A selection of cases from the Records of the U.S. District Courts in the states of Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina
The United States government has had a complicated, and often troubling, relationship with the institution of slavery. Though allowed to survive and even thrive long after the nation was established, federal laws were enacted which prevented the importation of new slaves from Africa and inflicted stiff penalties on those who attempted to do so. Many federal statutes regarding slavery focused mainly on the issue of new slaves brought into the country.
In March of 1794 Congress passed an act prohibiting the transport of slaves from the U.S. to any foreign country as well as making it illegal for American citizens to outfit a ship for purposes of importing slaves. The act did not, however, affect foreign nations and their importation of slaves. In addition, the penalties for Americans convicted under this law were fines and did not include incarceration.
An act passed in 1800 built on the 1794 law by increasing the fines for importation of slaves, as well as making it illegal for American citizens to engage in the slave trade between any nations, regardless if the ship originated in the U.S. or was owned by a U.S. citizen. It also gave U.S. authorities the right to seize slave ships which were caught transporting slaves and confiscate their cargo. Laws like these were not unheard of, even in the Colonial period. The Continental Congress had, in fact, passed a resolution in 1774 to ban slave importation and prohibit Americans from engaging in the trade. It was not until after the turn of the century, however, that Congress began to increase the penalties for violating these laws.
An 1803 act established a penalty of one thousand dollars for each person brought to the U.S. on a ship with the intention of selling them as a slave. This act also placed responsibility on the captain of any vessel transporting slaves. It charged customs and revenue officials in the government with enforcing this law, an indirect warning to those who might be in the best position for aiding illegal slave traders.
The Constitution itself established a way which Congress could ban the importation of slaves, but not until 1808. Congress did exercise this power at its earliest opportunity and as of January 1, 1808 the importation of slaves into the U.S. or its territories was banned. Penalties now included a fine, ranging from five to twenty-thousand dollars, forfeiture of ship and equipment, and imprisonment from five to ten years. The act specifically excluded transportation of slaves within the U.S., since the interstate sale of slaves remained legal.
Over a decade later, Congress would pass legislation in 1819 which considered intercontinental slave trading as piracy, punishable by death. Previously, U.S. ships only held a mandate to patrol the eastern seaboard of North America. Now they would extend their activities as far as the West African coast in order to enforce the law. This enforcement was given an additional boost by the Webster-Asburton Treaty signed with Great Britain in 1842. The treaty established a permanent fleet on the West African coast in the hopes of completely suppressing slave trafficking. Ironically this coincides with the period in which the illegal slave trade reached its height, between 1840 and 1860.
In 1861 President Lincoln signed an executive order turning over all responsibility for enforcing slave trade laws to the Secretary of the Interior. By stringently enforcing existing laws, Lincoln’s order spelled the end for the slave trade. The Secretary’s office believed that by 1865 it had effectively ended any attempt to outfit a slave ship in any U.S. port. The Emancipation Proclamation of 1862 and the 13th amendment passed in 1865 effectively ended any reason for transporting slaves to the U.S. No longer could any ship use the defense of originating in the U.S. while bound for a U.S. port.
It is estimated that the total number of slaves brought into the U.S. illegally during the first half the 19th century is approximately 1.2 million.
Given this figure, it is hard to determine the effect of laws banning importation after 1808. As laws were strengthened and enforcement increased, so did attempts to subvert them.
National Archives and Records Administration Southeast Region, Atlanta