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To Suit an Entire Slaveholding Community – The Confederate Constitution and the African Slave Trade

George Washington Custis Lee, 1832-1913, on horseback, with staff reviewing Confederate Reunion Parade in Richmond, Va., June 3, 1907, in front of monument to Jefferson Davis.
George Washington Custis Lee, 1832-1913, on horseback, with staff reviewing Confederate Reunion Parade in Richmond, Va., June 3, 1907, in front of monument to Jefferson Davis.

The Confederate Constitution outlawed the African slave trade, forbidding “the importation of negroes of African race from any foreign Country other than the Slave-holding states or Territories of the United States of America.” 1Constitution of the Confederate States, Art. 1. Sec. 9. There are boasts of this in the Lost Cause literature, contrasting it with the United States Constitution which had no such provision – though it had been outlawed even in the slaveholding states by Congress since 1808. The reasons for the Confederacy’s prohibition are rarely, if ever, given.

Despite this, it’s often provided as proof against, as Jefferson Davis put it nearly two decades after the war, “the assertion, so often made, that the Confederacy was founded on slavery, that slavery was its ‘corner-stone,’ etc.” 2Jefferson Davis The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government, Volume 1 (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1881) 261. This sentiment has been echoed for generations, but it’s not actually a reason.

This interpretation is colored by our modern views of slavery and the slave trade. Both, we know, are abhorrent – especially the slave trade. They are now seen as devoid of any normal morals. When we take our own morality and apply it backwards to 1861, we can easily convince ourselves that the Confederate Constitution prohibited the slave trade because it was immoral. This, however, was absolutely not the case. There were reasons for its ban, but morality, especially when it came to the treatment of the slaves, did not enter into it.

Hart-Bolton American history map, 1917, depicting in orange the Deep South States which seceded during secession winter.
Hart-Bolton American history map, 1917, depicting in orange the Deep South States which seceded during secession winter.

The Winter of Slaveholding and Secession

Secession did not happen all at once, or even in a single winter. For the Deep South, especially South Carolina, it had been coming for decades. Of course, it was South Carolina that first left the United States on December 20, 1860. She was followed three weeks later by Mississippi, Florida, and Alabama, each a day apart. A week later, Georgia decided. Ten more days saw Louisiana; another week found Texas.

For following month and a half, these seven states would decide the fate of the entire South, including Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri – all still loyal to the United States. In two sessions the seven original Confederate States would elect a president and draft a constitution – all without the formal input of the six states yet to send representatives to the Southern congress. 3Kentucky and Missouri did not formally secede, but they were represented on the Confederate National flags and in Congress, and thus they will be represented here.

Even before the new Southern Congress met on February 4, 1861, the states themselves met to discuss which ideas to put forward. There would be extremes within this new nation’s Congress, though now, without the North and without most Unionists, they had shifted. While the radical conservatives remained, the most progressive of their number were no longer abolitionists, but former co-operationists who had held out hope of some sort of reconciliation.

Nowhere were these extremes more prominent than in the issue of re-opening the Atlantic slave trade. Without the North, or even the border states, its re-opening seemed to some as obvious. Yet it was not so. If the new slave nation wished to count itself among the nations of the world, certain concessions might have to be made.

The Alabama Example

The debates began first upon the state level. In many cases, these transcripts have been lost, and little remains but memory, pieced together after the fact. For many states, such as Mississippi, Louisiana, and Georgia, the debates had been conducted in the years leading up to the war (as described in the several previous posts on this subject) as well as short and intense discussions prior to sending delegates to Montgomery, Alabama to form this new government. 4George C. Rable The Confederate Republic: A Revolution Against Politics (University of North Carolina Press, 1994) 52.

William Lowndes Yancey
William Lowndes Yancey

The most detailed and in depth discussion occurred in the Alabama State Senate in January of 1861. The arguments were not merely to decide what Alabama, as a state, should do about the slave trade, but which provisions her delegates to the new Confederate government should insist upon. These were the men who would help decide the fate of the new nation.

William L. Yancy, a fire-eater among fire-eaters, had been arguing for the re-opening of the African slave trade for years. In 1858, during the Southern Commercial Convention, Yancey gave a rousing three day long speech against United States laws criminalizing the slave trade. He believed that “the laws prohibiting the foreign slave trade are in violation of the spirit of the Constitution and are unjust and an insult to the South, and, therefore, ought to be repealed….” 5De Bow’s Review, Vol. 25 (1858) 121.

Yancey saw the slave trade, along with slavery itself, as a states rights issue, “and should be decided alone by the several States – each for itself, and with reference alone to the industrial interests of each.” 6William L. Yancey Letter to James D. Meadows, June 16, 1859. As printed in John Witherspoon Du Bose The Life and Times of William Lowndes Yancey (Roberts & Son, 1892) 391-392. Of course, when it came to the Fugitive Slave Act, most Southern politicians believed that to be a federal issue.

In January of 1861, as he stood before the Alabama Senate, Yancy was a somewhat changed man. Over the past years when giving his opinion on the slave trade, he would often warn that he had “formed no opinion upon its expediency.” He reminded his audiences that these were not his “matured opinions.” Now things were different. No longer was he critiquing the laws of the United States, but he, like nearly all of the Deep South, was hoping that the rest of the slave states would join them in their new government.

Yancey understood that if any of the border states seceded, they would likely ask to be accepted into the new Southern government. But their secession hinged upon what would be decided in Montgomery. This was, he held, more important than the slave trade, especially if the legalization of that trade would push other states away. “One great and prime obstacle to the earlier movements of the border States in favor of secession,” he voiced on January 17th, “has been a wide spread belief that the Gulf States designed in seceding, to establish a Government, differing essentially from the Federal Constitution; and especially that the African Slave Trade would be reopened.”

He claimed to have, “received many letters from distinguished gentlemen in various parts of Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee, upon that very point, informing me that, were it not for the fear of the new Confederacy reopening the African Slave Trade, there would be a much stronger and more general movement in those States in favor of dissolution.”

“A Southern Confederacy,” concluded Yancey, “with the Federal Constitution slightly altered to suit an entire slaveholding community, will be an invitation to Southern States, yet in the Union, to leave it and seek for peace and security and liberty within a Union, having no enemies – no irrepressible conflicts – and being a confederacy of slaveholding States, under the Constitution of our slaveholding sires.” 7William Russell Smith The History and Debates of the Convention of the People of Alabama (White, Pfister & Co., 1861) 144. Smith simply recorded the debates at the Convention. If you want to see all of arguments put forward for and against the slave trade (and pretty much any other issue before the new Confederate government) this is essential reading.

The Alabama Debate

A week later, the debate was taken up in earnest. John T. Morgan, a delegate from Dallas County, agreed with Yancey that the slave trade should be outlawed on “the grounds of public policy.” He was not, however, against it in any other way. As a Christian, he wanted all of the state’s powers “to go to Africa and to bring over ship loads of poor, savage slaves to a country where they could be raised to the condition of Christian slaves, which is the highest point that the negro race can reach, consistently with Divine Law, and with their mental and physical organization.”

John Tyler Morgan. Would serve at Grand Dragon of the KKK after the war, as well as United States Senator for six terms.
John Tyler Morgan. Would serve at Grand Dragon of the KKK after the war, as well as United States Senator for six terms.

Setting aside his strong Christian principles that favored racial slavery, Morgan was willing to ban the slave trade, but took issue with the United States law equating it with piracy. “The Ordinance of Secession rests,” he began, “in a great measure, upon our assertion of a right to enslave the African race…” When the Federal government “denounced the African Slave Trade as piracy,” Morgan saw it as the “most fatal and scandalous declaration” the government had ever made. “The traductions embodied in the terrible word ‘piracy,’ have been wrought into every shape, and pointed with every sting with which to torture and malign the South.”

Piracy, Morgan understood, implied that slavery itself was immoral. He could not understand how it was moral “to bring a Christianized and enlightened negro from Virginia to Alabama,” but immoral “to bring a heathen and savage slave from Africa to Alabama”. He argued that “we cannot defend the inter-State Slave Trade on the great truth of its coincidence with the revealed will of God, and, at the same time, condemn the African Slave Trade on moral grounds.”

Since the African slave trade was both Christian and moral in Morgan’s eyes, he saw no other reason but policy to outlaw it. And yet, he argued against that as well, reasoning that if states such as Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina “require a solemn act of condemnation” of the African slave trade, so be it. “It is much to be desired that Virginia should unite with us,” he continued, “and that every slave State should join readily in this movement. But I would neither bribe nor threaten Virginia, nor any other slave State. Let them act on their own convictions of duty.” Ultimately, Morgan believed that it should be left up to the individual states. “Any State may open it, and no one State could prevent it.” 8Ibid., 196-198.

Even those, like William Russell Smith, of Tuscaloosa, who favored a Confederate Constitution banning the African slave trade, wished it to on record that they were not opposed to it upon moral grounds. “As a matter of opinion,” said Smith in response to Morgan, “I do not believe that the African Slave Trade would be immoral in itself now – or that it ever has been immoral. I hold, that the African, taken from his native wilds and placed in the ranks that march onward from savage to civilized life, is greatly benefited. He is humanised and christianised. He rises from the condition of a brute into the position of a christian man.”

While the African was “a mere mongrel,” Smith contended that the Alabama slave was “happier than his master.” He detailed that the slaves lived a life that might be envied. “His cottage is built for him, his food provided, his meals prepared; his hearth to spread with substantial comforts, and his long nights are for those blissful dreams that are undisturbed by the knowledge of coming necessities. He has no cankering cares, no buffetting with fortune, no aspiration for expanding acres, no cares for rain or sunshine. He has neigh cloth nor meat to buy; he is free from debt, he is above all civil law – and he looks forward to Christmas, not as the maturity of time for his bills, but for his holidays. Sir, there can be nothing immoral in placing a savage in such a condition as this.” 9Ibid., 201.

Alabama Capital building, which housed the first Confederate Congress. Shown in February 1861, Davis' inauguration.
Alabama Capital building, which housed the first Confederate Congress. Shown in February 1861, Davis’ inauguration.

Smith, like many, opposed the Atlantic slave trade for practical reasons having nothing at all to do with the slave’s condition. “We double our population as a general rule every twenty years, and the negroes multiply more rapidly than the whites,” he put forward. “In twenty years, we will have eight millions [of slaves]; in forty years, sixteen millions; in sixty years, thirty-two millions; in eighty years, sixty-four millions; in a hundred years, one hundred and twenty-eight millions of slaves!”

He urged Alabama and the new Confederate government to look into the future. The land mass that would become the Confederate States of America could only hold so many slaves. “Will there be any room left for the white man?” he asked. “What is to become of the hardy pioneer who first cleared away the wilderness, and erected his cabin on some distant knoll, proud and happy in the possession of his little kingdom – his forty acres of land? Is he to be driven away from his happy dominions by the ominous advance of this ebony giant? This must not be. This shall not be. Surely no man here wishes this to be.” 10Ibid, 201-202.

On January 25th, the final wording of the message that the Alabama delegates were to bring to Montgomery was decided upon. It called for restrictions which would “effectually prevent the importation of slaves into such Republic from any other place or country other than the slaveholding States of the late United States of America.” This, however, was slightly amended, making sure to clarify that it was opposed “on the grounds of public policy” and no others, which the re-opening was opposed. 11Alabama 1861 Convention Journals, 132-133. Morality of the trade, except in lamentations that more Africans could not be brought to America to be Christianized, was not mentioned. The only human consideration was the plight of the white man surrounded by so many black people. It was a matter of policy only. If the slave trade was re-opened, it would “engender distrust” among the border slave states, perhaps forcing them back into the arms of the North. 12Smith., 207.


The Confederate Constitution

On February 4, 1860, when the first Southern politicians met in Montgomery, Alabama, the rest of the South looked on, curious to see what these radicals might do. These were the men who had been pushing for secession for a generation or more. These were the radical enslavers, and many were the proponents of re-opening the Atlantic slave trade. These men were forming their own nation, establishing law without the yea or nay of any border state – what to speak of the free states. Their policies could draw the moderates South, or secure the middle to the North.

Though Christopher Memminger of South Carolina arrived in Montgomery with a draft of the Confederate Constitution already penned, a committee was formed consisting of two members from each state. Together, they would write and present a proposed Constitution for the Congress to pick apart and finalize. Whatever debate went on behind these closed doors is lost to history. That the slave trade was discussed is almost certain – especially since Robert Barnwell Rhett, who had been advocating its re-opening for years, was part of the committee.


By March 5th, the draft was submitted and Congress began its long task. There was little debate on the floor itself over the question of the African slave trade. Rhett, every ounce a fire-eater, took issue with the outright ban. Instead, he wanted to limit the constitution by merely allowing Congress to prohibit it at some point in time, following the United States Constitution. This would allow further debate and very potentially a re-opening of the trade. James Chesnut more or less echoed these sentiments.

These suggestions were voted down with only South Carolina in full support. However, one or more delegates from all of the other states sided with Rhett and Chesnut, they were simply not in the majority. 13Journal of the Congress of the Confederate States of America, 1861, Volume 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1904) 868-869. The vote, when counted by delegate, was a bit closer at 24 to 15 in favor of outlawing the slave trade. South Carolina had seven in favor, Georgia and Mississippi with two, and the rest with one a piece.

There were, of course, other considerations when it came to the Atlantic slave trade, such as foreign policy, but this was given little importance so early in the life of the Confederacy. For the time being, anything that could be done to entice the remaining slave states to secede was the rule of the day.

The Confederate Constitution banned the African slave trade, and thus put to rest the “one great and prime obstacle” to the secession of the border states. The new nation was indeed becoming, as Yancey had assured it would, “a Southern Confederacy with the Federal Constitution slightly altered to suit an entire slaveholding community.”

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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.