Prohibition of the Slave Trade (1807)

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Prohibition of the Slave Trade (1807)

Kevin Outterson

We tend to look back at slavery as though people took only two positions on it: pro or con. However, in the century prior to the Civil War, there was a middle position: regulation of slavery. For different reasons, both slave owners and their opponents agreed on measures to regulate slavery and the slave trade. The prohibition of the slave trade is a prime example of this uneasy compromise between slavery and freedom.

The U.S. Constitution of 1789 includes a provision on the abolition of the slave trade. Article I, section 9 of the Constitution states:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

This provision effectively gave Congress the power to prohibit the importation of slaves (exclusion power) and to impose an import tax on each slave, but delayed the exclusion power until 1808. The slave import tax was proposed several times but never adopted by the federal government. Congress exercised this Constitutional power in the Act to Prohibit the Importation of Slaves, passed on March 2, 1807 (2 Stat. 426). The Constitution required that the effective date be delayed until January 1, 1808.


This legislation was not particularly controversial and was not viewed as an Abolitionist measure. Before 1808 several slave states themselves banned the importation of foreign slaves and Congress had restricted slave importation to the slave states. In the decades prior to an effective cotton gin, the supply of slaves in the United States appeared to be adequate to meet domestic needs for slave crops. A ban on importation simply made the current slaves more valuable property for their masters and excluded slaves from rebellion-prone areas of the Caribbean sugar islands. The rise of cotton as a commercial crop outside of coastal areas fueled the spread of slavery throughout the Deep South. Demand for slaves was met primarily from within the United States, as slaves were increasingly sold and relocated from tobacco states such as Virginia, Maryland, and Kentucky to cotton states such as Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi.

The ban did nothing to hinder domestic sales of slaves between slave states, nor was enforcement particularly effective. Enforcement on the high seas was quite limited, and ships could avoid capture by the meager American squadron by flying a foreign flag, often falsely. The United States steadfastly refused to give the more substantial British Royal Navy the right to search and seize American slave ships. The United States also did not impose serious punishments against captains, officers, and owners of slave ships. Estimates of the number of slaves imported illegally after 1808 vary, but the number was substantial.


One notable feature of the act concerned the fate of slaves captured while being illegally imported. Section 4 of the act of 1807 freed the slaves from the control of the importer but left their fates to the mercy of the state where the ship was brought, effectively condemning them to slavery:

Neither the importer, nor any person or persons claiming from or under him, shall hold any right or title whatsoever to any negro, mulatto, or person of color, nor to the service or labor thereof, who may be imported or brought within the United States, or territories thereof, in violation of this law, but the same shall remain subject to any regulations not contravening the provisions of this act, which the Legislatures of the several States or Territories at any time hereafter may make, for disposing of any such negro, mulatto, or person of color.

Some slaves were seized by the state and sold on the auction block under this provision.


A few weeks after Congress's 1807 act, Great Britain also prohibited the slave trade in the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, March 25, 1807. The British act, the culmination of decades of effort by British abolitionists, became effective in 1808. Great Britain freed its slaves in 1834 by paying compensation to slave owners. British enforcement efforts against slavery and the slave trade in the Atlantic were more vigorous and effective, including boarding apparently neutral vessels in violation of international law and strong-arming many nations into signing antislavery treaties. During the Civil War, the United States finally accepted an antislave trading treaty with Great Britain, signed in April 1862.

Slavery was legally abolished in the United States by the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution in December 1865, although legal segregation and discrimination persisted for a century thereafter.

See also: Fugitive Slave Acts; Missouri Compromise; Compromise of 1850; Nonintercourse Act.


Du Bois, W.E.B. The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade To The United States of America, 16381870. New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1970 [1896].

Franklin, John Hope, and Alfred A. Moss, Jr. From Slavery To Freedom: A History of African Americans, 7th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, Inc. 1994.


Historical documents on the slave trade. <>.