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Thursday, March 01, 2007

The the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves Passed, March 2, 1807

Today in 1807, the United States Congress passed the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves. While viewed by some as an important step on the road to abolition, others viewed it as a way for Senators and Representatives to sidestep, at least for the time being, the argument over slavery that was slowly pulling the young country apart.

The US Constitution had done nothing to alter the state of slavery in the 13 former colonies. After the War for Independence, anti-slavery groups began to organize throughout the country. The more influential members of these groups pressured Congress to do something, anything, to advance the cause of abolition. The first small victory came with passage of the Slave Trade Act of 1794. This Act prohibited the building or equipping of any ship for the purpose of transporting slaves. In 1798, Congress went further by passing an Act that levied a $300 fine per slave against anyone not following the law with regard to the importation of slaves.

Abolitionists were not the sole influence on Congress at that time. In Britain, calls for abolishment of slavery were becoming more commonplace and William Wilberforce's parliamentary campaign against the trade was heading towards eventual success. But events in the United States worked against those who wanted to free the slaves. First, there was the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which caused an explosion in the growth of cotton in the south. More cotton meant more slaves. There was also the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which essentially doubled the land mass of the United States and opened up vast areas for farming and other industries for which more slaves were sought. Many in the country, especially those in the agricultural south, argued that slavery was essential to the continued economic health of the nation.

Realizing that slaveholders were most often wealthy men with real political power, the Senate and the House of Representatives both handled the issue with kid gloves. Each house of Congress produced a measure which were then bound together; the House bill was called HR 77 (HR meaning House Resolution) while the Senate called their measure "an Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, 1808." After passage on March 2, 1807, the two measures, bound together as one, were sent to President Thomas Jefferson. He signed them into law the next day.

Representatives from both the north and the south voted in favor of the measures. At first glance, it would seem that the Act put a serious hurdle in the way of continuing slavery in the United States. Sadly, this was not the case. By 1807, there were over four million slaves living in the south. Since the children of slaves automatically became slaves at birth, the population was large enough to become self-sustaining. There was simply no need to import slaves from Africa.

Furthermore, the Act was unenforceable. The US Navy patrolled the coastal waters of the United States and even sent a ship to join the Royal Navy squadron enforcing an export blockade of Africa. But the Navy was small and there were hundreds of places were a slave ship could drop anchor and deliver its human cargo. In 1819, Congress passed another act which called the importation of slaves into the United States piracy, a crime that was punishable by death. But the ships continued to deliver slaves to Brazil and Cuba for nearly a half century.

All told, more than 12 million Africans were taken from their homes and shipped to North, Central and South America. Of those, one million are thought to have died from neglect and mistreatment during their voyage. What's more, it would take a civil war and the deaths of over 600,000 Americans to rid the nation of the institution.

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