George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

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Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 49 of 57)
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clause as an exclusion of South Carolina from the Union.

"Mr. BALDWIN had conceived national objects alone to be
before the Convention: not such as, like the present, were
of a local nature. Georgia was decided on this point. That
State has always hitherto supposed a General Government to
be the pursuit of the Central States, who wished to have a
vortex for every thing; that her distance would preclude
her from equal advantage; and that she could not prudently
purchase it by yielding national powers. From this it might
be understood in what light she would view an attempt to
abridge one of her favorite prerogatives. _If left to
herself, she may probably put a stop to the evil_. As one
ground for this conjecture, he took notice of the sect
of - - , which, he said, was a respectable class of people,
who carried their ethics beyond the mere _equality of
men_, - extending their humanity to the claims of the whole
animal creation.

"Mr. WILSON observed, that, _if South Carolina and Georgia
were themselves disposed to get rid of the importation of
slaves in a short time, as had been suggested, they would
never refuse to unite because the importation might be
prohibited_. As the section now stands, all articles
imported are to be taxed. Slaves alone are exempt. This is,
in fact, a bounty on that article.

"Mr. GERRY thought we had nothing to do with the conduct of
the States as to slaves, but ought to be careful not to give
any sanction to it.

"Mr. DICKINSON considered it as inadmissible, on every
principle of honor and safety, that the importation of
slaves should be authorized to the States by the
Constitution. The true question was, whether the national
happiness would be promoted or impeded by the importation;
and this question ought to be left to the National
Government, not to the States particularly interested. If
England and France permit slavery, slaves are, at the same
time, excluded from both those kingdoms. Greece and Rome
were made unhappy by their slaves. He could not believe that
the Southern States would refuse to confederate on the
account apprehended; especially as the power was not likely
to be immediately exercised by the General Government.

"Mr. WILLIAMSON stated the law of North Carolina on the
subject; to wit, that it did not directly prohibit the
importation of slaves. It imposed a duty of £5 on each slave
imported from Africa, £10 on each from elsewhere, and £50 on
each from a State licensing manumission. He thought the
Southern States could not be members of the Union, if the
clause should be rejected: and it was wrong to force any
thing down not absolutely necessary, and which any State
must disagree to.

"Mr. KING thought the subject should be considered in a
political light only. If two States will not agree to the
Constitution, as stated on one side, he could affirm with
equal belief, on the other, that great and equal opposition
would be experienced from the other States. He remarked on
the exemption of slaves from duty, whilst every other import
was subjected to it, as an inequality that could not fail to
strike the commercial sagacity of the Northern and Middle

"Mr. LANGDON was strenuous for giving the power to the
General Government. He could not, with a good conscience,
leave it with the States, who could then go on with the
traffic, without being restrained by the opinions here
given, _that they will themselves cease to import slaves_.

"Gen. PINCKNEY thought himself bound to declare candidly,
that he did not think South Carolina would stop her
importations of slaves in any short time; but only stop them
occasionally, as she now does. He moved to commit the
clause, that slaves might be made liable to an equal tax
with other imports, which he thought right, and which would
remove one difficulty that had been started.

"Mr. RUTLEDGE. If the Convention thinks that North Carolina,
South Carolina, and Georgia will ever agree to the plan,
unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the
expectation is vain. The people of those States will never
be such fools as to give up so important an interest. He was
strenuous against striking out the section, and seconded the
motion of Gen. Pinckney for a commitment.

"Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS wished the whole subject to be
committed, including the clauses relating to taxes on export
and to a navigation act. These things may form a bargain
among the Northern and Southern States.

"Mr. BUTLER declared, that he never would agree to the power
of taxing exports.

"Mr. SHERMAN said it was better to let the Southern States
import slaves than to part with them, if they made that a
_sine qua non_. He was opposed to a tax on slaves imported,
as making the matter worse, because it implied they were
_property_. He acknowledged, that, if the power of
prohibiting the importation should be given to the General
Government, it would be exercised. He thought it would be
its duty to exercise the power.

'Mr. READ was for the commitment, provided the clause
concerning taxes on exports should also be committed.

"Mr. SHERMAN observed, that that clause had been agreed to,
and therefore could not be committed.

"Mr. RANDOLPH was for committing, in order that some middle
ground might, if possible, be found. He could never agree to
the clause as it stands. He would sooner risk the
Constitution. He dwelt on the dilemma to which the
Convention was exposed. By agreeing to the clause, it would
revolt the Quakers, the Methodists, and many others in the
States having no slaves. On the other hand, two States might
be lost to the Union. Let us then, he said, try the chance
of a commitment."[631]

Three days later (Saturday, Aug. 25) the debate on the subject was
resumed, and the report of the committee of eleven was taken up. It
was in the following words: -

"Strike out so much of the fourth section as was referred to
the Committee, and insert 'The migration or importation of
such persons as the several States, now existing, think
proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Legislature
prior to the year 1800; but a tax or duty may be imposed on
such migration or importation, at a rate not exceeding the
average of the duties laid on imports.'

* * * * *

"Gen. PINCKNEY moved to strike out the words 'the year
eighteen hundred' as the year limiting the importation of
slaves, and to insert the words 'the year eighteen hundred
and eight.'

"Mr. GORHAM seconded the motion.

"Mr. MADISON. Twenty years will produce all the mischief
that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves.
So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American
character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.

"On the motion, which passed in the affirmative, -

"New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North
Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, ay, - 7, New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, - 4.

"Mr. GOUVERNOUR MORRIS was for making the clause read at
once, -

"'The importation of slaves into North Carolina, South
Carolina, and Georgia, shall not be prohibited,' &c. This,
he said, would be most fair, and would avoid the ambiguity
by which, under the power with regard to naturalization, the
liberty reserved to the States might be defeated. He wished
it to be known, also, that this part of the Constitution was
a compliance with those States. If the change of language,
however, should be objected to by the members from those
States, he should not urge it.

"Col. MASON was not against using the term 'slaves,' but
against naming North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia,
lest it should give offence to the people of those States.

"Mr. SHERMAN liked a description better than the terms
proposed, which had been declined by the old Congress, and
were not pleasing to some people.

"Mr. CLYMER concurred with Mr. Sherman.

"Mr. WILLIAMSON said, that, both in opinion and practice, he
was against slavery; but thought it more in favor of
humanity, from a view of all circumstances, to let in South
Carolina and Georgia on those terms, than to exclude them
from the Union.

"Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS withdrew his motion.

"Mr. DICKINSON wished the clause to be confined to the
States which had not themselves prohibited the importation
of slaves; and, for that purpose, moved to amend the clause
so as to read. -

"'The importation of slaves into such of the States as shall
permit the same shall not be prohibited by the Legislature
of the United States until the year 1808;' -

"which was disagreed to, _nem. con._

"The first part of the Report was then agreed to, amended as
follows: -

"'The migration or importation of such persons as the
several States now existing shall think proper to admit
shall not be prohibited by the Legislature prior to the year

"New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North
Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, ay, - 7; New Jersey,
Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, - 4."[632]

* * * * *

The above specimens of the speeches on the slavery question, during
the debate, are sufficient to furnish a fair idea of the personal
opinion of the great thinkers of that time on slavery. It is clear
that it was the wish of the great majority of the Northern delegates
to abolish the institution, in a domestic as well as in a foreign
sense; but they were not strong enough to resist the temptation to
compromise their profoundest convictions on a question as broad and
far-reaching as the Union that they were met to launch anew. Thus by
an understanding, or, as Gouverneur Morris called it, "a bargain,"
between the commercial representatives of the Northern States and the
delegates of South Carolina and Georgia, and in spite of the
opposition of Maryland and Virginia, the unrestricted power of
Congress to enact navigation-laws was conceded to the Northern
merchants; and to the Carolina rice-planters, as an equivalent, twenty
years' continuance of the African slave-trade. This was the third
great "compromise" of the Constitution. The other two were the
concession to the smaller States of an equal representation in the
Senate; and, to the slaveholders, the counting three-fifths of the
slaves in determining the ratio of representation. If this third
compromise differed from the other two by involving not merely a
political but a moral sacrifice, there was this partial compensation
about it, that it was not permanent like the others, but expired, by
limitation, at the end of twenty years.[633]

The Constitution was adopted by the Convention, and signed, on the
17th of September, 1787. It was then forwarded to Congress, then in
session in New-York City, with the recommendation that that body
submit it to the State conventions for ratification; which was
accordingly done. Delaware adopted it on the 7th of December, 1787;
Pennsylvania, Dec. 12; New Jersey, Dec. 18; Georgia, Jan. 2, 1788;
Connecticut, Jan. 9; Massachusetts, Feb. 7; Maryland, April 28; South
Carolina, May 23; New Hampshire, June 21 (and, being the ninth
ratifying, gave effect to the Constitution); Virginia ratified June
27; New York, July 26. North Carolina gave a conditional ratification
on the 7th of August, but Congress did not receive it until January,
1790; nor that of Rhode Island, until June of the same year.

At the conclusion of the deliberations of the convention that framed
the Constitution, it was voted that its journal be intrusted to the
custody of George Washington. He finally deposited it in the State
Department, and it was printed in 1818 by order of Congress.

The first session of Congress, under the new Constitution, was held
in the city of New York, in 1789. A quorum was obtained on the 6th of
April; and the first measure brought up for consideration was a
tariff-bill which Mr. Parker of Virginia sought to amend by inserting
a clause levying an impost-tax of ten dollars upon every slave brought
by water. "He was sorry the Constitution prevented Congress from
prohibiting the importation altogether. It was contrary to revolution
principles, and ought not to be permitted." Thus the question of
slavery made its appearance early at the first session of the first
Congress under the present Constitution. At that time Georgia was the
only State in the Union that seemed to retain a pecuniary interest in
the importation of slaves. Even South Carolina had passed an Act
prohibiting for one year the importation of slaves. In this, as on
several occasions before, she was actuated on account of the low
prices of produce, - too low to be remunerative. But, notwithstanding
this, Mr. Smith, the member from the Charleston district, grew quite
captious over the proposition of the gentleman from Virginia. He

'Hoped that such an important and serious proposition would
not be hastily adopted. It was rather a late moment for the
first introduction of a subject so big with serious
consequences. No one topic had been yet introduced so
important to South Carolina and the welfare of the Union."

Mr. Sherman got the floor, and said he

"Approved the object of the motion, but did not think it a
fit subject to be embraced in this bill. He could not
reconcile himself to the insertion of human beings, as a
subject of impost, among goods, wares, and merchandise. He
hoped the motion would be withdrawn for the present, and
taken up afterwards as an independent subject."

Mr. Jackson of Georgia

"Was not surprised, however others might be so, at the
quarter whence this motion came. Virginia, as an old settled
State, had her complement of slaves, and the natural
increase being sufficient for her purpose, she was careless
of recruiting her numbers by importation. But gentlemen
ought to let their neighbors get supplied before they
imposed such a burden. He knew this business was viewed in
an odious light at the Eastward, because the people there
were capable of doing their own work, and had no occasion
for slaves. But gentlemen ought to have some feeling for
others. Surely they do not mean to tax us for every comfort
and enjoyment of life, and, at the same time, to take from
us the means of procuring them! He was sure, from the
unsuitableness of the motion to the business now before the
house, and the want of time to consider it, the gentleman's
candor would induce him to withdraw it. Should it ever be
brought forward again, he hoped it would comprehend the
white slaves as well as the black, imported from all the
jails of Europe; wretches convicted of the most flagrant
crimes, who were brought in and sold without any duty
whatever. They ought to be taxed equally with Africans, and
he had no doubt of the equal constitutionality and propriety
of such a course."

Mr. Parker of Virginia obtained the floor again, and proceeded to
reply to the remarks offered upon his amendment by Sherman, Jackson,
and Smith. He declared, -

"That, having introduced the motion on mature reflection, he
did not like to withdraw it. The gentleman from Connecticut
had said that human beings ought not to be enumerated with
goods, wares, and merchandise. Yet he believed they were
looked upon by African traders in that light. He hoped
Congress would do all in their power to restore to human
nature its inherent privileges; to wipe off, if possible,
the stigma under which America labored; to do away with the
inconsistence in our principles justly charged upon us; and
to show, by our actions, the pure beneficence of the
doctrine held out to the world in our Declaration of

Mr. Ames of Massachusetts

"Detested slavery from his soul; but he had some doubts
whether imposing a duty on their importation would not have
an appearance of countenancing the practice."

Mr. Madison made an eloquent speech in support of Mr. Parker's
amendment. He said, -

"The confounding men with merchandise might be easily
avoided by altering the title of the bill; it was, in fact,
the very object of the motion to prevent men, so far as the
power of Congress extended, from being confounded with
merchandise. The clause in the Constitution allowing a tax
to be imposed, though the traffic could not be prohibited
for twenty years, was inserted, he believed, for the very
purpose of enabling Congress to give some testimony of the
sense of America with respect to the African trade. By
expressing a national disapprobation of that trade, it is to
be hoped we may destroy it, and so save ourselves from
reproaches, and our posterity from the imbecility ever
attendant on a country filled with slaves. This was as much
the interest of South Carolina and Georgia as of any other
States. Every addition they received to their number of
slaves tended to weakness, and rendered them less capable of
self-defence. In case of hostilities with foreign nations,
their slave population would be a means, not of repelling
invasions, but of inviting attack. It was the duty of the
general government to protect every part of the Union
against danger, as well internal as external. Every thing,
therefore, which tended to increase this danger, though it
might be a local affair, yet, if it involved national
expense or safety, became of concern to every part of the
Union, and a proper subject for the consideration of those
charged with the general administration of the government."

Mr. Bland approved the position taken by Mr. Madison, while Mr. Burke
of South Carolina charged the gentlemen with having wasted the time of
Congress upon a useless proposition. He contended, that, while slaves
were not mentioned in the Constitution, they would come under the
general five per cent _ad valorem_ duty on all unenumerated articles,
which would be equivalent to the proposition of the gentleman from
Virginia. Mr. Madison replied by saying, that no collector of customs
would presume to apply the terms "goods," "wares," and "merchandise"
to persons. Mr. Sherman followed him in the same strain, and denied
that persons were anywhere recognised as property in the Constitution.
Finally, at the suggestion of Mr. Madison, Mr. Parker consented to
withdraw his motion with the understanding that a separate bill should
be brought in. A committee was appointed to discharge that duty, but
the noble resolve found a quiet grave in the committee-room.

The failure of this first attempt, under the new Constitution, to
restrict slavery, did not lame the cause to any great extent. It was
rather accelerated. The manner and spirit of the debate on the subject
quickened public thought, animated the friends of the Negro, and
provoked many people to good works. Slavery had ceased to exist in
Massachusetts. Several suits, entered by slaves against their masters
for restraining their liberty, had been won. The case of Elizabeth
Freeman, better known as "Mum Bet," was regarded as the first-fruits
of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights in the new Constitution of
1780. The Duke de la Rochefoucault Laincort gives the following
interesting account of the extinction of slavery in Massachusetts: -

"In 1781, some negroes, prompted by private suggestion,
maintained that they were not slaves: they found advocates,
among whom was Mr. Sedgwick, now a member of the Senate of
the United States; and the cause was carried before the
Supreme Court. Their counsel pleaded, 1°. That no antecedent
law had established slavery, and that the laws which seemed
to suppose it were the offspring of error in the
legislators, who had no authority to enact them; - 2°, That
such laws, even if they had existed, were annulled by the
new Constitution. They gained the cause under both aspects:
and the solution of this first question that was brought
forward set the negroes entirely at liberty, and at the same
time precluded their pretended owners from all claim to
indemnification, since they were proved to have possessed
and held them in slavery without any right. As there were
only a few slaves in Massachusetts, the decision passed
without opposition, and banished all further idea of

Mr. Nell gives an account of the legal death of slavery in
Massachusetts, but unfortunately does not cite any authority. John
Quincey Adams, in reply to a question put by John C. Spencer, stated
that, "a note had been given for the price of a slave in 1787. This
note was sued, and the Court ruled that the maker had received no
consideration, as a man could not be sold. From that time forward,
slavery died in the Old Bay State." There were several suits
instituted by slaves against their reputed masters in 1781-82; but
there are strong evidences that slavery died a much slower death in
Massachusetts than many are willing to admit. James Sullivan wrote to
Dr. Belknap in 1795: -

"In 1781, at the Court in Worcester County, an indictment
was found against a white man named Jennison for assaulting,
beating, and imprisoning Quock Walker, a black. He was tried
at the Supreme Judicial Court in 1783. His defence was, that
the black was his slave, and that the beating, etc., was the
necessary restraint and correction of the master. This was
answered by citing the aforesaid clause in the declaration
of rights. The judges and jury were of opinion that he had
no right to imprison or beat the negro. He was found guilty
and fined 40 shillings. This decision put an end to the idea
of slavery in Massachusetts."[635]

There are two things in the above that throw considerable uncertainty
about the subject as to the precise date of the end of slavery in the
Commonwealth. First, the suit referred to was tried in 1783, three
years after the adoption of the new Constitution. Second, the good
doctor does not say that the decision sealed the fate of slavery, but
only that it "was a mortal wound to slavery in Massachusetts."

From 1785-1790, there was a wonderful change in the public opinion of
the Middle and Eastern States on the subject of slavery. Most of them
had passed laws providing for gradual emancipation. The Friends of New
York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania began to organize a crusade against
domestic slavery. In the fall of 1789, while the Congressional debates
were still fresh in the minds of the people, the venerable Dr.
Benjamin Franklin, as president of the "Pennsylvania Society for
Promoting the Abolition of Slavery," etc., issued the following
letter: -


_From the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition
of Slavery, and the Relief of Free Negroes unlawfully held
in Bondage_.

It is with peculiar satisfaction we assure, the friends of
humanity, that, in prosecuting the design of our
association, our endeavors have proved successful, far
beyond our most sanguine expectations.

"Encouraged by this success, and by the daily progress of
that luminous and benign spirit of liberty which is
diffusing itself throughout the world, and humbly hoping for
the continuance of the divine blessing on our labors, we
have ventured to make an important addition to our original
plan; and do therefore earnestly solicit the support and
assistance of all who can feel the tender emotions of
sympathy and compassion, or relish the exalted pleasure of

Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 49 of 57)