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‘Every White Man Might Have a Chance’ – South Carolina’s Arguments to Re-Open the Slave Trade

Slavery had grown and expanded nearly to its full potential by the middle of the 1800s. With the vast tracts of land now opened in the West, slavery had the chance to spread almost unabated into the West. While it grew at an alarming rate – higher than in many other locations in the New World – it seemed to many Southern businessmen to be not enough. With the practically limitless westward expansion, the enslavers saw the fortunes that could be made by not only slavery’s natural growth, but by adding new slaves directly from Africa to the mix with the reopening of the Atlantic slave trade.

In a previous piece, we examined the efforts by Southern commercial interests in the late 1850s to reopen the Atlantic slave trade which had been made illegal by the United States government in 1808. We saw that even in 1855, the Southern Commercial Convention resolved to recommend “Senators and Representatives in Congress, from the slave-holding states, to introduce a bill to repeal all laws suppressing the slave trade, and that they exert all their influence to have such a law passed.” 1Proceedings of the Southern Commercial Convention (New Orleans Daily Crescent, 1855) 17.

Selling the idea to those whose coffers would profit from the trade was hardly a difficult achievement. But convincing a national congress to repeal what many believed either economically necessary or morally sound was a different matter.

In this round, we’ll take a look at how South Carolina Governor James Adams convinced his state to push for the re-opening of the slave trade.

Rhett and Governor Adams: If the Slave Trade is Wrong, I Don’t Want to Know What’s Right

Robert Barnwell Rhett
Robert Barnwell Rhett

By 1856, South Carolina was already leading the calls for secession and a reopening of the Atlantic slave trade (almost as if they were one in the same). Robert Barnwell Rhett was demanding immediate secession if Republican John C. Freemont were elected President. Not only would Rhett call for disunion, but he assumed that slavery would expand more swiftly because of it. He declared “that we not only desire to make Territories, now free, slave Territories, and to acquire new territory into which to extend slavery – such as Cuba, North Eastern Mexico, &c – but we would re-open the African slave trade that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more negroes, and go with them and his household goods wherever opportunity beckoned enterprise.” 2An 1856 letter from Rhett to Governor James Adams appeared in the Charleston Mercury and various other papers. The text used was reprinted in The Evangelical Repository, Volume 3, (Glasgow: Lang, Adamson, & Co., 1857) 159. It was the only source which I could find that reprinted the entire text. Here.

While Rhett held no official government position at the time, he had been pushing for secession since the 1830s. Because of this and his former position as United States Senator, as well as various state offices, he had Governor James Adams’ ear. On November 24, 1856, Governor Adams delivered a message to the South Carolina congress, decrying that “a majority of the free States have declared against the South, upon a purely sectional issue.” He, like Rhett, pushed for secession and a re-opening of the slave trade.

“There was a time,” spoke Adams, “when cautioning philanthropists had instilled into us a belief that slavery was wrong. Investigation had entirely changed the once common sentiment on this point. The South now believes that a mysterious Providence has brought the two races together on this continent for wise purposes, and that the existing relation has been mutually beneficial.”

Governor James Hopkins Adams of South Carolina
Governor James Hopkins Adams of South Carolina

That Adams was mystified by this “mysterious Providence” is curious, since he went on to extol the virtues of the African slave trade. When Congress declared the trade as piracy, Adams explained, it was “a brand upon us, which I think it important to remove. If the trade be piracy, the slave must be plunder….” He railed for more slaves, as they were “necessary to a continuance of our monopoly in plantation products.” They were, due to the three-fifths clause in the United States Constitution, “necessary to the restoration of the South, to an equality of power in the General Government, perhaps to the very integrity of slave society….” Adams resolved that it was “perhaps the most sacred obligation, that we should give it the means of expansion, and that we should press it forward to a perpetuity of progress.” 3James H. Adams Message No. 1 (Columbia: R.W. Gibbes, Printer to the Senate, 1856) 3, 11. Here – PDF.

While the governor’s speech was fairly radical, it was hardly on the level or Rhett or other fire-eaters. That said, it seemed to push the public sentiment farther toward the radical end of the spectrum, macadamizing the way for a more broadly accepted view of secession.

“No one dares denounce it in a high tone of indignation,” wrote William Preston, a Whig nullifier, “for fear of being suspected of abolitionism. In truth, we are under a reign of terror and the public mind exists in a panic.” 4Letter from Preston to Waddy Thompson, undated, but obviously written concerning Adams’ speech. As quoted in Manisha Sinha The Counterrevolution of Slavery (University of North Carolina, 2000) 131-132.

The Minority Report – Against the Slave Trade

The governor’s message was handed to a committee for debate and various reporting. We’ll begin by taking a look at the Minority Report, penned by J. Johnston Pettigrew, that didn’t fully support Governor Adams’ message. That did not mean, however, that it was drawn up by an abolitionist. “Even in its most barbarous days,” read the dissenting opinion, “the Slave Trade had some redeeming features; there was room for hope, if not an expectation of eventual good.”

J. Johnston Pettigrew
J. Johnston Pettigrew

Pettigrew disagreed with the Governor’s premise that if the slave trade was piracy, slaves were plunder, reasoning that when the slaves were brought to the United States from Africa, it was legal and so they were not plunder at all. Agreeing with the Governor, the Minority Report maintained that slavery “has been repeatedly recognized by the only revelation of Divine will, that has been vouchsafed to us.” But there was a “vast distinction between upholding Slavery and upholding the Slave Trade.” He deemed those who made the slave trade illegal in the early 1800s “great men” who understood what they were doing, and ultimately concluded that rather than re-open the trade, it would be more logical to leave “our labor system in its present flourishing and prosperous condition.”

Clearly, his objection was not based upon morality. Slavery and the slave trade itself had been revealed by God, he held. Instead, Pettigrew opposed its re-opening because “the primary and natural effect of a revival of the Slave Trade will be to diminish the value of slaves.” But that was not all.

Pettigrew feared that a decrease in slave values would cause enslavers to become more open to emancipation; they would simply have less to lose. Instead, he wished for the value of slaves to increase – “with the increase in their value, has increased the determination of the owners to resist emancipation….” Additionally, slaves newly-arrived from Africa fetched less at auction than those who were born in America to American slaves. Mostly, he believed, it was due to breeding. “And so a race which for generations is devoted to toil,” he argued, “becomes gradually wrought up to a high degree of efficiency.”

The crux of Pettigrew’s argument against re-opening the slave trade was then put forward:

“Our slaves have been educated to labor for at least three generations; their bodies and minds are attuned to it, and each succeeding generation will probably be more efficient than its predecessor. Far different is the African; idleness and sensual inactivity are his normal condition; he is neither physically nor mentally capable of voluntary exertion, and when imperious necessity demands labor at his hands, he is driven only by fear of the sword in Africa, and the lash in the West Indies.”

In short, more work and money could be wrung out of the slaves who had been molded and shaped for generations as opposed to the ones newly-imported from Africa who would need to be broken. In his view, it was breeding rather than a re-opening of the slave trade that needed to be expanded.

Part of this breeding process was rearing. All that had been already taught to the slaves who had been here for three or more generations was done so to remove “the contamination of native Africa vice and idleness.”

“It is needless to say that the revival of the Slave Trade, filling the land with stupid and ignorant laborers,” Pettigrew continued, “would be an absolute bar to any improvement of this sort.”

Lastly, the dissenting opinion against the slave trade calculated that an additional four million African slaves would probably be imported if the trade were re-opened. Thus, he resolved “to consider the character of this population, with which the land is to be filled.” Any thought of the African being virtuous, kind, humane or even domestic was “but the voice of fanaticism.”

“In his native land, the African is a barbarian … laws and self-control are unknown, and cruelty is esteemed an appropriate manner of manifesting the most elevating emotions, – religion, grief, joy for victor. … Polygamy, theft, violence and falsehood, are virtues; nothing is so ennobling as the gratification of revenge, and the more cruel the means, the more credit to the actor. The shedding of blood is grateful to their God, whose attributes are of the most bestial description. … Add to this a dislike of foreigners as manifested in the assassination of travellers, and we have a faithful picture of negro life at home.”

If native Africans were introduced into the plantations of the South, it would utterly disrupt the carefully cultivated slave class existing at that time. The typical slave of the 1850s, argued Pettigrew’s report, “regards the white man as something superior; considers liberty as peculiar to him, and not within the reach of the slave. Hence he has but little aspiration towards that which he cannot by any possibility attain. Nature has created him to obey the commands of a superior, and the thought of resistance rarely crosses his mind otherwise than as a mere transient idea, excited by some peculiar circumstances.” 5Reports of the Committee to Whom was Referred the Message of Gov. James H. Adams, Minority Report (Columbia: Steam Power Press, Carolina Times, 1857) 8-12, 20, 24. This can be read in its entirety here.

These were the arguments given by South Carolina against the slave trade. No mention was made of the morality of the trade itself, except when it was brought up as a corrupting influence to the slave population already in the state. This, it must be remembered, was the minority report, representing a minority of South Carolina’s congressmen. The majority of them fully approved of Governor Adams’ call to re-open the slave trade. This clearly shows that it was not altruism, desire for eventual emancipation, or anything beyond profit and lifestyle that motivated South Carolinians when it came to any decision involving the African slave trade. Looking to the future, when the fledgling Confederacy penned its Constitution, it will be seen that these motivations had not changed.

The Majority Report

The Majority Report submitted by the state congress concluded that slavery was “an essential element in our domestic and social systems, our political government and our foreign power; and hence, is unalterably interwoven with our destiny.”

This destiny wasn’t simply a forgone conclusion, but came as a writ from heaven. The Report continued, explaining that “the best devised schemes of philanthropy fall into nothingness before the irresistible conviction that God designs African slavery to be an American institution, an unavoidable and unalterable element of American civilization.”

Nicolas de Condorcet - one of those French philosophers mentioned in the report.
Nicolas de Condorcet – one of those French philosophers mentioned in the report.

It went on to argue that natural rights of equality were based upon atheistic “French philosophy” and was as an “evil was brought to America, simultaneously with the importation of negroes.” It called the prohibition of slavery in the Northwest territory, and abolition in the Northern States, as well as a denouncing of the slave trade as piracy as “the error of progress.”

The Report warned that Britain was doing everything it could to abolish slavery in the world. With, in the Report’s opinion, Brazil and Cuba soon to follow suit. With slavery abolished in the Northern United States, “the Southern States must stand forth before an opposing world, the only remaining civilized slaveholding power….”

It spoke of the South not as part of the United States, but as their own civilization, as their own entity. While things were looking dire, the Report was optimistic, reminding all that it was slavery that had made cheap essentials such as cotton and sugar possible. To make this foothold more secure, slavery had to expand and increase with the increasing demands for these products.

This is where the African slave trade came into it. Re-opening the trade, they stated, was “the only means of obtaining that abundance, and consequent cheapness of labor, which will secure to use the partial monopoly of the cotton trade we have heretofore enjoyed.” If it were within the power of South Carolina’s Congress to re-open the trade, “they would unhesitatingly recommend the measure.” Unfortunately for the South, it was outlawed. They, however, saw fit to follow more closely a higher law, concluding that “the undivided opinion of South Carolina is, that the importation of negroes from Africa, and their being made to cultivate our soil, under the equitable laws which control and protect our common interests, would violate no law of God nor any principle of justice.”

They regarded the African slave trade “as essential to the development of Southern resources, enterprise and power” as well as “a timely and propitious expansion of Southern civilization.” In no other way was this made clear than in the fight over the western territories. The North, read the report, wanted nothing more than “to settle our Territories and bring them into the Union as hireling States, more rapidly than the South can introduce slave States.” Since the North was receiving European immigrants, strengthening their voter base, so too could the South, through re-opening the slave trade, increase their votes and representation. When it came to such things, the three-fifths clause was a benediction.

Two slaves and their mistress in São Paulo in Brazil, ca.1860.
Two slaves and their mistress in São Paulo in Brazil, ca.1860.

The writers of the Majority Report conceded that the United States Constitution allowed the Congress to outlaw the slave trade, and there was precious little that could be done unless two-thirds of the United States Congress allowed it again. They held that it was unfair that the Northern states were able to attract European immigrants, but that “the immigration of Africans, the only race able to labor in the Southern States, is prohibited by these treaties. Hence, the South has no supply of foreign labor, corresponding with that of the North, to make up the deficiency occasioned by emigration.” Of course, European immigrants were more than free to move South should they desire, but to the Southern enslaver, it was always cheaper to buy a black slave than hire a white laborer.

In the end, the Majority Report resolved that South Carolina congressmen in Washington should give support to “the repeal of the act declaring the slave trade piracy” when it is proposed. Additionally, they requested that Governor Adams’ message, as well as the Majority Report, be sent “to the Governor of each of the Southern States, that it may be laid before their respective Legislatures.

6Reports of the Committee to Whom was Referred the Message of Gov. James H. Adams, Majority Report (Columbia: Steam Power Press, Carolina Times, 1857) 3-4; 18-20, 27, 29-30, 32, 45 (basically the whole thing). This can be read in its entirety here.

In the next part of this series, we’ll take a look at how the United States Congress and various other Southern states reacted to South Carolina’s early push to re-open the African slave trade.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “‘Every White Man Might Have a Chance’ – South Carolina’s Arguments to Re-Open the Slave Trade

  1. I suppose I read this primarily for content but the writing has a lot to do with it too. Kudos galore for the content and insight but also at least a thumbs-up for “..macadamizing the way…”. Stuff like that makes reading fun.

    1. Thanks! You have no idea how smuggly proud of myself that little turn of phrase made me. I was really insufferable for a good ten minutes. 🙂

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