The "Free Africans" Scheme

In May 1858, the Southern Commercial Convention met in Montgomery, Alabama, and the majority report recommended the adoption of motions in favor of reopening the trade, but the debate was so ferocious that the question was left for further discussion at the following convention in Vicksburg, Mississippi. In the meantime, the Louisiana House of Representatives authorized the introduction of 2,500 "free Africans" who would work as apprentices for at least fifteen years. It was, of course, a figure of speech. In 1859, undaunted by the collapse of this scheme after the State Senate refused to pass the apprentice bill, the revival activists launched the African Labor Supply Association, headquartered at Vicksburg, Virginia.

The association's president was James De Bow. Among other arguments, he alleged that the welfare of the Africans was at stake: "From the teeming millions, the barbarian hosts, crushed, oppressed, benighted, of that father-land [of our present labor system], cannot a few more subjects be spared to civilization?" The opponents of the revival used the same argument. James Johnston Pettigrew of North Carolina explained:

Looking upon the ancestors of our slaves as they exist in their native land, clothed in filth and this idea, as though we were to derive no lesson from the squalor, slaughtering each other by law upon the most trivial occasions, selling their wives and children to the pale-faced stranger, acknowledging no impulse save that of unbridled passion, no restraint save that of physical fear, without morals or religion, or the capacity for self-progress, and barely removed from the brute by some faint idea of association; and then glancing across the Atlantic to the shores of America upon the four millions of slaves, their descendents, robust, cheerful, fed, clothed, cared for when sick and aged, instructed in the elements of religion, surrounded by the enlightenment of an advancing civilization, the vast majority contented in their present condition, and all in a position of moral and material welfare superior to the laboring classes of Europe in view of the striking contrast presented, the undersigned, as a friend of Africa, might well advocate the revival of the slave-trade, and receive its agents as angels of mercy. But objects nearer to home have profounder claims upon our philanthropy — friends, neighbors, fellow-citizens — and we have no right to jeopardy their welfare even for the salvation of the African continent.

As is typical in pro-slavery literature, because of all the political, regional and economic issues and the class tensions that the debate exposed, the unifying line everybody could rally around was that the slave trade was first and foremost a blessing for the Africans.