Wednesday, March 26, 2008

The Interstate Slave Trade 2

According to David Lightner, in his book Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle Against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War (Yale University Press 2006), it took almost twenty years before anyone realized that Congress’s power to regulate or abolish the interstate slave trade posed a potentially deadly threat to the peculiar institution.

The occasion was the debate in Congress in 1807 over the enactment of legislation to outlaw the international slave trade. In order to understand how the interstate slave trade issue surfaced in that context, let’s look at the bill as finally enacted, and then work our way backwards.

The bill that was passed, entitled “An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and eight,” clearly represented an attempt to close all possible loopholes. It is therefore heavily laden with legal verbiage. However, in broad outline, the sections addressed the following:

Section 1 laid out the basic rule. It was unlawful to import “any negro, mulatto, or person of color” into the United States from any foreign place with the intent of holding, selling or disposing of him as a slave.

Sections 2 and 3 addressed preparations to send slaving ships from the United States. In effect, it was illegal to do anything to prepare a ship to voyage from the United States to any foreign place for the purpose of procuring slaves to be transported back to the United States.

Sections 4 and 5 addressed the taking on board of slaves in foreign waters. It was illegal for a United States citizen or resident to “take on board, receive, or transport” any person for the purpose of selling him as a slave in the United States.

Section 6 addressed domestic purchasers and sellers. It was illegal for a person to purchase or sell an illegally-imported slave in the United States, “knowing at the time of such purchase or sale” that the slave had been illegally imported.

Section 7 addressed international transportation and offshore “hovering.” It was illegal to transport on the high seas, or in any waters of the United States, any person for the purpose of selling him a slave in the United States “contrary to the prohibition of this act.”

I will outline Sections 8 though 10 in a following post.

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