In his essay "The Missouri Controversy and Sectionalism", which may be found in Congress and the Emergence of Sectionalism, Robert Pierce Forbes mentions that "[i]n 1816, John Randolph of Roanoke denounced the domestic slave trade on the floor of Congress and called for a federal investigation into it." Randolph has long been one of my favorite characters in American history. I was generally aware of his views on the slave trade but was unaware of the speech. Having located it in the Annals of Congress, I thought I'd share it with you.
As usual, the ever-colorful, acid-tongued Randolph pulled no punches. Taking the floor on Friday March 1, 1816 following a discussion of routine matters relating to the District of Columbia, Randolph rose to address "a subject of infinitely more importance in every point of view." At the outset he damned both the slave trade as an "abomination" and his colleagues in the House for their moral blindness (I have transposed all quotes from the third person to the first and added some paragraph breaks):
I wish that some other gentleman had undertaken the business; but as no one has thought proper to awaken the House to a sense of their concern in it, or to point the finger of scorn at it, I will take upon myself the office to do it, and to call upon the House to put a stop to proceedings at this moment carried on under our very noses; proceedings that are a crying sin before God and man; a practice which is not surpassed for abomination in any part of the earth; for in no part of it, not even excepting the rivers on the coast of Africa, is there so great and so infamous a slave market as in the metropolis, in the very Seat of Government of this nation, which prides itself on freedom.
Randolph denied that he would weaken the institution of slavery, and affirmed that citizens were entitled to purchase slaves.
[B]ut it is not necessary to that exercise that this city should be made a depot of slaves, who are bought either from cruel masters or kidnapped - slaves stolen from their masters, and free persons stolen, as I might say, from themselves. It is not necessary that we should have, here in the very streets of our new metropolis, a depot for this nefarious traffic - in comparison with which the traffic from Africa to Charleston or Jamaica is mercy, is virtue.
Randolph suggested, offensively to modern ears, that the fact that slaves in America ceased being "savages" and became "civilized" only heightened the barbarity of slave market:
Indeed there can be no comparison rationally instituted between taking these savages from their native wilds and tearing the civilized informed negro, habituated to cultivated life, from his master, his friends, his wife, his children, or his parents.
Randolph conceded that slaves would have to move from place to place. But he condemned the "systematic slave market" and moved that it be investigated and stopped:
As to the right of passing through the place, as ordinary occasions might require, it is unquestionable; but there is a great difference between that and making the District a depot for a systematic slave market - an assemblage of prisons where the unfortunate beings, reluctant, no doubt, to be torn from their connexions, and the affections of their lives, are incarcerated and chained down, and thence driven in fetters like beasts, to be paid for like cattle.
I therefore move that the Committee of the District of Columbia should be instructed to inquire into the inhuman and illegal traffic in slaves carried on in this District, and to devise some speedy means to put a stop to it.
A comment that Randolph interpreted as an attempt to deflect responsibility for addressing the issue prompted him to a diatribe against heartless slave-traders and masters:
The object of my resolutions is a more coercive police. I know that the demands for cotton, tobacco, and latterly of sugar, create a demand for slaves, and we have a description of people here like those described by Mungo Park, (only that that they are not so humane or so honest) white traders who make this their depot, and sell human beings; and to verify this charge, and show the audacious villainy of their proceedings, consider these words of an advertisement of a sale of negroes - "No objection to TRADERS bidding."
The increase in the price is the temptation for which their base, hard-hearted masters sold out of their families the negroes who had been raised among them. This very day I heard a horrible fact from a respectable gentleman as he came to the House, which I will relate. A poor negro, by hard work and saving of his allowances, had laid by money enough to buy the freedom of his wife and child, and had paid it from time to time into the hands of his master, but the poor fellow died. The transaction was an affair of hon or with the master, and the day after the poor fellow's death, the woman and child were sold.
One fact like this speaks volumes. I repeat, that if the honorable chairman of the Committee of the District of Columbia refuses to take upon him the inquiry into this rank offence, I will myself be among these people.
Randolph closed with an anecdote worthy of an abolitionist:
I was lately mortified at being told by a foreigner of high rank, "You call this the land of liberty, and every day that passes things are done in it at which the despotisms of Europe would be horrorstruck and disgusted."
The House then passed the following resolution:
Resolved, That a committee be appointed to inquire into the existence of an inhuman and illegal traffic in slaves carried on in and through the District of Columbia, and to report whether any, and what, measures are necessary for putting a stop to the same.
Messrs. Randolph, Joseph Hopkinson (Federalist, PA), Charles Goldsborough (Federalist, MD), William Mayrant (Democratic-Republican, SC) and John Kerr (Democratic-Republican, VA) were appointed as members of the committee. The undistinguished nature of the panel suggests that the House had no interest in addressing the issue.