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  • Regulating the African Slave Trade
  • Paul Finkelman (bio)

In 1807 the U.S. Congress passed legislation, which became effective on January 1, 1808, to end all importations of slaves into the United States. Even before that date, Congress had passed a series of laws which prevented Americans from participating in the trade as sailors, ship captains, ship owners, ship builders, or investors in slave trading ventures. The bicentennial of closing the trade to United States provides an appropriate moment to examine how the United States withdrew from this form of commerce. At one level, the tale is inspiring. This was the first time in history that a slaveholding nation voluntarily ceased to import new slaves.1 At another level, [End Page 379] this is a cautionary, but nevertheless instructive, tale about how to use law to effectuate social change. Starting in 1794, the United States passed a series of laws to prevent Americans from participating in the trade. After the 1807 law went into effect, the United States passed a handful of other statutes to strengthen the ban and make it more effective. Congress did not figure out how to fully ban the trade on its first try, or even its second or third, but by building on each legislative attempt, it eventually closed the trade to all but the most intrepid smugglers.

Before the American Revolution, both the colonies and Great Britain regulated the African slave trade to what became the United States. The British government gave special protection to the Royal Africa Company, which brought more slaves to the American colonies than any other single entity. The slave trade was an important part of Britain's mercantile policy. Britain collected taxes on imported slaves while merchants in the metropolis profited from the trade. Investors in the Royal Africa Corporation reached the highest echelons of British society and included members of the royal family.

In the colonies, the slave trade was a source of labor, profits, and local tax revenues. However, for both economic and prudential reasons, colonial governments occasionally sought to limit importations. In 1698, for example, the South Carolina legislature concluded that "the great number of Negroes which of late have been imported into this Collony may endanger the safety thereof."2 This law did not limit the trade, but was rather designed to encourage the importation of white servants. It had virtually no impact on the growth of the black population, which by 1708 exceeded the white population.3 Facing a black majority, in 1717 a tax of £40 per slave virtually shut down the trade, but two years later the legislature reduced the tax to £10 for every new slave brought from Africa, and the trade boomed.4 In 1740, in response to the Stono Rebellion of 1739, South Carolina passed a new tax law that was designed to [End Page 380] gradually slow importations.5 For the first fifteen months after the law was adopted South Carolinians would pay £10 for every slave imported into the colony. Then for a three-year period there would be a tax of £100 on each adult slave imported from Africa.6 The law, passed in direct response to the Stono Rebellion, recited the "very dangerous consequence to the peace and safety" of the colony from the 'barbarous and savage disposition' of Africans."7 However, the legislature apparently was unwilling to end importations immediately, perhaps for fear that it would be unfair to slavers already on the way to South Carolina as well as to masters who desperately needed more slaves. A fifteen-month moratorium on the £100 tax allowed for an orderly transition away from massive importations into the colony. In any event, the law expired in 1744 and the colonists could once again import slaves without facing prohibitive duties. In 1760 South Carolina banned the trade outright because the colonists feared the growing number of African-born slaves, but royal authorities disallowed this law.8 In 1764 the colony levied a new tax of £100 per head, on imported slaves because, as the legislature noted, the growing number of African-born slaves "may prove of the most dangerous consequence."9 However, as it had done in...


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