Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves

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The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 (2 Stat. 426, enacted March 2, 1807) is a United States federal law that stated that no new slaves were permitted to be imported into the United States. It took effect in 1808, the earliest date permitted by the United States Constitution.

This legislation was part of the general trend toward abolishing the international slave trade, which individual U.S. states had restricted during the American Revolution, and the national Congress first regulated against in the Slave Trade Act of 1794. The 1807 Act ended the legality of trade with the U.S. However, it was not always well enforced and slaves continued to be imported in limited numbers.

Slavery itself continued in the United States until the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the adoption of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The domestic trade was so extensive that more than one million slaves were forcibly transported from the Upper South to the Deep South in the antebellum years; some were transported by ship in the coastwise trade; others by steamboat on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and others had to walk in coffles overland.


Article 1 Section 9 of the United States Constitution protected the slave trade for twenty years. Only starting January 1, 1808, could laws become effective to entirely abolish the international slave trade.

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.[1]

In the 18th century, Great Britain had become the world's largest slave trader.[2] During the revolutionary era, all the states banned the international slave trade. This was done for a variety of economic, political, and moral reasons depending on the colony. The trade was later reopened in South Carolina and Georgia.[3]

In part to ensure passage of a law banning the trade when the time came, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was formed, and held its first meeting at the temporary Capital, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1794. On March 22, 1794, Congress passed the Slave Trade Act of 1794, which prohibited making, loading, outfitting, equipping, or dispatching of any ship to be used in the trade of slaves.[4] On August 5, 1797, John Brown of Providence, Rhode Island, became the first American to be tried in federal court under the 1794 law. Brown was convicted and was forced to forfeit his ship Hope.[5] On April 7, 1798, the fifth Congress passed an act that imposed a three hundred dollar per slave penalty on persons convicted of performing the illegal importation of slaves. It was an indication of the type of behavior and course of events soon to become commonplace in the Congress.[6] In the Slave Trade Act of 1800, Congress outlawed U.S. citizens' investment in the trade, and the employment of U.S. citizens on foreign vessels involved in the trade.[7]

On December 2, 1806, in his annual message to Congress, widely reprinted in most newspapers, President Thomas Jefferson denounced the "violations of human rights" attending the international slave trade and called for its criminalization on the first day that was possible (January 1, 1808). He said:

"I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe."[8]

The House and Senate agreed on a bill, approved on March 2, 1807, called An Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January, in the year of our Lord, One Thousand Eight Hundred and Eight. The bound measure also regulated the coastwise slave trade. President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill into law March 2, 1807.[9] Many in Congress believed the act would doom slavery in the South, but they were mistaken.[10]

The 1807 Act was modified and supplemented by the fifteenth Congress. The importation of slaves into the United States was called "piracy" by an Act of Congress that punctuated the Era of Good Feelings in 1819. Any citizen of the United States found guilty of such "piracy" might be given the death penalty or arrested. The role of the Navy was expanded to include patrols off the coasts of Cuba and South America. The effective date of the Act, January 1, 1808, was celebrated by Peter Williams, Jr., in "An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade".[11]


Carl C. Cutler's classic book on American clipper ships records:

The act outlawing the slave trade in 1808 furnished another source of demand for fast vessels, and for another half century ships continued to be fitted out and financed in this trade by many a respectable citizen in the majority of American ports. Newspapers of the fifties contain occasional references to the number of ships sailing from the various cities in this traffic. One account stated that as late as 1859 there were seven slavers regularly fitted out in New York, and many more in all the larger ports.[12]

See also

External links


  1. U.S. Constitution – Article 1 Section 9
  2. "European traders". International Slavery Museum. Retrieved 8 July 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Finkelman, Paul (2007). "The Abolition of The Slave Trade". New York Public Library. Retrieved 25 June 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Timeline: The Atlantic Slave Trade
  5. Papers of the American Slave Trade
  6. United States; Joseph Story (1827). The public and general statutes passed by the Congress of the United States of America: from 1789 to 1827 inclusive, whether expired, repealed, or in force : arranged in chronological order, with marginal references, and a copious index : to which is added the Constitution of the United States, and an appendix. Wells and Lilly. p. +1798%22+%22three+hundred+dollars%22&hl=en&sa=X&ei=oJu6UPXtFea3iQeSqIHwAw&ved=0CDEQ6AEwAQ#v=onepage&q=%22April%207%2C%201798%22%20%22three%20hundred%20dollars%22&f=false 495.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "REGULATING THE TRADE". New York Public Library. Retrieved December 5, 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. John Paul Kaminski (1995). A Necessary Evil?: Slavery and the Debate Over the Constitution. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 256.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. United States (1850). The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America. Charle C. Little and James Brown. pp. 426–430.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Peter Kolchin, American Slavery (1993) p 80
  11. Pater Williams, Jr., An Oration on the Abolition of the Slave Trade; Delivered in the African Church in the City of New-York, January 1, 1808, Paul Royster, Ed., online pdf version, Digital Commons, University of Nebraska—Lincoln, accessed 31 May 2012
  12. Cutler, Carl C. (1984). Greyhounds of the Sea (3rd ed.). p. 39.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>