1808 Congressional Ban on Importing Slaves

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1808 Congressional Ban on Importing Slaves

European exploration and expansion of the late fifteenth century spawned an era of slave trading from continental Africa that gave rise to the largest recorded transoceanic human migration of the time. By 1820, the majority of migrants to the New World had arrived in shackles, battered and worn from the tumultuous Middle Passage, which forced laborers into service on American plantations.

From capture in the interior of Africa to arrival in American seaports, every aspect of the slave trade was marked by bloodshed, separation, and extreme brutality. Tales of human suffering and African resistance to enslavement did little to spark antislavery sentiment. For over 150 years, few whites criticized the growing institution and its trade. Quakers were among the few, outside of black society, who questioned the morality and legality of slavery. The profits it brought to European nations and colonies squelched criticism of its inhumane and cruel nature.

By the mid-eighteenth century, enlightenment and revolution encouraged a rise in antislavery thought. American colonists' challenges to British rule cast the Crown as a restrainer of liberty and freedom. The British countered with emphasis on the hypocrisy of the American paradox of freedom and slavery. And thus, slavery became part of a growing international debate.

As the newly formed United States of America struggled to create a government for the republic, debates relating to slavery and the slave trade stood center stage during the Constitutional Convention. Heightened criticism of slavery during the revolutionary era resulted in a gradual emancipation of the enslaved populations in the northern states. In the southern region, however, the disruption of plantation society and accompanying depletion of the labor force made the African trade a necessity in the minds of slaveholders and slavery supporters.

Postwar antislavery increased the sectional divide as the southern states rededicated their economies to agricultural development. The region's slave population, however, had been dismantled from the kidnapping, relocation, disease, and suffering of the war era. At the Constitutional Convention of 1787, South Carolina and Georgia would not hear of an end to the African slave trade. As the leaders of these new states understood their position in the new republic, rebuilding their economies could not occur without repopulating their slave communities as quickly as possible—via West African trade routes. The convention's great compromise provided constitutional guarantees that the slave trade would remain open for twenty years, at which time the Congress would vote again on its future.

During the 1780s abolitionists in England continued their efforts to end the African trade, and abolition held a significant place in the country's political arena. Prior to that time, Anthony Benezet (1713–1784) served as one of the earliest and most influential abolitionists. As a member of the Society of Friends, his criticisms of slaveholding and efforts to educate African Americans in Philadelphia strengthened the antislavery cause among Europeans. His work influenced one of the African trade's greatest British opponents, Thomas Clarkson (1760–1846). As a student at Cambridge University, Clarkson began researching and writing award-winning antislavery literature. During the year of the U.S. Constitutional Convention, Clarkson joined other abolitionists, including Granville Sharp (1735–1813), and established the Committee for the Abolition of the African Trade in May of 1787. Later, as the Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade, the British abolitionists had the ear of Parliament when one of the group's founders, William Wilberforce (1759–1833), delivered his famous speech before the House of Commons in 1789 calling for the total abolition of the slave trade.

Although key players in antislavery, the British also dominated the Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth century. Support for the abolition waned as the demand for African labor on American plantations rose. In the final decades of the century, the United States' demand for laborers from Africa increased as slavery expanded in the southern region; and other Atlantic slave societies continued their dependence on direct African slave importations. Despite growing black resistance and antislavery sentiment throughout the Americas, support for ending the African trade dwindled in the final years of the eighteenth century. The turn of the century, however, ushered in a new fervor for abolition.

British abolitionists presented parliament with an abolition bill, which failed in 1804 and 1805. By 1807 a Whig Party endorsement increased support for the bill; and England voted in favor of ending the African slave trade in February of 1807. By this date, ending the trade was discussed in the U.S. Congress as well. The postwar reopening of the trade yielded tremendous benefits for the southern region, as it successfully began repopulating its enslaved labor forces. Contrary to the pattern in other slaveholding nations of the West, the United States' enslaved labor population grew with natural increase by the nineteenth century. After the postwar importations and northern emancipation, the country was no longer dependent on West African slavery routes. Thus, it was with little controversy that the ban was approved on March 2, 1807, with a congressional vote of 113 to 5 in favor of ending the United States' legal trafficking in human chattel from the African coast.

The law went into effect January 1, 1808. The international slave trade ban prohibited the importation of slaves from foreign countries or the preparation of vessels for the purpose of trade and punished those engaged in such illegal activities with prosecution, fines, and imprisonment. The fate of Africans captured in the trade was determined by the particular laws of the state in which the importation was discovered. Overwhelmingly, the new law ended most trading from West Africa to the United States. There were, however, cases throughout the Atlantic, of ships that sailed after the international ban. Among the most notable cases of illegal trading is The Amistad, captured off the coast of Long Island, New York, after a revolt in 1839; and also The Wanderer, which landed in Jekyll Island, Georgia, in 1858.

The 1808 ban was a victory for the antislavery movement. In black society, especially, the abolition of the trade was considered a step toward ending human bondage. This was particularly encouraging in the northern states where African Americans celebrated gradual emancipation and newly won freedom in the early national period. New Year's Day became a day for annual celebration and national jubilee in black society. Abolitionist societies, schools, social-aid organizations, churches, and others participated in parades, processions, meetings, songs, prayers, and other celebrations of the end of the African slave trade. Historians find that these activities marked the beginning of a distinct black nationalism and a black national identity in the new republic. Perhaps the most famous oration that exemplified the feelings of African Americans at the time is Absalom Jones's (1746–1818) Thanksgiving Sermon delivered on January 1, 1808, at the St. Thomas African Episcopal Church of Philadelphia. A former slave, a student of Benezet's school, and one of the first ordained black ministers in the United States, Jones spoke with great authority on the oppression of slavery and proclaimed, "Let the first of January, the day of the abolition of the slave trade in our country, be set apart in every year, as a day of public thanksgiving for that mercy" (1969).


For African Americans, the end of the African trade in 1808 marked a great victory in their struggle for freedom. The date was celebrated as an alternative to the Fourth of July, which many felt was not a true measure of black independence. In the northern region parades, sermons, toasts, and other gatherings celebrated the abolition of the African slave trade on January 1, 1808. The following is an excerpt from an oration delivered at the African Methodist Episcopal Church in New York City on January 1, 1813. George Lawrence's speech captured the sentiments of many in African American society:

We rejoice for the abolition of the slave trade; and our joy overflows when we reflect that this heaven born plant shall bring forth the full fruits of emancipation, and divulge that bright genius so long smothered in slavery. The subject of this day calls for our serious attention; at the recurrence of this season we rejoice, not because we have gained a victory over our enemies by the arts of war, or that we have become rich and opulent, no, but it is the epoch that has restored to us our long lost rights. (1813, p. 6)

SOURCE: Lawrence, George. An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade Delivered on the First Day of January, 1813, in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. New York: Hardcastle and Van Pelt, 1813.

The impact of the abolition was far-reaching and double-edged. From it grew increased efforts to abolish not just the trade, but the institution of slavery. In the United States, antislavery supporters considered the nation's recognition of abolition a victory in the struggle to release those held in bondage. Still, with the exception of Haiti, slavery remained a crucial and growing institution throughout the Americas. In the United States, seven new slave states were admitted to the Union after the 1808 ban on the African trade. Their demands for black labor gave rise to a flourishing interstate slave trade. For African Americans and other abolitionists, the success of the U.S. domestic slave trade was a setback from the victory of the 1808 ban and a crushing blow to their efforts to end the inhumanity, degradation, and suffering of millions of blacks enslaved throughout the Atlantic world.


Anstey, Roger. The Atlantic Slave Trade and British Abolition, 1760–1810. London: Macmillan, 1975.

Basker, James G. Early American Abolitionists: A Collection of Antislavery Writings, 1760–1820. New York: Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, 2005.

Benezet, Anthony. Observations on the Enslaving, Importing, and Purchasing of Negroes: with Some Advice Thereon, Extracted from the Epistle of the Yearly Meeting of the People Called Quakers, Held at London in the Year 1748, 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Christopher Sower, 1760.

Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848. London; New York: Verso, 1988.

Clarkson, Thomas. An Essay on the Comparative Efficiency of Regulation or Abolition, As Applied to the Slave Trade: Showing that the Latter Only Can Remove the Evils to be Found in that Commerce. London: J. Phillips, 1789.

Clarkson, Thomas. An Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species, Particularly the African, 2nd ed. London: Joseph Crukshank, 1788.

Clarkson, Thomas. History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade by the British Parliament. Philadelphia: James P. Parke, 1839.

Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: The First International Human Rights Movement. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 2005.

Jennings, Judith, ed. The Business of Abolishing the British Slave Trade, 1783–1807. London; Portland, OR: F. Cass, 1997.

Jones, Absalom. A Thanksgiving Sermon, Preached January, 1, 1808 in St. Thomas's (or the African Episcopal) Church, Philadelphia, on Account of the Abolition of the African Slave Trade, on that Day, by the Congress of the United States. Philadelphia: Historic, 1969.

Mason, Matthew. Slavery and Politics in the Early American Republic. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

                                   Tiwanna M. Simpson

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1808 Congressional Ban on Importing Slaves