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: