Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves

When the U.S. Congress formally outlawed the slave trade into the United States, the law proved to be a symbolic act rather than a practical end to the trade, and the difficulties of both passing and enforcing the act reflected the young nation’s moral ambiguity about freedom and slavery.

Summary of Event

Because the essence of slavery is to regard human beings as property, the buying and selling of slaves is implicit in the institution; therefore, the slave trade is as old as slavery itself. In the ancient Mediterranean world, slaves were obtained from many locations, including North Africa. As early as 1444, the Portuguese Portugal;and slave trade[Slave trade] began importing African slaves, and at the end of the same century, Christopher Columbus took a few black slaves born in Spain Spain;and slave trade[Slave trade] to Hispaniola, the first European New World colony. At first, the Spaniards intended to use native Caribbean peoples as slaves, but by the sixteenth century, the native Caribbeans had proved unsatisfactory as slaves, and most of them were dying off from smallpox, Smallpox;in Caribbean[Caribbean] syphilis, Syphilis influenza, Influenza measles, Measles and other diseases Diseases;European introduced by European contact. The Caribbean peoples who remained proved rebellious, physically unsuitable for agricultural exploitation, and quick to disappear into familiar surrounding forests. Early in the sixteenth century, Spain began importing black African slaves to its New World colonies. Slave trade;Atlantic
Congress, U.S.;and slave trade[Slave trade]
Slave trade;and U.S. law[U.S. law]
[kw]Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves (Mar. 2, 1807)
[kw]Bans Importation of African Slaves, Congress (Mar. 2, 1807)
[kw]Importation of African Slaves, Congress Bans (Mar. 2, 1807)
[kw]African Slaves, Congress Bans Importation of (Mar. 2, 1807)
[kw]Slaves, Congress Bans Importation of African (Mar. 2, 1807)
Slave trade;Atlantic
Congress, U.S.;and slave trade[Slave trade]
Slave trade;and U.S. law[U.S. law]
[g]United States;Mar. 2, 1807: Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves[0360]
[g]Central America and the Caribbean;Mar. 2, 1807: Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves[0360]
[g]Africa;Mar. 2, 1807: Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves[0360]
[c]Human rights;Mar. 2, 1807: Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves[0360]
[c]Trade and commerce;Mar. 2, 1807: Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves[0360]
[c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Mar. 2, 1807: Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves[0360]
[c]Atrocities and war crimes;Mar. 2, 1807: Congress Bans Importation of African Slaves[0360]
Bradley, Stephen Row
Bidwell, Barnabas
Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and slave trade[Slave

The Netherlands Netherlands;and slave trade[Slave trade] and France France;and slave trade[Slave trade] also took up the practice of importing African slaves in their New World possessions. During the seventeenth century, England Great Britain;and slave trade[Slave trade] had begun to gain commercial ascendancy by developing the notorious “triangular trade,” Triangular trade which linked equatorial Africa, the Caribbean, and its North American colonies. By the time Great Britain’s American colonies revolted and established the United States of America, the triangular trade had reached its peak. In 1790, approximately three-quarters of a million people of black African descent were living in the United States. Almost nine-tenths of them labored as slaves in the southern states, with Virginia Virginia;slavery in alone claiming three hundred thousand slaves. About 28 percent of African Americans in the northern states were free, but only one major American city, Boston, had no black slaves at all. The American struggle for political independence did not effect freedom for the slaves and their offspring.

Although Congress banned the importation of slaves in 1807, the slave trade within the United States flourished until the time of the Civil War (1861-1865). The Alexandria, Virginia, slave-dealing firm in this photograph operated only a few miles from the nation’s capital during the 1850’s.

(National Archives/Mathew Brady Collection)

Antislavery sentiment in North America was growing at the time of the American Revolution American Revolution (1775-1783);and slavery[Slavery] but needed competent leadership to challenge the long-standing practice of people enslaving their fellow humans. The Quakers;and abolitionism[Abolitionism] Society of Friends (Quakers), some of whose members had a long history of opposition to slavery, led the antislavery, or abolitionist, movement in Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania;abolitionist movement beginning shortly before the outbreak of the revolution, and a few clergymen of other religious congregations in England and America took up the cause. Arguments against slavery at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 foundered on threats that delegates from South Carolina and Georgia would ratify no constitution that outlawed the slave trade. In the end, the convention wrote into Article I of the Constitution Constitution, U.S.;and slave trade[Slave trade] the vaguely worded promise that Congress would not move to end the slave trade before 1808:

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.

Opposition to slavery was not all high-minded. The French Revolution French Revolution (1789);and Haiti[Haiti] of 1789 had helped inspire a bloody slave revolt in Haiti
Slave rebellions;Haiti
Slave rebellions;fear of France’s Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue on the island of Hispaniola that eventually led to the creation of independent, black-ruled Haiti. In the United States, fear of similar slave uprisings was probably a more powerful motive for opposing the slave trade than democratic or humanitarian sentiments in the antislavery agitation of the 1790’s.

By the 1790’s, several northern states had outlawed slavery, sometimes through legislation that instituted abolition gradually or at least banned traffic in slaves. Maryland, Maryland;slavery in Massachusetts Massachusetts;slavery in , Connecticut Connecticut;slavery in , New York New York State;slavery in , and New Jersey New Jersey;slavery in had all passed anti-slave-trade legislation in the 1780’s, as did even South Carolina South Carolina;slavery in for a few years. However, such piecemeal legislation could not stop the trade in human beings, particularly after 1793, when the invention Inventions;cotton gin
Cotton gin of the cotton gin suddenly made cotton a far more profitable crop in the South by greatly increasing the speed at which seeds could be separated from the picked cotton, Cotton thus increasing plantation owners’ desire for more cotton pickers. It has been said that slavery might have simply died out in the United States, had it not been for the invention of the cotton gin.

Northern merchants, although not slave owners themselves, had few scruples about supplying new slaves for southern cotton-growing states, and the delight of New England textile Textile industry;and cotton[Cotton]
Textile industry;New England mill owners over the newly burgeoning supply of cotton was not likely to make them support abolition. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the slave trade to the United States was far from waning. It has been estimated that no fewer than twenty thousand new slaves were imported in Georgia Georgia;slavery in and South Carolina South Carolina;slavery in in 1803.

In December, 1805, Senator Stephen R. Bradley Bradley, Stephen Row of Vermont introduced federal legislation that would prohibit the slave trade beginning in 1808—the earliest date allowed by the Constitution. However, the bill was stalled for some months. A similar bill was offered in the House of Representatives by Barnabas Bidwell Bidwell, Barnabas of Massachusetts, again to no effect. Later that year, President Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and slave trade[Slave trade] urged passage of the bill in his message to Congress. On March 2, 1807, Congress enacted a law specifying a twenty-thousand-dollar fine and forfeiture of ship and cargo for importing slaves, as well as other penalties for acts ranging from equipping a slave ship to knowingly buying an imported slave. The disposition of illegally imported slaves was left to the states, however. The law also prohibited coastal trade in slaves carried on in vessels smaller than forty tons. Enforcement of the law was delegated first to the secretary of the Treasury and later to the secretary of the Navy.

Antislavery forces rejoiced in this new and symbolically important law, but its enforcement proved weak. An exhaustive census of the slave trade Slave trade;census of published in 1969 estimated that 1.9 million slaves were illegally imported into the United States between 1811 and 1870. Later research has called that estimate low. Probably one-fifth of the Africans who became American slaves arrived in the United States after 1808, when the federal law took effect.

Although more than one hundred slave vessels were seized and their officers arrested in the years between 1837 and 1862, and nearly the same number of cases were prosecuted, convictions were difficult to obtain. Moreover, when convictions were obtained, judges often pronounced light sentences. Meanwhile, because of meager press coverage of the slave trade, few Americans were aware of the extent of the violations. During the decades following the 1807 law, most Americans thought of slave importation as something of the past. Some people, particularly in the South, continued to sympathize with the slave trade.

Another weakness of the 1807 law was that it permitted the continuation of slave traffic among states. Slave owners were permitted to take their slaves into other slave states or, according to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 Missouri Compromise (1820) , into a western territory south of 36°30′, an area greatly increased by the annexation of Texas in 1845. Moreover, runaway slaves were not out of danger when they entered so-called free states. Nearly one-half century after the 1807 law, the Fugitive Slave Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Law of 1850 obligated all those who captured fugitive slaves anywhere in the United States to return the slaves to their owners.


It was morally important that Stephen Bradley Bradley, Stephen Row and Barnabas Bidwell Bidwell, Barnabas took initiatives to end the sanctioning of U.S. participation in the Atlantic slave trade. It was also important that President Thomas Jefferson Jefferson, Thomas
[p]Jefferson, Thomas;and slave trade[Slave trade] , who owned slaves and whose ambiguous attitude toward slavery has continued to cause debate among historians, used his influence to secure passage of the law.

The law was an important step in the direction of creating a truly free society. If it was not a highly effective step, it was at least a necessary one in a new nation that could not agree to condemn slavery outright at that nation’s birth or in its early decades. However, the underlying problem with the law forbidding importation of slaves was the institution of slavery itself. As long as a person could be someone else’s property, that person would almost inevitably be subject to slave trade of some sort. It was illogical to try to restrict the buying and selling of men, women, and children so long as slavery itself continued to be legal. Nothing better illustrates the problems of compromise between holders of diametrically opposed convictions than the long series of compromises over slavery. Ultimately, the nation could find no better solution for its ambiguous struggle with slavery than the bloody Civil War of 1861-1865.

Further Reading

  • Barry, Boubacar. Senegambia and the Atlantic Slave Trade. Translated by Ayi Kwei Armah. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Originally published in French in 1988, this book provides a meticulously detailed examination of four centuries of the slave trade from a region that supplied many slaves to North America.
  • Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. New York: Verso, 1988. Chapter 7 treats the U.S. experience, with emphasis on politically expedient motives for containing the growth of slavery.
  • Davis, David Brion. Slavery and Human Progress. New York: Oxford University Press, 1984. In arguing that much of what is called progress rests on slavery and the slave trade, contends that abolitionists’ most difficult opponents were progressives.
  • Eltis, David, and James Walvin, eds. The Abolition of the Atlantic Slave Trade: Origins and Effects in Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1981. Part 4, “American Demographic and Cultural Responses,” contains four essays, including one studying the effect of U.S. abolition on African American culture.
  • Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans. 8th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2000. Pioneering study by an African American historian, first published in 1947. Contains historical background and succinct summary of the enactment of the 1807 law and its aftermath.
  • Howard, Warren S. American Slavers and the Federal Law, 1837-1862. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963. A copiously documented study of violations of the 1807 law during the quarter century before the outbreak of the Civil War.
  • Rawley, James A. The Transatlantic Slave Trade: A History. New York: W. W. Norton, 1981. Surveys the slave trade from its fifteenth century beginnings and places U.S. involvement in its international context. Revises upward previous estimates, but asserts that the U.S. slave trade was a small percentage of the whole.
  • Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1440-1870. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. A massive volume that offers a comprehensive survey of almost every aspect of the slave trade but one that younger readers will find readily accessible.

Social Reform Movement

Missouri Compromise

Slavery Is Abolished Throughout the British Empire

American Anti-Slavery Society Is Founded

Amistad Slave Revolt

Last Slave Ship Docks at Mobile

Thirteenth Amendment Is Ratified

Zanzibar Outlaws Slavery

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