HumanitiesWeb HumanitiesWeb
Sort By Author Sort By Title

Sort By Author
Sort By Title


Get Your Degree!

Find schools and get information on the program that’s right for you.

Powered by Campus Explorer

& etc

All Rights Reserved.

Site last updated
28 October, 2012
Real Time Analytics
American Negro Slavery
Revolution and Reaction
by Phillips, Ulrich Bonnell

After the whole group of colonies had long been left in salutary neglect by the British authorities, George III and his ministers undertook the creation of an imperial control; and Parliament was too much at the king's command for opposing statesmen to stop the project. The Americans wakened resentfully to the new conditions. The revived navigation laws, the stamp act, the tea duty, and the dispatch of redcoats to coerce Massachusetts were a cumulation of grievances not to be borne by high-spirited people. For some years the colonial spokesmen tried to persuade the British government that it was violating historic and constitutional rights; but these efforts had little success. To the argument that the empire was composed of parts mutually independent in legislation, it was replied that Parliament had legislated imperially ever since the empire's beginning, and that the colonial assemblies possessed only such powers as Parliament might allow. The plea of no taxation without representation was answered by the doctrine that all elements in the empire were virtually represented in Parliament. The stress laid by the colonials upon their rights as Britons met the administration's emphasis upon the duty of all British subjects to obey British laws. This countering of pleas of exemption with pronouncements of authority drove the complainants at length from proposals of reform to projects of revolution. For this the solidarity of the continent was essential, and that was to be gained only by the most vigorous agitation with the aid of the most effective campaign cries. The claim of historic immunities was largely discarded in favor of the more glittering doctrines current in the philosophy of the time. The demands for local self-government or for national independence, one or both of which were the genuine issues at stake, were subordinated to the claim of the inherent and inalienable rights of man. Hence the culminating formulation in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." The cause of the community was to be won under the guise of the cause of individuals.

In Jefferson's original draft of the great declaration there was a paragraph indicting the king for having kept open the African slave trade against colonial efforts to close it, and for having violated thereby the "most sacred rights of life and liberty of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither." This passage, according to Jefferson's account, "was struck out in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves and who on the contrary still wished to continue it. Our Northern brethren also I believe," Jefferson continued, "felt a little tender under these censures, for though their people have very few slaves themselves, yet they have been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."[1] By reason of the general stress upon the inherent liberty of all men, however, the question of negro status, despite its omission from the Declaration, was an inevitable corollary to that of American independence.
[Footnote 1: Herbert Friedenwald, The Declaration of Independence (New York, 1904), pp. 130, 272.]
Negroes had a barely appreciable share in precipitating the Revolution and in waging the war. The "Boston Massacre" was occasioned in part by an insult offered by a slave to a British soldier two days before; and in that celebrated affray itself, Crispus Attucks, a mulatto slave, was one of the five inhabitants of Boston slain. During the course of the war free negro and slave enlistments were encouraged by law in the states where racial control was not reckoned vital, and they were informally permitted in the rest. The British also utilized this resource in some degree. As early as November 7, 1775, Lord Dunmore, the ousted royal governor of Virginia, issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves "appertaining to rebels" who would join him "for the more speedy reducing this colony to a proper sense of their duty to his Majesty's crown and dignity."[2] In reply the Virginia press warned the negroes against British perfidy; and the revolutionary government, while announcing the penalties for servile revolt, promised freedom to such as would promptly desert the British standard. Some hundreds of negroes appear to have joined Dunmore, but they did not save him from being driven away.[3]
[Footnote 2: American Archives, Force ed., fourth series, III, 1385.]

[Footnote 3: Ibid., III, 1387; IV, 84, 85; V, 160, 162.]
When several years afterward military operations were transferred to the extreme South, where the whites were few and the blacks many, the problem of negro enlistments became at once more pressing and more delicate. Henry Laurens of South Carolina proposed to General Washington in March, 1779, the enrollment of three thousand blacks in the Southern department. Hamilton warmly endorsed the project, and Washington and Madison more guardedly. Congress recommended it to the states concerned, and pledged itself to reimburse the masters and to set the slaves free with a payment of fifty dollars to each of these at the end of the war. Eventually Colonel John Laurens, the son of Henry, went South as an enthusiastic emissary of the scheme, only to meet rebuff and failure.[4] Had the negroes in general possessed any means of concerted action, they might conceivably have played off the British and American belligerents to their own advantage. In actuality, however, they were a passive element whose fate was affected only so far as the master race determined.
[Footnote 4: G.W. Williams, History of the Negro Race in America (New York [1882]), I, 353-362.]
Some of the politicians who championed the doctrine of liberty inherent and universal used it merely as a means to a specific and somewhat unrelated end. Others endorsed it literally and with resolve to apply it wherever consistency might require. How could they justly continue to hold men in bondage when in vindication of their own cause they were asserting the right of all men to be free? Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Edmund Randolph and many less prominent slaveholders were disquieted by the question. Instances of private manumission became frequent, and memorials were fairly numerous advocating anti-slavery legislation. Indeed Samuel Hopkins of Rhode Island in a pamphlet of 1776 declared that slavery in Anglo-America was "without the express sanction of civil government," and censured the colonial authorities and citizens for having connived in the maintenance of the wrongful institution.

As to public acts, the Vermont convention of 1777 when claiming statehood for its community framed a constitution with a bill of rights asserting the inherent freedom of all men and attaching to it an express prohibition of slavery. The opposition of New York delayed Vermont's recognition until 1791 when she was admitted as a state with this provision unchanged. Similar inherent-liberty clauses but without the expressed anti-slavery application were incorporated into the bills of rights adopted severally by Virginia in 1776, Massachusetts in 1780, and New Hampshire in 1784. In the first of these the holding of slaves persisted undisturbed by this action; and in New Hampshire the custom died from the dearth of slaves rather than from the natural-rights clause. In Massachusetts likewise it is plain from copious contemporary evidence that abolition was not intended by the framers of the bill of rights nor thought by the people or the officials to have been accomplished thereby.[5] One citizen, indeed, who wanted to keep his woman slave but to be rid of her child soon to be born, advertised in the Independent Chronicle of Boston at the close of 1780: "A negro child, soon expected, of a good breed, may be owned by any person inclining to take it, and money with it."[6] The courts of the commonwealth, however, soon began to reflect anti-slavery sentiment, as Lord Mansfield had done in the preceding decade in England,[7] and to make use of the bill of rights to destroy the masters' dominion. The decisive case was the prosecution of Nathaniel Jennison of Worcester County for assault and imprisonment alleged to have been committed upon his absconded slave Quork Walker in the process of his recovery. On the trial in 1783 the jury responded to a strong anti-slavery charge from Chief Justice Cushing by returning a verdict against Jennison, and the court fined him £50 and costs.
[Footnote 5: G.H. Moore, Notes on the History of Slavery in Massachusetts, pp. 181-209.]

[Footnote 6: Ibid., p. 208. So far as the present writer's knowledge extends, this item is without parallel at any other time or place.]

[Footnote 7: The case of James Somerset on habeas corpus, in Howell's State Trials, XX, §548.]
This action prompted the negroes generally to leave their masters, though some were deterred "on account of their age and infirmities, or because they did not know how to provide for themselves, or for some pecuniary consideration."[8] The former slaveholders now felt a double grievance: they were deprived of their able-bodied negroes but were not relieved of the legal obligation to support such others as remained on their hands. Petitions for their relief were considered by the legislature but never acted upon. The legal situation continued vague, for although an act of 1788 forbade citizens to trade in slaves and another penalized the sojourn for more than two months in Massachusetts of negroes from other states,[9] no legislation defined the status of colored residents. In the federal census of 1790, however, this was the only state in which no slaves were listed.
[Footnote 8: Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, XLIII, 386.]

[Footnote 9: Moore, pp. 227-229.]
Racial antipathy and class antagonism among the whites appear to have contributed to this result. John Adams wrote in 1795, with some exaggeration and incoherence: "Argument might have [had] some weight in the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts, but the real cause was the multiplication of labouring white people, who would no longer suffer the rich to employ these sable rivals so much to their injury ... If the gentlemen had been permitted by law to hold slaves, the common white people would have put the negroes to death, and their masters too, perhaps ... The common white people, or rather the labouring people, were the cause of rendering negroes unprofitable servants. Their scoffs and insults, their continual insinuations, filled the negroes with discontent, made them lazy, idle, proud, vicious, and at length wholly useless to their masters, to such a degree that the abolition of slavery became a measure of economy."[10]
[Footnote 10: Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, XLIII, 402.]
Slavery in the rest of the Northern states was as a rule not abolished, but rather put in process of gradual extinction by legislation of a peculiar sort enacted in response to agitations characteristic of the times. Pennsylvania set the pattern in an act of 1780 providing that all children born thereafter of slave mothers in the state were to be the servants of their mothers' owners until reaching twenty-eight years of age, and then to become free. Connecticut followed in 1784 with an act of similar purport but with a specification of twenty-five years, afterward reduced to twenty-one, as the age for freedom; and in 1840 she abolished her remnant of slavery outright. In Rhode Island an act of the same year, 1784, enacted that the children thereafter born of slave mothers were to be free at the ages of twenty-one for males and eighteen for females, and that these children were meanwhile to be supported and instructed at public expense; but an amendment of the following year transferred to the mothers' owners the burden of supporting the children, and ignored the matter of their education. New York lagged until 1799, and then provided freedom for the after-born only at twenty-eight and twenty-five years for males and females respectively; but a further act of 1817 set the Fourth of July in 1827 as a time for the emancipation for all remaining slaves in the state. New Jersey fell into line last of all by an act of 1804 giving freedom to the after-born at the ages of twenty-five for males and twenty-one for females; and in 1846 she converted the surviving slaves nominally into apprentices but without materially changing their condition. Supplementary legislation here and there in these states bestowed freedom upon slaves in military service, restrained the import and export of slaves, and forbade the citizens to ply the slave trade by land or sea.[11]
[Footnote 11: E.R. Turner, The Negro in Pennsylvania, pp. 77-85; B.C. Steiner, Slavery in Connecticut, pp. 30-32; Rhode Island Colonial Records, X, 132, 133; A.J. Northrup, "Slavery in New York," in the New York State Library Report for 1900, pp. 286-298; H.S. Cooley, "Slavery in New Jersey" (Johns Hopkins University Studies, XIV, nos. 9, 10), pp. 47-50; F.B. Lee, New Jersey as a Colony and as a State (New York, 1912), IV, 25-48.]
Thus from Pennsylvania eastward the riddance of slavery was procured or put in train, generally by the device of emancipating the post nati; and in consequence the slave population in that quarter dwindled before the middle of the nineteenth century to a negligible residue. To the southward the tobacco states, whose industry had reached a somewhat stationary condition, found it a simple matter to prohibit the further importation of slaves from Africa. Delaware did this in 1776, Virginia in 1778, Maryland in 1783 and North Carolina in 1794. But in these commonwealths as well as in their more southerly neighbors, the contemplation of the great social and economic problems involved in disestablishing slavery daunted the bulk of the citizens and impelled their representatives to conservatism. The advocacy of abolition, whether sudden or gradual, was little more than sporadic. The people were not to be stampeded in the cause of inherent rights or any other abstract philosophy. It was a condition and not a theory which confronted them.

In Delaware, however, the problem was hardly formidable, for at the time of the first federal census there were hardly nine thousand slaves and a third as many colored freemen in her gross population of some sixty thousand souls. Nevertheless a bill for gradual abolition considered by the legislature in 1786 appears not to have been brought to a vote,[12] and no action in the premises was taken thereafter. The retention of slavery seems to have been mainly due to mere public inertia and to the pressure of political sympathy with the more distinctively Southern states. Because of her border position and her dearth of plantation industry, the slaves in Delaware steadily decreased to less than eighteen hundred in 1860, while the free negroes grew to more than ten times as many.
[Footnote 12: J.R. Brackett, "The Status of the Slave, 1775-1789," in J.F. Jameson ed., Essays in the Constitutional History of the United States, 1775-1789 (Boston, 1889), pp. 300-302.]
In Maryland various projects for abolition, presented by the Quakers between 1785 and 1791 and supported by William Pinckney and Charles Carroll, were successively defeated in the legislature; and efforts to remove the legal restraints on private manumission were likewise thwarted.[13] These restrictions, which applied merely to the freeing of slaves above middle age, were in fact very slight. The manumissions indeed were so frequent and the conditions of life in Maryland were so attractive to free negroes, or at least so much less oppressive than in most other states, that while the slave population decreased between 1790 and 1860 from 103,036 to 87,189 souls the colored freemen multiplied from 8046 to 83,942, a number greater by twenty-five thousand than that in any other commonwealth.
[Footnote 13: J.R. Brackett, The Negro in Maryland (Baltimore, 1899), pp. 52-64, 148-155.]
Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1785 that anti-slavery men were as scarce to the southward of Chesapeake Bay as they were common to the north of it, while in Maryland, and still more in Virginia, the bulk of the people approved the doctrine and a respectable minority were ready to adopt it in practice, "a minority which for weight and worth of character preponderates against the greater number who have not the courage to divest their families of a property which, however, keeps their conscience unquiet." Virginia, he continued, "is the next state to which we may turn our eyes for the interesting spectacle of justice in conflict with avarice and oppression, a conflict in which the sacred side is gaining daily recruits from the influx into office of young men grown and growing up. These have sucked in the principles of liberty as it were with their mother's milk, and it is to them that I look with anxiety to turn the fate of the question."[14] Jefferson had already tried to raise the issue by having a committee for revising the Virginia laws, appointed in 1776 with himself a member, frame a special amendment for disestablishing slavery. This contemplated a gradual emancipation of the after-born children, their tutelage by the state, their colonization at maturity, and their replacement in Virginia by white immigrants.[15] But a knowledge that such a project would raise a storm caused even its framers to lay it aside. The abolition of primogeniture and the severance of church from state absorbed reformers' energies at the expense of the slavery question.
[Footnote 14: Jefferson, Writings, P.L. Ford ed., IV, 82-83.]

[Footnote 15: Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, various editions, query 14.]
When writing his Notes on Virginia in 1781 Jefferson denounced the slaveholding system in phrases afterward classic among abolitionists: "With what execration should the statesman be loaded who, permitting one-half of the citizens thus to trample on the rights of the other, transforms those into despots and these into enemies ... And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever."[16] In the course of the same work, however, he deprecated abolition unless it were to be accompanied with deportation: "Why not retain and incorporate the blacks into the state...? Deep rooted prejudices entertained by the whites, ten thousand recollections by the blacks of the injuries they have sustained, new provocations, the real distinctions which nature has made, and many other circumstances, will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race ... This unfortunate difference of colour, and perhaps of faculty, is a powerful obstacle to the emancipation of these people. Many of their advocates while they wish to vindicate the liberty of human nature are anxious also to preserve its dignity and beauty. Some of these, embarrassed by the question 'What further is to be done with them?' join themselves in opposition with those who are actuated by sordid avarice only. Among the Romans, emancipation required but one effort. The slave when made free might mix without staining the blood of his master. But with us a second is necessary unknown to history. When freed, he is to be removed beyond the reach of mixture."[17]
[Footnote 16: Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, query 18.]

[Footnote 17: Ibid., query 14.]
George Washington wrote in 1786 that one of his chief wishes was that some plan might be adopted "by which slavery may be abolished by slow, sure and imperceptible degrees." But he noted in the same year that some abolition petitions presented to the Virginia legislature had barely been given a reading.[18]
[Footnote 18: Washington, Writings, W.C. Ford ed., XI, 20, 62.]
Seeking to revive the issue, Judge St. George Tucker, professor of law in William and Mary College, inquired of leading citizens of Massachusetts in 1795 for data and advice, and undaunted by discouraging reports received in reply or by the specific dissuasion of John Adams, he framed an intricate plan for extremely gradual emancipation and for expelling the freedmen without expense to the state by merely making their conditions of life unbearable. This was presented to the legislature in a pamphlet of 1796 at the height of the party strife between the Federalists and Democratic-Republicans; and it was impatiently dismissed from consideration.[19] Tucker, still nursing his project, reprinted his "dissertation" as an appendix to his edition of Blackstone in 1803, where the people and the politicians let it remain buried. In public opinion, the problem as to the freedmen remained unsolved and insoluble.
[Footnote 19: St. George Tucker, A Dissertation on Slavery, with a proposal for the gradual abolition of it in the State of Virginia (Philadelphia, 1796, reprinted New York, 1860). Tucker's Massachusetts correspondence is printed in the Massachusetts Historical Society Collections, XLIII (Belknap papers), 379-431.]
Meanwhile the Virginia black code had been considerably moderated during and after the Revolution; and in particular the previous almost iron-clad prohibition of private manumission had been wholly removed in effect by an act of 1782. In spite of restrictions afterward imposed upon manumission and upon the residence of new freedmen in the state, the free negroes increased on a scale comparable to that in Maryland. As compared with an estimate of less than two thousand in 1782, there were 12,866 in 1790, 20,124 in 1800, and 30,570 in 1810. Thereafter the number advanced more slowly until it reached 58,042, about one-eighth as many as the slaves numbered, in 1860.

In the more southerly states condemnation of slavery was rare. Among the people of Georgia, the depressing experience of the colony under a prohibition of it was too fresh in memory for them to contemplate with favor a fresh deprivation. In South Carolina Christopher Gadsden had written in 1766 likening slavery to a crime, and a decade afterward Henry Laurens wrote: "You know, my dear son, I abhor slavery.... The day, I hope is approaching when from principles of gratitude as well as justice every man will strive to be foremost in showing his readiness to comply with the golden rule. Not less than twenty thousand pounds sterling would all my negroes produce if sold at public auction tomorrow.... Nevertheless I am devising means for manumitting many of them, and for cutting off the entail of slavery. Great powers oppose me--the laws and customs of my country, my own and the avarice of my countrymen. What will my children say if I deprive them of so much estate? These are difficulties, but not insuperable. I will do as much as I can in my time, and leave the rest to a better hand. I am not one of those ... who dare trust in Providence for defence and security of their own liberty while they enslave and wish to continue in slavery thousands who are as well entitled to freedom as themselves. I perceive the work before me is great. I shall appear to many as a promoter not only of strange but of dangerous doctrines; it will therefore be necessary to proceed with caution."[20] Had either Gadsden or Laurens entertained thoughts of launching an anti-slavery campaign, however, the palpable hopelessness of such a project in their community must have dissuaded them. The negroes of the rice coast were so outnumbering and so crude that an agitation applying the doctrine of inherent liberty and equality to them could only have had the effect of discrediting the doctrine itself. Furthermore, the industrial prospect, the swamps and forests calling for conversion into prosperous plantations, suggested an increase rather than a diminution of the slave labor supply. Georgia and South Carolina, in fact, were more inclined to keep open the African slave trade than to relinquish control of the negro population. Revolutionary liberalism had but the slightest of echoes there.
[Footnote 20: Frank Moore ed., Correspondence of Henry Laurens (New York, 1861), pp. 20, 21. The version of this letter given by Professor Wallace in his Life of Henry Laurens, p. 446, which varies from the present one, was derived from a paraphrase by John Laurens to whom the original was written. Cf. South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine, X. 49. For related items in the Laurens correspondence see D.D. Wallace, Life of Henry Laurens, pp. 445, 447-455.]
In North Carolina the prevailing lack of enterprise in public affairs had no exception in regard to slavery. The Quakers alone condemned it. When in 1797 Nathaniel Macon, a pronounced individualist and the chief spokesman of his state in Congress, discussed the general subject he said "there was not a gentleman in North Carolina who did not wish there were no blacks in the country. It was a misfortune--he considered it a curse; but there was no way of getting rid of them." Macon put his emphasis upon the negro problem rather than upon the question of slavery, and in so doing he doubtless reflected the thought of his community.[21] The legislation of North Carolina regarding racial control, like that of the period in South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee and Kentucky, was more conservative than liberal.
[Footnote 21: Annals of Congress, VII, 661. American historians, through preoccupation or inadvertence, have often confused anti-negro with anti-slavery expressions. In reciting the speech of Macon here quoted McMaster has replaced "blacks" with "slaves"; and incidentally he has made the whole discussion apply to Georgia instead of North Carolina. Rhodes in turn has implicitly followed McMaster in both errors. J.B. McMaster, History of the People of the United States, II, 359; J.F. Rhodes, History of the United States, I, 19.]
The central government of the United States during the Revolution and the Confederation was little concerned with slavery problems except in its diplomatic affairs, where the question was merely the adjustment of property in slaves, and except in regard to the western territories. Proposals for the prohibition of slavery in these wilderness regions were included in the first projects for establishing governments in them. Timothy Pickering and certain military colleagues framed a plan in 1780 for a state beyond the Ohio River with slavery excluded; but it was allowed to drop out of consideration. In the next year an ordinance drafted by Jefferson was introduced into Congress for erecting territorial governments over the whole area ceded or to be ceded by the states, from the Alleghanies to the Mississippi and from Canada to West Florida; and one of its features was a prohibition of slavery after the year 1800 throughout the region concerned. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress could enact legislation only by the affirmative votes of seven state delegations. When the ballot was taken on the anti-slavery clause the six states from Pennsylvania eastward voted aye: Maryland, Virginia and South Carolina voted no; and the other states were absent. Jefferson was not alone in feeling chagrin at the defeat and in resolving to persevere. Pickering expressed his own views in a letter to Rufus King: "To suffer the continuance of slaves till they can be gradually emancipated, in states already overrun with them, may be pardonable because unavoidable without hazarding greater evils; but to introduce them into countries where none already exist ... can never be forgiven." King in his turn introduced a resolution virtually restoring the stricken clause, but was unable to bring it to a vote. After being variously amended, the ordinance without this clause was adopted. It was, however, temporary in its provision and ineffectual in character; and soon the drafting of one adequate for permanent purposes was begun. The adoption of this was hastened in July, 1787, by the offer of a New England company to buy from Congress a huge tract of Ohio land. When the bill was put to the final vote it was supported by every member with the sole exception of the New Yorker, Abraham Yates. Delegations from all of the Southern states but Maryland were present, and all of them voted aye. Its enactment gave to the country a basic law for the territories in phrasing and in substance comparable to the Declaration of Independence and the Federal Constitution. Applying only to the region north of the Ohio River, the ordinance provided for the erection of territories later to be admitted as states, guaranteed in republican government, secured in the freedom of religion, jury trial and all concomitant rights, endowed with public land for the support of schools and universities, and while obligated to render fugitive slaves on claim of their masters in the original states, shut out from the régime of slaveholding itself.[22] "There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory," it prescribed, "otherwise than in punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted." The first Congress under the new constitution reënacted the ordinance, which was the first and last antislavery achievement by the central government in the period.
[Footnote 22: A.C. McLaughlin, The Confederation and the Constitution (New York [1905]), chap. 7; B.A. Hinsdale, The Old Northwest (New York, 1888), chap. 15.]
By this time radicalism in general had spent much of its force. The excessive stress which the Revolution had laid upon the liberty of individuals had threatened for a time to break the community's grasp upon the essentials of order and self-restraint. Social conventions of many sorts were flouted; local factions resorted to terrorism against their opponents; legislatures abused their power by confiscating loyalist property and enacting laws for the dishonest promotion of debtor-class interests, and the central government, made pitiably weak by the prevailing jealousy of control, was kept wholly incompetent through the shirking of burdens by states pledged to its financial support. But populism and particularism brought their own cure. The paralysis of government now enabled sober statesmen to point the prospect of ruin through chaos and get a hearing in their advocacy of sound system. Exalted theorising on the principles of liberty had merely destroyed the old régime: matter-of-fact reckoning on principles of law and responsibility must build the new. The plan of organization, furthermore, must be enough in keeping with the popular will to procure a general ratification.

Negro slavery in the colonial period had been of continental extent but under local control. At the close of the Revolution, as we have seen, its area began to be sectionally confined while the jurisdiction over it continued to lie in the several state governments. The great convention at Philadelphia in 1787 might conceivably have undertaken the transfer of authority over the whole matter to the central government; but on the one hand the beginnings of sectional jealousy made the subject a delicate one, and on the other hand the members were glad enough to lay aside all problems not regarded as essential in their main task. Conscious ignorance by even the best informed delegates from one section as to affairs in another was a dissuasion from the centralizing of doubtful issues; and the secrecy of the convention's proceedings exempted it from any pressure of anti-slavery sentiment from outside.

On the whole the permanence of any critical problem in the premises was discredited. Roger Sherman of Connecticut "observed that the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the United States, and that the good sense of the people of the several states would by degrees compleat it." His colleague Oliver Ellsworth said, "The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves"; and again, "Let us not intermeddle. As population increases poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery in time will not be a speck in our country." And Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts "thought we had nothing to do with the conduct of states as to slaves, but ought to be careful not to give any sanction to it." The agreement was general that the convention keep its hands off so far as might be; but positive action was required upon incidental phases which involved some degree of sanction for the institution itself. These issues concerned the apportionment of representation, the regulation of the African trade, and the rendition of fugitives. This last was readily adjusted by the unanimous adoption of a clause introduced by Pierce Butler of South Carolina and afterward changed in its phrasing to read: "No person held to service or labour in one state under the laws thereof escaping into another shall in consequence of any law or regulation therein be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due." After some jockeying, the other two questions were settled by compromise. Representation in the lower house of Congress was apportioned among the states "according to their several members, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons ... three fifths of all other persons." As to the foreign slave trade, Congress was forbidden to prohibit it prior to the year 1808, and was merely permitted meanwhile to levy an import duty upon slaves at a rate of not more than ten dollars each. [23]
[Footnote 23: Max Farrand ed., The Records of the Federal Convention (New Haven, 1911), passim]
In the state conventions to which the Constitution was referred for ratification the debates bore out a remark of Madison's at Philadelphia that the real difference of interests lay not between the large and small states but between those within and without the slaveholding influence. The opponents of the Constitution at the North censured it as a pro-slavery instrument, while its advocates apologized for its pertinent clauses on the ground that nothing more hostile to the institution could have been carried and that if the Constitution were rejected there would be no prospect of a federal stoppage of importations at any time. But at the South the opposition, except in Maryland and Virginia where the continuance of the African trade was deprecated, declared the slavery concessions inadequate, while the champions of the Constitution maintained that the utmost practicable advantages for their sectional interest had been achieved. Among the many amendments to the Constitution proposed by the ratifying conventions the only one dealing with any phase of slavery was offered, strange to say, by Rhode Island, whose inhabitants had been and still were so active in the African trade. It reads: "As a traffic tending to establish and continue the slavery of the human species is disgraceful to the cause of liberty and humanity, Congress shall as soon as may be promote and establish such laws as may effectually prevent the importation of slaves of every description."[24] The proposal seems to have received no further attention at the time.
[Footnote 24: This was dated May 29, 1790. H.V. Ames, "Proposed Amendment to the Constitution of the United States," in the American Historical Association Report for 1896, p. 208]
In the early sessions of Congress under the new Constitution most of the few debates on slavery topics arose incidentally and ended without positive action. The taxation of slave imports was proposed in 1789, but was never enacted: sundry petitions of anti-slavery tenor, presented mostly by Quakers, were given brief consideration in 1790 and again at the close of the century but with no favorable results; and when, in 1797, a more concrete issue was raised by memorials asking intervention on behalf of some negroes whom Quakers had manumitted in North Carolina in disregard of legal restraints and who had again been reduced to slavery, a committee reported that the matter fell within the scope of judicial cognizance alone, and the House dismissed the subject. For more than a decade, indeed, the only legislation enacted by Congress concerned at all with slavery was the act of 1793 empowering the master of an interstate fugitive to seize him wherever found, carry him before any federal or state magistrate in the vicinage, and procure a certificate warranting his removal to the state from which he had fled. Proposals to supplement this rendition act on the one hand by safeguarding free negroes from being kidnapped under fraudulent claims and on the other hand by requiring employers of strange negroes to publish descriptions of them and thus facilitate the recovery of runaways, were each defeated in the House.

On the whole the glamor of revolutionary doctrines was passing, and self interest was regaining its wonted supremacy. While the rising cotton industry was giving the blacks in the South new value as slaves, Northern spokesmen were frankly stating an antipathy of their people toward negroes in any capacity whatever.[25] The succession of disasters in San Domingo, meanwhile, gave warning against the upsetting of racial adjustments in the black belts, and the Gabriel revolt of 1800 in Virginia drove the lesson home. On slavery questions for a period of several decades the policy of each of the two sections was merely to prevent itself from being overreached. The conservative trend, however, could not wholly remove the Revolution's impress of philosophical liberalism from the minds of men. Slavery was always a thing of appreciable disrelish in many quarters; and the slave trade especially, whether foreign or domestic, bore a permanent stigma.
[Footnote 25: E. g., Annals of Congress, 1799-1801, pp. 230-246.]


Terms Defined

Referenced Works