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‘Thrown into the House as a Firebrand’ – Failed Efforts in Washington 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.

As was covered in two previous posts (here and here), the Southern Commercial Conventions of 1855 and 1856 were not held in private, closed doors meetings. Their resolutions and discussions were published in De Bow’s Review, one of the South’s most widely-circulated periodicals. Likewise, the message by South Carolina’s Governor James Adams, as well as the reports issued by his state’s congress, were well known and referenced in the United States congress. These were the rumblings of not only a desire of some in the South to re-open the African slave trade, but also the beginnings of this period’s secession movement.

Emerson Etheridge of Tennessee
Emerson Etheridge of Tennessee

As a Firebrand, the United States House in 1856

It was these rumblings that spurred Emerson Etheridge, a congressman from Tennessee, to introduce a resolution into the House that they, as a body, might regard “a revival of the African slave trade, as shocking to the moral sentiment of the enlightened portion of mankind; and that any action on the part of Congress conniving at or legalizing that horrid and inhuman traffic, would justly subject the Government and citizens of the United States to the reproach and execration of all civilized and Christian people throughout the world.” 1Congressional Globe, 34th Cong., 3rd Sess. (1857), 123.

Introduced on December 15, 1856 – not long after South Carolina’s Governor Adams’ message pushing for a re-opening – Etheridge was trying to cut the re-opening of the slave trade off at the pass. This attempt was immediately objected to by William Smith of Virginia. Despite the fairly typical displays of polite bravado and bureaucracy, the subject was touched by unofficial debate – any official debate being barred by the Speaker of the House. Many of those with dissenting opinions stated why they did not favor Etheridge’s anti-slave trade resolution, often over the objections of those who favored it.

“I am not in favor of reopening the African slave trade,” began William Barksdale of Mississippi, who was clearly going to object. He was immediately cut off by abolitionist Israel Washburn of Maine. “I object to debate,” said Washburn.

“But I regard the resolution of the gentleman from Tennessee as ill-timed,” Barksdale continued over cries of “Order! Order!” He claimed it was “out of place, thrown into the House as a firebrand, and for the accomplishment of a party purpose. I therefore vote ‘no.'”

Others sided with Barksdale. Lawrence Keitt of South Carolina considered the resolution “improper and irrelevant.” George Eustis of Louisiana saw it “as uncalled for, as unwarranted, and ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.'” Tennessee’s Samuel Smith said that he was “opposed to the renewal of the slave trade,” but was voting “no” on the resolution “because I believe the purpose of it is wrong.”

William Barksdale of Mississippi
William Barksdale of Mississippi

John Wright, also of Tennessee, showed clearly the split in the Volunteer State. He was, as pretty well everyone was claiming, “opposed to the policy of reopening the slave trade.” But he was even more opposed to the resolution condemning it as it would “open afresh and again a question which I hope will soon be banished from this Hall.”

In the end, through all the objections and de facto debate, a counter-resolution was offered by James Lawrence Orr of South Carolina, stating that it was “inexpedient, unwise, and contrary to the settled policy of the United States, to repeal the laws prohibiting the African slave trade.” This was, as Barksdale remarked, “too broad in its terms.” This breadth, however, caused it to be adopted 183 to 8. The eight voting against it, Barksdale among them, haled from Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina.

Eli Shorter of Alabama reasoned that “the South has not applied to Congress to repeal the law prohibiting the foreign slave trade, and until she does so, I am opposed to any agitation on the question here.” Shorter went on, waxing unintentionally prophetic, explaining that he was “not prepared to say what will, or will not, be the ‘settled policy’ of the South in time to come.” 2Ibid. 124-126.

South Carolina, 1858

Part of the policy would be debated over the next year, and with it brought an interesting line of division. While it’s well understood that the Democratic Party split during the 1860 election, the first fractures began to appear along the lines of the slave trade.

 James Johnston Pettigrew , 1864
James Johnston Pettigrew , 1864

The 1858 elections in South Carolina saw many, such as J. Johnston Pettigrew, who penned the dissenting Minority Report upon Governor Adams’ urgings to re-open the African slave trade, lose their seats. At the same time, more radical fire-eaters, like William Spratt, who was incredibly vocal about re-opening the trade, were elected. That said, Governor Adams ran for the United States Senate, but lost to James Chesnut – a compromise candidate. Adams became somewhat of a scapegoat for the divisions between the secessionists and the Unionist Democrats of South Carolina.

The issue of the slave trade was also divided along these lines. For the most part, in South Carolina, the enslavers who owned the greatest number of slaves were also in favor of re-opening the trade. They were also more likely to already be secessionists. Though they paid lip service to the poor non-slaveholding whites, extending the carrot that maybe even one day they too could own a slave, thus far the ploy was not working. The areas of the state that had been anti-nullification and anti-secession, turned out to be the same areas with fewer slaveholders and fewer supporters of re-opening the slave trade.

Through the 1850s, the number of non-slaveholders increased in South Carolina. With this increase, the fear that free labor (that is, labor worked by free men for wages) would compete with slave labor. The percentage of slave-owning families was decreasing at a steady rate with the increase of white free laborers and the exportation of slaves to places like Mississippi and Louisiana. The expansion of slavery, they held, would also further normalize the institution. In portions of border states where slavery was almost nonexistent, anti-slavery sentiment was growing. The more slaves that were around, the less opposition there would be. 3Manisha Sinha The Counter-Revolution of Slavery (University of North Carolina Press, 2000) 134-136.

But Not Just South Carolina

While South Carolina was certainly the hotbed of these ideals, it was far from the only place they were heralded. Around this same time, congressmen from Georgia wished to alter the state’s constitution which barred the slave trade. While this wouldn’t automatically give them permission to re-open it – Federal law trumped State law – it would make them seem less hypocritical.

One of the supporters argued that “if we [of the South] first purge our Constitutions and laws of these Abolition heresies, we can then consistently ask the North to believe with us; but while we acknowledge the evil of Slavery by prohibiting it from our shores, can we expect them to call it anything but sin?” The measure was put to a vote, and striking out the forbidding of the slave trade was narrowly defeated 47 to 46. 4Annual Report of the American Anti-Slavery Society, Vol. 26, p40. I’ve searched for the actual debate, but cannot find it. The person who is quoted was named “Mr. Atkinson.”

In Arkansas as well there was a similar rumble. A member of that state’s congress proposed a resolution to instruct its Senators and Representatives in Washington “to use their influence against the re-opening of the African Slave Trade.” This, however, was soundly defeated 20 to 2. 5Ibid., 40-41.

A bill was introduced into the lower House of Louisiana’s legislature which put forward that “the Federal Government has no power to prohibit the buying of negro Slaves by citizens of this State.” If passed, it would have attempted to authorize Louisiana enslavers to purchase slaves from Africa, Cuba and Brazil as “foreign property.” It too was voted down, but nearly a third of the votes favored the resolution. 6Ibid., 41.

Also in Louisiana, a bill was introduced in 1858 that would allow for the importation of 2,500 Africans as indentured servants with terms of fifteen years. While this was not technically chattel slavery, it would set a precedent and likely a foothold to more such importations. It passed the House, but failed in the state Senate by two votes. 7Oliver Throck Morton The Southern Empire (Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1892) 16.

Trying Washington Once More – 1858-1859

The efforts on the Federal level to re-open the slave trade were renewed in late 1858. The trade itself took a backseat to the debates over Kansas and other territories, and the issue in question seemed to be running out of steam.

William Seward of New York
William Seward of New York

President James Buchanan brought it up in his December speech to Congress in relation to Cuba. For decades there had been efforts to acquire the island through diplomatic means. As an assurance to the North and even the rest of the world, Buchanan explained that if Cuba was obtained, “the last relic of the African slave trade would instantly disappear.” Though he seemed to forget about Brazil, he insisted that the United States would have it no other way. “This is due to our national character,” he held. 8Journal Of The Senate, 35th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington: William A. Harris, Senate Printer, 1858-1859) 20.

In the Senate, shortly after Buchanan’s speech, William Seward of New York, who would later go on to be Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, submitted a question to be taken up by the Judiciary Committee. He wondered “whether any provisions of law are necessary by way of amendment to existing laws which prohibit the African slave trade, to secure the effectual suppression thereof.” 9Ibid., 80. In other words, Seward, who was one of the more Radical Republicans, was trying to beat the fire-eaters to the punch. A few days later, it was resolved by the Senate for the question to go to Committee, and was finally submitted in early January of 1859. 10Ibid., 108, 139.

Things were almost as dull in the House, where it might have escaped mention except that the budget allotted $75,000 “for the suppression of the slave trade.” Various slaveholding Senators attempted to strike it out of the budget, and it was put to a vote, failing on a vote of 163 to 28. 11Journal of the House, 35th Congress, 2nd Session (Washington: James B. Steedman, Printer, 1858) 268.

David Kilgore of Indiana
David Kilgore of Indiana

At the end of January, David Kilgore of Indiana, who would later become one of Lincoln’s pall bearers, submitted a few resolutions that would reaffirm that “Congress has the power to prohibit the foreign traffic [of slaves], and that no legislation can be too thorough in its measure, nor can any penalty known to the catalogue of modern punishment for crime be too severe against a traffic so inhuman and unchristian.” Though most agreed, it did not receive the two-thirds vote needed for anything beyond a simple mention. 12Ibid., 298-9.

As far as the Federal government was concerned, that was it. There were, as stated, bigger issues on the horizon. In the latter part of the 1850s, the South began to realize that the Republicans weren’t just cranky Whigs. They were, as a party, opposed to slavery in general. It was then that the fears of a total (though gradual) abolition were in the works for the South. The focus began to shift away from re-opening the Atlantic slave trade to merely the right and ability to own slaves at all.

This did not mean, however, that more radical states, such as South Carolina, would not continue in their efforts to re-open the trade. They saw this as a bargaining chip and perhaps even a dividing line. At the same time as Buchanan and Congress were hardly mentioning the trade, Leonidas W. Spratt presented three resolutions to the South Carolina House of Representatives.

Resolved, That the several States of the South are of right, and ought to be, in fact, supreme upon the questions which effect the fortunes of domestic slavery.
Resolved, That the measures of the General Government restrictive of the foreign slave trade, are in derogation of this right and ought to be repealed.
Resolved, That our Senators in Congress be instructed, and the Representatives from this State be requested, to use all proper efforts to procure the repeal of such restrictions; and that a copy of these resolutions be forwarded to the several Southern States for their concurrence. 13L.W. Spratt Speech Upon the Foreign Slave Trade (Columbia, Steam-Power Press Southern Guardian, 1858) 3.

Less Than A Year To Go – 1860

As has been mentioned before, these extreme views were beginning to fracture the slaveholding South as well as the Democratic Party. As the Presidential election drew nearer, this was something that even the most radical of enslavers wished to avoid.

Still, this discussion had serious effects. While the common Southern voter owned no slaves, the extreme pro-slavery position allowed a more conservative shift to take place. As W.E.B. Du Bois put it, the radical enslavers were not able 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.” 14W.E.B. Du Bois The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade (New York: Longmans, Gree, and Co., 1904) 173-174.

In the Deep South, the majority of those in favor of secession were either in favor or tolerant of the idea to re-open the trade. In was, for them, the same thing. This fervor was on display in 1860 when several Southern Senators, including James Mason of Virginia, argued in Congress that the ban of the slave trade was unconstitutional -“this question should have been left with the States, and with the States only.”

Mason, in May of 1860, argued that his reading of the Constitution led him to conclude that the Atlantic slave trade “should never have been wrested from [the States] by legislation.” He did not believe that this was the fault of the Constitution, but of Washington law makers in an attempt to stifle slavery. 15Congressional Globe, 36th Congress, 1st Secession (1860) 2306-2307.

But with the likelihood of Lincoln being elected President, secession and even war became seemingly inevitable. These discussions on the constitutionality of banning the Atlantic slave trade necessarily had to take a temporary back seat. That did not mean, however, that the fight was over. The radical enslavers of the Deep South held tight to the conviction that with the formation of a new government dedicated to preserving states rights, individual states would be able to re-open their own African slave trade. In this endeavor they stood a chance, but looming larger was the evolving world around them.

Though the slave trade had been criminalized for decades, pirates still brought slave over from Africa. This shot was taken in 1858 when the slave ship Wanderer was captured on a return trip to Georgia with a cargo of over 300 native Africans.
Though the slave trade had been criminalized for decades, pirates still brought slave over from Africa. This shot was taken in 1858 when the slave ship Wanderer was captured on a return trip to Georgia with a cargo of over 300 native Africans.

We can also take a look at this new government’s constitution and try to suss out why it banned the Atlantic slave trade.

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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.