The Act of 1820

The final statute to regulate the trade was passed in 1820, with the unlikely title "An Act to continue in force 'An act to protect the commerce of the United States, and to punish the crime of piracy,' and also to make further provisions for punishing the crime of piracy." The key element of the law were two sections declaring that any American citizen engaging in the African slave trade "shall be adjudged a pirate; and on conviction thereof before the circuit court of the United States for the district wherein he shall be brought or found, shall suffer death." The same language was applied to non-Americans found on board slavers owned or commissioned by Americans. This law was to be in force for only two years, but on January 3, 1823, Congress made it a permanent statute. This was a dramatic and important change in U.S. policy.

After 1820, participation in the African slave trade was to be considered the most heinous crime on the high seas — piracy — to be punished by death. Never before had the United States taken such a stand against any aspect of slavery. Enforcement would be a challenge. The Atlantic Ocean was vast; the African Squadron was always too small. Slavers captured in or near southern ports would be tried by juries sympathetic to slavery and not always hostile to the illegal slave trade. No slaver would be executed until the Lincoln administration actually enforced the law to its fullest. But the 1820 law was somewhat effective in curbing the trade. Few sailors were willing to risk their lives for the relatively paltry earnings on board a slaver. The high cost of failure — confiscation of a ship, large fines, jail time for the owner, and possibly death for the captain and crew — surely discouraged most would-be traders. Incentives for informing on Americans who bought illegally introduced Africans were high. With a bounty of $50 per slave, an informant could make $5,000 for tipping off authorities that one hundred Africans had been secretly and illegally landed. With a bounty of $25 a slave, the crews of the African Squadron had a strong incentive for acting "above and beyond" the call of duty. Even in cases where the slavers were not executed, ships were seized and forfeited, making the business very expensive and not very profitable.

To be sure, some slaves were smuggled into the United States after 1820 from both Africa and other places in the Western Hemisphere. But the risks were high and the numbers were relatively few. In an eight-year period, from 1800 until December 31, 1807, about 100,000 Africans were forcibly brought into the country. After 1820 it is unlikely that more than 10,000 were successfully landed in the United States. It may have been far fewer than that. As the internal slave trade replaced the African trade, hundreds of thousands of African-American slaves were uprooted and moved further south and further west. The cost of ending that trade would be much higher than ending the African trade. But the moral issue was set in 1819 and 1820 when the United States finally stated, in unequivocal terms, that enslaving people was a "wrong" and those who engaged in the African trade were no better than common pirates. And, like common pirates, they deserved to be hanged.

Paul Finkelman
President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy
Albany Law School