Revival of Slave Trade


After its demise was announced in the Constitution, after its official prohibition on March 2, 1807, after decades of illicit trafficking that could bring death to the "pirates," the international slave trade still had much support among some southerners. They viewed it as a necessity and agitated for making it legal once again.

The reopening was first advocated in 1839 in the New Orleans Courier, but the campaign to make that wish a reality started in earnest in the early 1850s. Within a few years, the cry for the revival of the transatlantic slave trade had reached the Southern Commercial Conventions, the Houses of Representatives, and the Congress of the United States and had come to dominate the southern discourse.

Among its most outspoken advocates were Leonidas W. Spratt of the Charleston Standard; Robert Barnwell Rhett of the Charleston Mercury; James Hopkins Adams, governor of South Carolina; William Lowndes Yancey, a former U.S. senator from Alabama; and James De Bow, the influential editor of De Bow's Review. Mississippi senator Jefferson Davis was all for it but only in Texas and the western territories; he was firmly against the introduction of Africans into his own state, where the enslaved population was large enough, he asserted, although it was not well distributed.

The Political 'Reopeners'

The revivalists were a diverse lot, and they did not all share the same ultimate objective. For some, it was a question of needed labor, but for others, it was mostly a political matter. The political "reopeners" alleged that the country was at an economic disadvantage vis- à -vis other countries such as France and Great Britain–which had introduced tens of thousands of "free Africans" and others liberated from the seized slave ships–because of a dearth of plantation workers, most critically in the Deep South.

They were also concerned that the Free states were expanding, while the South could not claim new lands due to the scarcity of enslaved labor to work them. In addition, they saw their region as losing political power within the nation, due in part to a strong demographic increase in the North fed by European immigrants, while the South was cut off from its traditional supply of manpower: deported Africans. Spratt calculated that–if allowed to do so–each time the South were to introduce 50,000 Africans, it would gain 30,000 federal votes, according to the "3/5 clause."

At the other extreme of the revivalist movement were people like pamphleteer and sociologist George Fitzhugh of Virginia, who believed that reopening would save the Union by pushing a revitalized South to remain in it.

Some advocates had a much grander plan in mind, one that transcended the region and the nation. They envisioned southern expansionism not within the United States, but into the Caribbean and Central America. Once they had conquered and secured control of Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua, and other parts, they would bring in Africans whose free labor they would exploit for the benefit of the white slave-holding South.

Economic Issues

Economic issues were also a major concern: Daniel Lee, editor of the Southern Cultivator, wrote that if one million men and women "now worthless in Africa" were introduced, the southern mines would "pay a good interest on a thousand million dollars, and the muscles of these savages [would] pay a fair interest on a thousand or five hundred dollars each." In one year, he asserted, the Africans would have paid for their transportation, their own price, and, at $500 per person, they would add $500 million to the southern economy.

To those preoccupied with cheaper labor rather than politics, the revival advocates had a ready argument: the domestic slave trade that had uprooted more than a million African Americans from the Upper South had cost too much to the Deep South. Enslaved labor had become too expensive, as one commentator explained: "The old rule of pricing a negro by the price of cotton by the pound—that is to say, if cotton is worth twelve cents, a negro man is worth twelve hundred dollars, if at fifteen cents, then fifteen hundred dollars—does not seem to be regarded. Negroes are twenty-five per cent higher now, with cotton at ten and a half cents, than they were two or three years ago, when it was worth fifteen and sixteen cents. Men are demented upon the subject. A reverse will surely come." In the 1850s, a male "prime hand" in the Gulf States could cost $2,400, or about $48,000 in today's dollars. A newly arrived African, on the other hand, could be purchased for less than $800 ($16,000), or a third of the cost.

In Search of a White Front

Native-born bond people were thus presented by the reopening supporters as being beyond the reach of small planters. According to a Louisiana revivalist, "The price of negroes has already reached that point which is beyond the means of small planters, and they cannot afford to invest their small amounts of spare capital in a species of property that may be swept away by the diseases of the climate — perhaps, the very next week after its purchase — and thus, in the loss of one negro fellow, a three years' saving is gone with him." Appeals were also made to the poor, those who would never be able to afford enslaved labor anyway. De Bow assured them:

The non-slaveholder knows that as soon as his savings will admit, he can become a slaveholder, and thus relieve his wife from the necessities of the kitchen and the laundry, and his children from the labors of the field. This, with ordinary frugality, can in general be accomplished in a few years, and is a process continually going on. Perhaps twice the number of poor men at the South own a slave, to what owned a slave ten years ago. ... It is within the knowledge of the writer that a plantation of fifty or sixty persons has been established from the descendants of a single female, in the course of the lifetime of the original purchaser.

Southern slaveholders had become wary of the poor, who did not own slaves and thus had little economic stake in the system. Moreover, as the cost of purchasing enslaved labor increased dramatically, this group was hopelessly locked out of the market. Wealthy planters feared that the lower classes might support the Yankees, and so the revival propagandists tried to establish a solid white front across social classes. With more and cheaper Africans available, more people could have slaves, they argued, and the peculiar institution would thus have more supporters.

North Carolinian Hinton Rowan Helper begged to differ. He was the most famous southern abolitionist and a hard-core racist, the self-proclaimed voice of the "non-slaveholders of the South, farmers, mechanics and workingmen," who had been "hoodwinked, trifled and used by the 'slavocrats'". Helper believed that the South had "three odious classes of mankind; the slaves themselves, who are cowards; the slaveholders, who are tyrants; and the non-slaveholding slave-hirers, who are lickspittles." Leaving aside the lickspittles, there were, according to him, only 186,551 slaveholders in the country, and slavery that helped only them, to the detriment of the white worker, had to be abolished.

But his calculation was wrong. "Direct" slaveholders in the South numbered about 400,000 in 1860, but their families have to be taken into account. The spouse and the children were not counted as slave owners, yet they benefited from slavery just the same and had as much interest in the system as the holder. Thus, the 400,000 owners represented a population that numbered at the very least two million. Even though "only" 7 percent of Alabamians were actual owners, for example, 35 percent of the white population belonged to a slave-holding household. So did 49 percent of Mississippi whites, 46 percent of their counterparts in South Carolina, and 37 percent of Georgians. Slavery had also created jobs for white men such as overseers or slave catchers. So contrary to what Helper asserted, a large part of the population could thus, as the revivalists hoped, have a potential interest in the reopening of the international slave trade.

The growing immigration of Europeans also entered the revival debate. The vast majority chose the North and as a result increased not only its demographic weight, but also its political and economic power. If enslaved laborers were cheap, the advocates alleged, immigrants could buy them and they too would support slavery. Even the big planters, De Bow insisted, should support the revival because even if they saw their net worth drop as their native-born labor lost value, "the basis of slavery will be enlarged, and be brought to embrace in a direct and tangible interest, every member of the community, and its area at the same time be widened by the introduction of new States."

Finally, all revivalists agreed that banning the international slave trade on moral grounds made slavery itself look bad. Slavery was good and fair for all, including the enslaved, they maintained, and the banning of the international slave trade while the domestic slave trade was still legal not only did not make any sense, but it tarnished the slave system as a whole. By reviving it, the stain would be lifted from the institution.

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.

Southern Opposition

But the revival had its determined opponents in the South itself, and their arguments had nothing to do with morality. The black abolitionist newspaper The National Era made clear that the opponents' hostility came from the fact that they were "competitors with Congo and Dahomey in the production of negroes for the Southern market."

Some wealthy slaveholders feared that the availability of "low-cost" Africans would considerably decrease the value of their investment in enslaved men and women. Southerners kept in servitude 3,950,000 men, women, and children. A small group among them, fewer than 8,000, which represented 2 percent of the direct slaveholders, owned almost one million people. They had what today would be millions of dollars invested in black men, women, and children. A significant plunge in their price would result in a sharp decrease in the slaveholders' fortunes.

To rally support, just as the revivalists claimed they had only the Africans and the poor whites in mind, the opponents presented themselves as concerned only with the welfare of the less fortunate. A massive arrival of Africans, they asserted, would slow development; poor whites would find even less work than before and would never be able to save enough to acquire even cheap slaves. As for states like Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina, which sold enslaved laborers to the Deep South, the rich planters predicted that seeing their slave-holding value reduced to nothing would force them to abolish slavery, thereby increasing the number of Free States. In addition, they warned of the terrible prospect of having hordes of "cannibals," "heathen and worthless men," and "black rascals" arrive in the United States. President James Buchanan, in a message to Congress in December 1859, was on their side:

Reopen the trade, and it would be difficult to determine whether the effect would be more deleterious on the interests of the master or on those of the native born slave. Of the evils to the master, the one most to be dreaded would be the introduction of wild, heathen, and ignorant barbarians among the sober, orderly, and quiet slaves, whose ancestors have been on the soil for several generations. This might tend to barbarize, demoralize, and exasperate the whole mass, and produce the most deplorable circumstances. The effect upon the existing slaves would, if possible, be still more deplorable.

The Black Press and the Northern Press

The black press was not vocal on the revival. For many years, it had been mostly preoccupied with the domestic slave trade and Freedom's Journal, for example, had stated that the suppression of the internal trade was of more pressing concern:

In our humble opinion, the thousands which are annually appropriated for the suppression of the foreign slave trade, is to be considered but a secondary object, while our domestic slave trade is suffered to be carried on from one State to another. We may declaim as much as we please upon the horrors of the foreign slave trade, but we would ask, are the horrors of the internal trade less — are the relations of life less endearing in this country than in Africa — are the Wood folks of the South less cruel than the slavers on the coast?

But in 1854, the Provincial Freeman, a black weekly newspaper published in Toronto, Canada West, denounced the New York Day Book for supporting the international slave trade as a "civilizing and christianizing" process. The northern Day Book later went on to declare, "Of course no one can suppose we doubt the right of bringing negroes from Africa if they are needed. It is simply a question of expediency, and there can be no doubt our laws making it piracy must be blotted out of the Statute Books. They are not only ridiculous, but utterly and wholly contemptible."

In the same vein, the New York-based Harper's Weekly could affirm, "If in the North our supply of foreign labor were suddenly cut off, the country would receive a shock in comparison with which the late revulsion would seem utterly insignificant. Yet the natural increase of our laboring population is greater than that of the negroes."

The thought of reopening the slave trade was thus not circumscribed to the South but also found support in some northern circles. New York was, after all, the hub of the illegal slave trade that outfitted and insured slave ships doing business with Brazil, Cuba, and the Deep South. But generally, the revival was rejected in the Free States.

The End of the Revival Movement

The agitation for the reopening of the transatlantic slave trade exposed regional, social, political, economic, and class fractures within the South. The National Era was elated: "Criminal as this effort to revive the slave trade is, we expect much good to result from it. It must necessarily divide the South, and give rise to issues between Southern men which may become fatal to the system of Slavery." The issue had made strange bedfellows, it asserted: "The large slaveholder, the commercial and manufacturing classes, and the men of integrity and humanity, will take sides against [it], which the demagogues, appealing to the masses, will demand, in the name of the species of equality which is implied in the motto, 'Every citizen a slaveholder.'"

In the end, the revival never took place. It was too divisive an issue at a time when the South, on the verge of secession, needed unity. The Confederacy also wanted support from Great Britain and France in its upcoming war with the Union, and its leaders understood that they would never get it if they did reopen the international slave trade.

In February 1861, Jefferson Davis became president of the Confederacy, and on March 11, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America stipulated in its article I, section IX, "The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slave-holding States or territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden."

Sylviane A. Diouf
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture


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