History of American slavery until 1820

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, slavery existed in all the thirteen colonies. Though the fact of its existence was not always recognized by the English government, yet the ministry had been during colonial times steadily in favor of the slavetrade, and vetoed every effort of the colonies to prevent the importation of slaves.

The Quakers were the first to agitate the question of slavery from a moral point of view. By the end of the seventeenth century they had begun to instruct the slaves in religion, and to protest against their importation. During the eighteenth century the emancipation of slaves had become an active measure of the Quakers as a society, not of individuals only, as in other sects. The negro, who had long been classed with domestic animals, now began to be looked upon as a man. Yet no attack upon slavery where it existed was thought of. It was supposed that by stopping the importation of slaves the institution would gradually disappear. At the outbreak of the Revolution there were about half a million slaves in the country. (In 1790 there were 697, 897 slaves, of whom 40,370 were held in the Northern States.) The increase of the free population was greater than that of the slave, and it was erroneously argued that the importance of the institution would steadily diminish. Antislavery sentiment was not confined to the North, but even made its appearance in the South, while the political aspect of the question of slavery was confined to importation. The Congress of 1774 adopted resolutions opposed to importation, and in 1776 this prohibition was repeated without opposition. The first step in the opposite direction was made when the passage decrying slave-importation was stricken from the Declaration of Independence.

During the Revolutionary War opinions in favor of emancipation grew in strength in the North, the abolition societies of Pennsylvania became more energetic, and similar societies were founded in the other States. Even in Virginia, in 1788, the importation of slaves was forbidden, and steps were taken in favor of gradual emancipation. But in the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention the Southern delegates showed very clearly that they did not expect or desire any rapid vanishment of the institution. There were two questions to be considered,-the status of the slaves in taxation, and their status in representation. The first of these was decided, by the casting vote of New Jersey, in favor of the exemption of slaves from taxation. The second was decided, in accordance with a compromise measure proposed by Wilson of Pennsylvania, by reckoning five slaves as equal to three freemen in representation. The compromise, as passed, prohibited Congress from forbidding the importation of slaves until 1808. In the debates on these measures a strong division of opinion appeared, but it was based solely on the political and financial interests of the two sections, not on any idea of the morality or immorality of human slavery. In 1787 an act was adopted prohibiting slavery in the territory northwest of the Ohio, but providing for the surrender of fugitive slaves from that territory. The Constitution also contained a provision to the effect that any person lawfully bound to "service or labor" in any State, and fleeing to another State, should be delivered up on demand. However it appeared then, it has since become painfully evident that the slave-holding interest gained decided victories in the formation of the Constitution, and placed the institution of slavery on a solid basis from which it would not easily be overthrown.

In 1789 North Carolina, and in 1802 Georgia, ceded their western territory to the United States, with the proviso that no action should be taken prohibitory of slavery in this territory. The cessions were accepted with this proviso. This was the first step towards extending the dominion of slavery. In 1793 a fugitive-slave law was passed by Congress, which ordered the return of a slave from any State or Territory to which he had fled. A case occurred under this law in 1797. Four North Carolina slaves had been freed by their masters. Being condemned under a State law to be sold again, they fled to Philadelphia. They were here seized as fugitive slaves, and, though a petition in their favor was presented to Congress, its consideration was rejected by a vote of fifty to thirty-three. A petition from these negroes was brought before Congress three years later, with the same result, and petitions in regard to slavery from the Quakers of Pennsylvania were similarly refused a hearing.

On January 1, 1808, the first day on which Congress had a right to act upon it, a bill forbidding the importation of slaves was passed unanimously. Yet its effect was not prohibitory, since the smuggling of slaves immediately took the place of their open importation. Efforts were made to break up this illicit trade, but with little effect, it being estimated by southern members that from thirteen thousand to fifteen thousand slaves were annually smuggled into the country. In 1819 Congress declared the slave-trade to be piracy, though none of its participants seem to have been condemned as pirates.

That the number of slaves was rapidly increasing became very evident, and colonization-schemes were proposed to dispose of free negroes and illegally-imported slaves. It was supposed that by this method some amelioration of slavery might be produced, though it was not clear what useful effect could result.

There had by this time arisen a decided distinction between the industrial systems of the two sections of the country. The North had grown more and more distinctively commercial and manufacturing, the South more and more agricultural. In the one slavery became destitute of utility; in the other it appeared to be absolutely essential. The cotton-gin, invented by Whitney in 1793, made cotton-raising the special industry of the South, the cultivation of this staple at once receiving a vigorous impulse. Slave labor, which had begun to grow highly unsatisfactory, at once advanced in importance, and the demand for slaves rapidly increased. Meanwhile, the representation of the Northern States in Congress was steadily outnumbering that of the South. In 1790 the North had thirty-eight representatives to the South's thirty-one. In 1820 the North had one hundred and eight, the South eighty-one. The South was evidently losing power in legislation, and saw the necessity of taking active measures to increase its representation. This could be done only by an extension of slave territory. The Territory of Missouri applied in 1819 for admission as a State, and the question of slavery-extension at once came up in Congress.

Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 3)