American Abolitionists

American abolitionists sought to circumvent the Constitution by appealing directly to the U.S. Congress. On February 11, 1790, two Quaker delegations from New York and Philadelphia presented petitions to the House of Representatives calling for an immediate end to the international slave trade. This was followed the next day by a petition from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, signed and endorsed by Founding Father Benjamin Franklin, this time urging Congress to adopt measures against slavery as well as the slave trade.

The ensuing debate determined the broad lines of Congressional action for the next eighteen years. On March 23, the House of Representatives affirmed that it could neither abolish the slave trade, at least not before 1808, nor take any action affecting the emancipation of slaves. The Constitution, in other words, meant exactly what it said, a point made forcefully by figures like future president James Madison, who feared that any concessions to abolitionists might only invite the disunion of the infant American republic.

Nevertheless, the House of Representatives did go on to reserve its right to regulate the trade. In 1794, for instance, following intense pressure from abolitionists, Congress prohibited United States citizens from supplying slaves to foreigners. Similar commitments were also made regarding the "humane" treatment of Africans during the Middle Passage.

Increasingly, after 1790 American abolitionists would look to Britain to take deliberate action against the transatlantic slave trade, thereby setting an example for others to follow.