History, Tales, and Destinations in the Land of Ahs


The Issue of Slavery

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Human slavery is as old as human history, of which its story forms one of the most somber chapters. It no doubt originated in the custom of enslaving prisoners captured in war. Among the ancient oriental nations, even the Jews, had their bondservants, which is but another name for slaves. With the introduction of Christianity the condition of the slaves was improved, and about the time of Justinian jurists began to regard slavery as contrary to the laws of nature -- justifiable only as a punishment for debt or crime, a sort of modification of the old theory that the victor possessed the right to slay the vanquished. But so long as the toil of the bondsman allowed his owner to live in comparative ease, or there was a profit to the trader in human beings, it was a difficult matter to present the moral aspects of the slavery question, and the traffic went on.


African-American slavery was one result of the discovery of America. In the early settlements some attempts were made to enslave the Indians, but this proved impossible and the the would-be slave-owner was compelled to turn his attention in some other direction.


American Slavery

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

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Prior to the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus, the Portuguese had explored the western coast of Africa, where they found that the African tribes were accustomed to enslaving or selling the captives taken in war. The failure to make slaves of the Native Americans led the early planters and mine owners to adopt the alternative of buying slaves of the African chieftains.

As early as 1517 Charles V, then King of Spain, gave royal permission to the Spanish settlements in America to import African-Americans from the Portuguese establishments on the coasts of Guinea, and in 1565 Pedro Menendez, the founder of St. Augustine, Florida was authorized by Philip II to import 500 black slaves. The first black slaves in the English colony at Jamestown, Virginia, were brought there by a Dutch trader in 1620, and a few years later, black slaves were introduced in the English colony at Charleston, South Carolina. When Antoine Crozat, in 1712, was granted a monopoly of the Louisiana trade by the French government, he was also given authority, if he found it necessary to employ slave labor, "to send a ship every year to trade for African-Americans directly upon the coast of Guinea, taking permission of the Guinea Company to do so." The slaves thus imported were to be sold to the inhabitants of Louisiana, and all other companies were forbidden to bring slaves into the colony. Five years later, Crozat was succeeded by the Western Company, which agreed to bring into Louisiana, during the 25 years of its franchise, not less than 3,000 black slaves. After this company gave up its charter in 1732, the French government resumed control of Louisiana and continued to supply African-Americans to the colonists. Late in the 17th century, England obtained from Spain the right to enter the slave trade, but instead of exercising the right as a government, the privilege was turned over to a company of which Sir John Hawkins was the head, and by 1700 this company had taken some 300,000 people from the African coast to the English colonies. In 1780, about a century after the right was obtained from Spain, the English slave-ships had carried to the island of Jamaica alone over half a million slaves. Thus it will be seen that each of the three great European nations that claimed territory and formed settlements in America countenanced the institution of slavery.



Slave being soldAs a result of the activity of these nations in fostering and promoting the slave trade, slavery existed in all the American colonies at the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Vermont was the first to abolish it. That colony, in 1777, adopted a constitution, the first article of which prohibited slavery. Toward the close of the American Revolution an agitation was started in both Europe and America for the suppression of the slave traffic. One result of this agitation was that the North Atlantic colonies took steps to abolish and prohibit slavery within their boundaries.

Massachusetts led off in 1780; the same year Pennsylvania passed a law that all slaves born after March 1, 1780, should be free at the age of 28 years; New Hampshire followed in 1783, and the next year Rhode Island and Connecticut each adopted a system of gradual emancipation. Another effect of the agitation was that the convention which framed the Federal Constitution in 1789 incorporated in that instrument the provision that "The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person."


Almost immediately after the adoption of the Constitution, the remaining northern colonies began to make provisions for the abolition of slavery. New York began a system of gradual freeing of the slaves in 1799 and ended slavery entirely in 1827. New Jersey adopted the same plan in 1804, but there were about 200 slaves in that state as late as 1850. The question now became a sectional one.


George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and other prominent men in the early days of the republic were opposed to slavery on moral grounds, but the South found slave labor profitable, and it became more profitable after the invention of the cotton-gin by Eli Whitney in 1793. By the treaty with England in 1783 the western limit of the United States was extended to the Mississippi River. The original draft of the ordinance of 1784 provided for the division of all the territory thus acquired, north of 31 north latitude, into states, in which slavery was to be prohibited after the year 1800. The ordinance of 1787, which provided for the government of the territory northwest of the Ohio River, prohibited slavery in that region, but when the provisions of the ordinance were later extended to the southwest, the clause prohibiting slavery was omitted.


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