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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.

 

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.

 

 

American Slavery

American Slavery, Edward Williams Clay, 1841

This image available for photographic prints  and downloads HERE!

 

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.

 

The Lousiana PurchaseIn the province of Louisiana slavery existed under the laws of both France and Spain, and when France ceded the region to the United States, in 1803, Article III of the treaty provided that "The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated into the Union of the United States, and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States; and in the meantime they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property and the religion which they profess."

As slaves were recognized as "property," the United States, by entering into this treaty, agreed to maintain and protect slavery as it then existed in the province when the district of Louisiana was erected into a territory in 1805 a section of the act "gave a tacit confirmation to the system of slavery, already established in the settlements on the Arkansas and Missouri Rivers."

 

All the present State of Kansas, except a little of the southwest corner, was included in the Louisiana Purchase. That portion lying west of the meridian of 99 west longitude and south of the Arkansas River was a part of the Republic of Texas, in which slavery was also a legalized institution. Hence it may be truly said that, prior to the acquisition of this territory by the United States, slavery was a legalized institution in the whole of Kansas. Had the French or Spanish founded settlements within the present limits of Kansas, there could have been no legal objection to the introduction of slaves into such settlements. But at the time Missouri applied for admission into the Union, as referred to by Governor Medary in his veto message, the situation was changed. The Missouri Compromise provided for the prohibition of slavery in all that part of the Louisiana Purchase lying north of the line of 36 30' north latitude, thus making Kansas a free territory, and it remained so without question or quibble for thirty years.

After the purchase of Louisiana and the passage of the Missouri Compromise, the next event to precipitate a violent discussion of the slavery question was the annexation of Texas. On March 1, 1845, President John Tyler approved a joint resolution for the annexation, and the Congressional Globe for that date says: "As soon as the announcement was made, a loud burst of plaudits pealed through the house, which were with difficulty suppressed." At that time the Republic of Texas and the Mexican government were in a dispute over the boundaries, and the act of annexation brought on the war between the United States and Mexico. It was generally understood that the whole scheme was in the interest of the slave power, which needed more territory. The act provided that south of the line 36 30' not more than four states were to be erected, these states to be admitted with or without slavery as the people might determine. North of that line slavery was to be prohibited. It was by this provision that the little portion of Kansas in the southwest corner was made free territory.

 

On August 8, 1846, President James Polk sent a special message to Congress asking that a considerable sum of money be appropriated for the purpose of negotiating a peace with Mexico. A bill was reported appropriating $30,000 to defray the expenses of the negotiation and $3,000,000 "to be used at the discretion of the president in making the proposed treaty." The bill failed to pass at that session, and when Congress assembled in December, 1846, a bill raising the appropriation to $3,000,000 was introduced. When it became apparent that any treaty with Mexico would result in the acquisition of territory by the United States, the slavery question again became an all-absorbing issue.  

 

About this time, the Southern statesmen, led by John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, advanced the theory that the constitution of the United States carried slavery into all Federal territory unless excluded by special enactment of some positive law to the contrary. To offset this dogma, when the $3,000,000 appropriation bill came up as a special order on February 1, 1847, David Wilmot of Pennsylvania offered in the house the following proviso: "That there shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in any territory on the continent of America which shall hereafter be acquired by or annexed to the United States by virtue of this appropriation, or in any other manner whatever, except for crimes, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted: provided always, That any person escaping into such territory from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the United States, such fugitive may be lawfully claimed and conveyed out of said territory to the power claiming his or her labor or service."


 

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