200 years ago today…

… the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited. Eric Foner has an editorial in the New York Times reminding us of this Forgotten Step Towards Freedom.

The slave trade was a major source of disagreement at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. South Carolina’s delegates were determined to protect slavery, and they had a powerful impact on the final document. They originated the three-fifths clause (giving the South extra representation in Congress by counting part of its slave population) and threatened disunion if the slave trade were banned, as other states demanded.

The result was a compromise barring Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until 1808. Some Anti-Federalists, as opponents of ratification were called, cited the slave trade clause as a reason why the Constitution should be rejected, claiming it brought shame upon the new nation.

The Constitution managed to get ratified anyway, slave stain and all, and come the first day of 1808, the African trade was declared illegal in the United States. Unfortunately, internal trade increased to make up for the deficit of people to sell so anyone who hoped the end of importation would lead to abolition was sorely disappointed.

Still, it’s a big deal and something we should give a rat’s ass about. The UK went nuts with abolition memorials last year. They had everything from official government commemorations to museum exhibits to major motion pictures.

Spend an hour today listening to Simon Schama on the difference between the British commemoration and the US silence on the abolition of the slave trade:



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Comment by Anonymous
2012-06-25 18:49:22

Old ost is old, I know. (Sorry bout that. heh.)

I was just recently in an idiotic youtube internet argument with people who support the use of the Virginia Confederate Battle flag as a symbol on state flags. (Don’t even ask me why I even wasted my time….)

But one of the things the person said was:

“But slavery was going to die out soon anyway, even if the Civil War never happened!”

Of course pointing out the number of slaves in 1861 compared to the number of slaves in 1800 (700,000 in 1800 to 5 million in 1861) made no difference because “the slave trade was dead!” as my “opponent” so ingeniously stated. Sure, the AFRICAN slave trade was dead. But the slave trade (and slavery in general) was alive and well up until 1865.

Why the Confederate Battle Flag continues to be used in modern state flags (Georgia and Mississippi) is beyond me! Flags are supposed to be a unifying symbol, not a symbol to divide people.

Comment by Blake
2012-06-26 22:04:04

Historical counterfactuals are of course impossible to figure out, but depending on one’s definition of “soon,” I would agree with you that your YouTube debater was wrong. Slavery might have eventually died out, but 5 million people can’t quickly escape to free states, nor will an economic system built on that many people wither away in a short span.

Regarding the Confederate Battle Flag, it actually came off the Georgia state flag just a couple of years ago, though it is still on Mississippi’s. Of course, the majority of Southern state flags continue to be Confederate-derived; Georgia’s current flag is almost exactly the Stars and Bars, the Arkansas flag is basically the Battle Flag with the cross rearranged into a diamond (and the uppermost star inside the diamond explicitly represents the Confederacy), Florida and Alabama both still use the shape of the Battle Flag cross (in Alabama’s case evidence is very strong that the echo was deliberate), and while I do not have any supporting documentary evidence, I have always been very suspicious of Tennessee’s flag. In a way, though, the most shocking is Virginia’s flag, which though not recognizably Confederate in design was adopted January 31, 1861 and has never been changed–even after Booth (allegedly) shouted “Sic semper tyrannis” when assassinating Lincoln!

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