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‘Slaves So Cheap That Every Man Could Own Them’ – The Southern Commercial Arguments to Re-Open the Atlantic 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.

The United States Constitution allowed the Atlantic slave trade to be outlawed starting in 1807. Congress immediately acted upon it, making it illegal for Americans to import slaves from outside the country. Just over a decade later, another law was passed which labeled slave traders as pirates who would be subject to execution if caught. Though the United States refused to sign treaties with France and England concerning the trade, it was basically understood that the international slave trade was a deplorable system.


Though not the focus of this piece, it should be mentioned that it was not altruism that moved the Congress to support such a measure. The revolution in Haiti, for example, convinced many in the Deep South that the farther the slaves were from their African roots, the more easily they could be controlled. Someone born into slavery was less likely to revolt then someone newly arrived from their home continent. The events in Haiti also led to stricter slave codes and fewer rights for free blacks. 1David Brion Davis Inhuman Bondage (Oxford University Press, 2006) 161.

The codes passed were incredibly effective. Though they did not fully eliminate slave uprisings, compared to other nations, the Slave States experienced far fewer revolts. The police state needed to maintain the institution of slavery did its job well. Frederick Douglass, when asked why the millions of slaves did not rebel, rightly said that such a fight “would be wonderfully unequal,” explaining that it would be “seventeen millions of armed, disciplined, and intelligent people, against three millions of unarmed and uninformed.” 2Frederick Douglass “The Revolution of 1848”. Speech given in Rochester, NY on August 1st, 1848. As printed in Selected Speeches and Writings, Vol. 1 (International Publishers, 1975) 329.

Print from 1830.  A group of slaves in chains, with a mother "fastened to her children," being sold by a trader on horseback to another.
Print from 1830. A group of slaves in chains, with a mother “fastened to her children,” being sold by a trader on horseback to another.

South Carolina Rumbles

As with many things before and after, South Carolina took the lead in this movement to reopen the trade. In the autumn of 1854, a grand jury held “that the Federal law abolishing the African Slave Trade is a public grievance.” They insisted that if the importation of slaves was begun once again, it would be “a blessing to the American people, and a benefit to the African himself.”

Their argument was based upon three main points. First, that the slave trade was “consistent with the true policy of the south.” Second, that “slavery itself is authorized and sanctioned by Holy Writ.” And finally, due to the establishment of paternalism, they believed that slavery in America elevated the African “from a condition of absolute barbarism, to one of comparative civilization; from a condition of heathen darkness, to one of Christian light.” 3“Presentment of the Grand Jury” as printed in British and Foreign State Papers, Volume 45 (London: William Ridgway, 1865) 1156-7.

1792 print shows sailor on a slave ship suspending an African girl by her ankle from a rope over a pulley. Captain John Kimber stands on the left with a whip in his hand.  By Isaac Cruikshank.
1792 print shows sailor on a slave ship suspending an African girl by her ankle from a rope over a pulley. Captain John Kimber stands on the left with a whip in his hand. By Isaac Cruikshank.

The Southern Commercial Conventions of 1855-56

The Southern Commercial Convention, held a few weeks later in January of 1855, couldn’t agree more. Meeting annually, this year in New Orleans, the Convention discussed better ways to improve commerce in the South. In attendance were not just business owners, but Southern politicians and governors. Toward the end of the fourth day, the 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.” 4Proceedings of the Southern Commercial Convention (New Orleans Daily Crescent, 1855) 17.

In December of 1856, the same Convention met again, this time in Savannah. Once again, the subject of the African slave trade was prominent. A.L. Scott of Virginia complained that “the drain of slaves from the tier of States lying along the free border had already been so great as to engender a scarcity of labor.” He was most worried about the exodus of slave labor from his own state – an exodus which could mostly be blamed upon Virginian slave owners selling their slaves south and west into Mississippi and Louisiana.

“But some gentlemen seemed to think that the sources from which their copious draughts [of slaves] were obtained were inexhaustible,” Scott complained, “and that the productive energies of Virginia would be sufficient to nourish the stream. But time would soon dispel this error.” He worried that if more of the border states slaves were sold off, “nothing would be left to those States but the old and wrinkled skin of slavery.”

To hopefully move their hand, Scott threatened that if the slaves could not be imported from Africa, that “equivalent supplies will be procured from Europe,” apparently suggesting that indentured servitude of white people might be re-established instead – an idea most in attendance found deplorable.

The Convention, in Scott’s opinion, had not acted swiftly enough. They seemed to be swayed by “the leaders of the freesoil movement.” He was openly concerned that his fellow Southerners were “so filled with pious horror over the slave trade that they will not even listen to the proposition to arrest the catastrophe.”

John A. Calhoun of South Carolina (nephew of the late John C. Calhoun) also bristled at “the sickly sentimentality upon this subject.” He argued that the slave trade, though reduced to a trickle, was much more horrible than if it were made legal. He saw no reason why slaves could be shuffled from Virginia to the Deep South and not from Africa to Virginia. Like many, Calhoun saw slavery as “a blessing to the African,” but really, his reasoning for supporting the slave trade was the threat of European immigrants moving into the North. He wanted the slave trade “to counter-poise the influx of hireling labor from abroad to the Northern States, in the present contest going on between the two grades of civilization in this country.”

The editor of the Charleston Mercury, Leonidas W. Spratt wanted to make this a Southern question. He wished “to take the question from the control of Congress, the organ of the North, which might send Africans here if they thought it would benefit them and injure us, or keep them away if it would effect the same purpose.”

“Let the South be independent upon that question,” he railed, “free to legislate upon the subject as her interests might prompt. Let us say to Congress, this is our matter; you are not interested in it….”

Albert Pike
Albert Pike

William B. Goulden of Georgia, who proposed the resolution, also believed that the African slave trade would benefit everyone “by making slaves so cheap that every man could own them, and thus prevent the coming of that time when all the slaves would be in the hands of a few wealthy individuals, thereby creating an antagonism between slavery and labor like that between capital and labor in the Northern States.”

The Atlantic slave trade, he sarcastically opined, “was the great bugaboo to frighten women and children – a very Pandora’s box of evils. Now, if that was a great and damning crime, what worse was it than was done every day in their midst, when they [enslavers from Mississippi, Louisiana, etc.] went to Virginia and took the negro from his home and family and brought him to work their rice and cotton fields?”

There was some opposition, though nobody voiced this “pious horror” of which Scott spoke. For the most part, the arguments against reopening the slave trade centered around the fear of slave revolts. Though one lone voice – Albert Pike of Louisiana – mused that some time in the future, God would “advance the negro; privileges would be extended to them, they would be allowed to receive a certain amount of education and hold a certain amount of property…” This would take “ages,” of course, and slavery was an integral part of this upliftment. It was an institution that would melt away “by degrees almost insensible.” Pike simply saw “nothing in humanity or interest which required the re-opening of the African slave trade and the flooding of the country with slaves from those barbarous regions.” His was the most progressive voice in the Convention. 5De Bow’s Review, Vol. 22 (Washington City and New Orleans, 1857) 219-224.

Illustration from  The Child's Anti-Slavery Book. 1860.
Illustration from The Child’s Anti-Slavery Book. 1860.

Stirrings of Secession – the 1858 Convention

In May 10, 1858, the Southern Commercial Convention met again. Now in Montgomery, Alabama, the calls for secession were already in the air. At the previous Convention, a committee was formed to investigate how the African slave trade might be reopened. South Carolina’s Leonidas W. Spratt recommended that the Convention approve three resolutions:

1. Resolved, That slavery is right, and that being right, there can be no wrong in the natural means to its formation.
2. Resolved, That it is expedient and proper that the foreign slave trade should be re-opened, and that this Convention will lend its influence to any legitimate measure to that end.
3. Resolved, That a committee, consisting of one from each slave State, be appointed to consider of the means, consistent with the duty and obligations of these States, for re-opening the foreign slave-trade, and that they report their plan to the next meeting of this Convention.

Once again, there was some opposition. This time, however, it was based around the fear of tearing the country apart. Roger A. Pryor of Virginia was not in favor of the measure, viewing it as “a proposition to dissolve the Union.” Alabama’s William L. Yancey, however, was fine with that, announcing to the cheers of the assembled that he “was for disunion now.”

Still, Pryor was no Unionist. If “Alabama were, upon mature consideration, willing to leave the Union, they of Virginia would be ready to go with them.” This, again said to applause, was contingent upon the election of “a Black Republican President” in a future election.

Yancey held that if the North refused the South’s demand to reopen the African slave trade “it would be one other evidence that injustice is the ruling spirit of the hour in our national legislature.” 6De Bow’s Review, Vol. 24 (Washington City and New Orleans, 1858) 586-588.

Interior view of a room with a rotunda ceiling during an auction of slaves, artwork, and goods. New Orleans.
Interior view of a room with a rotunda ceiling during an auction of slaves, artwork, and goods. New Orleans.

1859 and the Loophole

A year later, little had changed. Meeting this time in Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Convention recommended that “all laws, State or Federal, prohibiting the African slave trade, ought to be repealed.” This was the majority report of the above-mentioned committee, headed by Spratt. The Convention voted 40 to 19 to approve this resolution.

There were, however, two dissenting reports which illustrate the array of thoughts on the eve of secession. The first explained that it was “utopian and impracticable to expect to obtain from Congress any repeal of the law.” This was more or less a “why bother” approach. It really only favored keeping things as they were.

Henry Foote
Henry Foote

The second such report wished to cleverly exploit a bit of a loophole. “The only method for a prompt and practical supply of African labor,” it held, “is the apprentice system.” Just as it had been threatened in previous years to re-open the European system of indentured servitude, a new system was proposed. The issue, however, was that indentured servitude was not slavery. “The only difficult question,” he cautioned, “is the future status of the apprentices after the expiration of their term of servitude.” This could be solved by making it, through some future laws, de facto slavery. In that way, it would be fully legal “because the constitution cannot forbid what it never contemplated, and it never contemplated a radical progress of our labor system.” 7De Bow’s Review, Vol. 27 (Washington City and New Orleans, 1859) 97, 99.

The speeches then began in earnest. Those with the majority opinion that the slave trade should be re-opened were cheered vociferously, while any who rose to give a differing view were, in the words of the former Governor of Mississippi, Henry Foote, “looked upon by the excited assemblage present as traitors to the best interests of the South, and only worthy of expulsion from the body. The excitement at last grew so high that personal violence was menaced, and some dozen of the more conservative members of the convention withdrew from the hall in which it was holding its sittings.” 8Henry Stuart Foote The Bench and Bar of the South and Southwest (St. Louis: Soule, Thomas & Wentworth, 1876) 69.

In his volume about the African slave trade, historian W.E.B. Du Bois summed up the culmination of these several Conventions:

“This record of the Commercial Conventions probably gives a true reflection of the development of extreme opinion on the question of reopening the slave-trade. First, it is noticeable that on this point there was a distinct divergence of opinion and interest between the Gulf and the Border States, and it was this more than any moral repugnance that checked the radicals. The whole movement represented the economic revolt of the slave-consuming cotton-belt against their base of labor supply. This revolt was only prevented from gaining its ultimate end by the fact that the Gulf States could not get on without the active political cooperation of the Border States.

“Thus, although such hot-heads as Spratt were not able, even as late as 1859, to carry a substantial majority of the South with them in an attempt to reopen the trade at all hazards, yet the agitation did succeed in sweeping away nearly all theoretical opposition to the trade, and left the majority of Southern people in an attitude which regarded the reopening of the African slave-trade as merely a question of expediency.” 9W.E.B. Du Bois The Suppression of the African Slave-trade to the United States of America (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1904) 173-174. Much of my own piece is based upon this section of Du Bois’ work, and I absolutely recommend that you find it and read it. It really is some great stuff.

W.E.B. Du Bois
W.E.B. Du Bois

It is here, with public opinion, where we’ll return in a following piece, which will take a closer look at not only the Southern popular view, but of the debates in the United States Congress, which happened across the same years as the Southern Commercial Conventions.

References   [ + ]

Eric has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, he wrote 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, he decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.

2 thoughts on “‘Slaves So Cheap That Every Man Could Own Them’ – The Southern Commercial Arguments to Re-Open the Atlantic Slave Trade

  1. The most compelling reason for not opening the trade was the law of supply and demand. The value of the slave increased as the demand rose. During the 1850’s the price of a slave rose dramatically. That is the reason the border states supplying the demand were not in favor while the lower south wanted it open. It was also a main reason for the desire to expand the nation by taking Mexico and Cuba. Lincoln and the Republicans knew that if they limited the creation of new slave states the practice would die out on its own. The law of supply and demand began almost immediately after the slave trade was ended. Jefferson, who had been somewhat opposed to slavery prior to the end of the trade changed his tune when he saw that the increasing value of his slaves became his best investment in the next decade.

    1. Thanks! That’s why the arguments to re-open it are so interesting. It was something that would benefit only a miniscule minority of rich Southerners (though the majority of the SCC) , but they had to spin it so it seemed to be best for everyone.

      Thanks for reading! And for the reminder of Jefferson’s changed mind.

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