Sunday, December 30, 2007

Slave Trade Banned 200 Years Ago on January 1

The New York Times has run an article that expresses a sobering and important point: In spite of our nation's fascination with anniversaries, "one significant milestone has gone strangely unnoticed: the 200th anniversary of Jan. 1, 1808, when the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited."

During the Constitutional Convention, a tragic (but "necessary," some say) compromise was reached that allowed the slave states of the newly formed United States of America to continue dealing in the international slave trade.

The slave trade represented the worst of the slave system. Even some slaveowners recognized this, which led them to argue vociferously against it. Southern slave owners from James Madison to George Mason expressed disgust for the slave trade, which profited from the exploitation of African victims snatched away from their families due to war, misfortune, and/or outright kidnappings. These victims would then be shipped in dreadful conditions into the very bowels of the international slave industry. It was a reprehensible practice.

And yet...the slave states of the Deep South, particularly Georgia and South Carolina, depended on slavery - and, by extension, the slave trade.

The Upper South (slave-holding, but uncomfortable with the slave trade and the expansion of slavery) and the North (increasingly opposed to slavery) compromised with their Deep South counterparts on both the slave trade and also on representation in Congress (the North allowed the slave states to count 3/5 of their slaves for the purposes of congressional representation). The slave trade compromise left the slave trade in the hands of the individual states until 1808.

By 1807, all of the states, except South Carolina, had stopped dealing in the slave trade. Congress stepped in and (using its new constitutional authority) banned the trade -- a ban that would take effect New Year's Day, 1808.

The ban on the slave trade was the first major step taken by the United States government against the institution of slavery. And for that reason, it is an anniversary worth remembering.


A great film that depicts the horrors of the African slave trade is Steven Spielberg's masterpiece Amistad. If you haven't seen it, check it out!

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