- Slavery and the Commerce Power: How the Struggle against the Interstate Slave Trade Led to the Civil War
David Lightner's study of antislavery activists' efforts to persuade Congress to use its authority over interstate commerce to ban the internal slave trade offers an important new dimension to our understanding of sectional tensions, which grew from the early republic to the end of the Civil War. His narrative and analysis are detailed, nuanced, and passionately argued. The most intriguing and, at first blush, perplexing dimension of Lightner's work is that no serious effort was ever made to use congressional power to regulate interstate commerce to stifle the transportation and marketing of slaves—humans—across state lines. To be sure, Lightner's examination of the constitutional and political issues that framed the debate over federal regulation of the slave trade is filled with insight and well-taken correctives to accepted historical assumptions about the intent and content of antislavery activism. Yet Congress's unwillingness to use this authority is suggestive of the dynamics and limits of antislavery activism in the late antebellum era.
Lightner persuasively argues against scholars' contention that Congress's ability to end the importation of slaves ("the 1808 clause"), coupled with its authority over foreign and interstate commerce, explicitly empowered it to regulate and thus bring to an end the slave trade. Reverence for property rights and a relatively limited domestic slave trade in 1787 suggest that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention thought the power might be used at most to ban the transportation of slaves into the free states and territories. Nonetheless, the founders had unwittingly created a loophole that in the future antislavery forces might exploit to end the transportation and sale of [End Page 97] slaves. Curiously and sadly, they did not. During the Missouri crisis, Congressman Timothy Fuller asserted that the national legislature had the power and the duty to prohibit the interstate slave trade. His argument generated some heat but no light and nothing came of it. The Marshall Court avoided (or evaded) a clear statement of the scope of federal commerce power in cases (Gibbons v. Ogden, Miln v. New York) involving interstate commerce issues. It even refused to make clear Congress's authority in a case (Groves v. Slaughter) that explicitly involved the interstate slave trade.
Abolitionists and political antislavery activists proved just as timid as congressmen and as ambivalent as Supreme Court justices. Among abolitionists, William Jay, Henry Stanton, David Lee Child, and Alvan Stewart lobbied to end the internal slave trade, which they believed would eventuate in the manumission of most slaves within a decade. Lightner contends that their claim was overly optimistic and unrealistic. But more importantly, he concludes that abolitionists "raised a specter that was to haunt southern slaveowners down to the outbreak of the Civil War" (112).
Focused on restricting the spread of slavery into the territories, antislavery Republicans were even more circumspect than Liberty party members and abolitionists regarding federal power to check the slave trade. Ironically, the Compromise of 1850, which outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia, had the effect of further limiting enthusiasm for congressional action. Party members such as Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner looked to states' rights and personal liberty laws to frustrate and subvert the Fugitive Slave Act. They feared that federal action against the slave trade in the South might imply that free states similarly had no power to do as they wished regarding slavery.
Nonetheless the specter of federal action against the slave trade would, like Banquo's ghost, cast a "horrible shadow" over a Lincoln administration that would make an "unreal mockery" of states' rights. Southerners feared that restricting the spread of slavery to the territories was but the first step that would take a Republican administration along the road to direct action against the slave trade and ultimately the institution itself. Thus, Lightner concludes, although the territorial issue was paramount in...