, and Nathaniel Gorham believed that a duty was necessary to provide a mild deterrent, since to exempt them from a duty would be tantamount to “a bounty” on the importation of slaves.  James Madison and Roger Sherman preferred that there were no such duties, because a duty implied that this “cargo” was property, not people.   (Paragraphs 2980-2987)  

Annotated by luzzell on September 05, 2013