On this day in 1807, the US Congress passes an act to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States…from any foreign kingdom, place, or country.”
The first shipload of African captives to North America arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, in August 1619, but for most of the 17th century, European indentured servants were far more numerous in the North American British colonies than were African slaves. However, after 1680, the flow of indentured servants sharply declined, leading to an explosion in the African slave trade.
By the middle of the 18th century, slavery could be found in all 13 colonies and was at the core of the Southern colonies’ agricultural economy. By the time of the American Revolution, the English importers alone had brought some three million captive Africans to the Americas.
After the Revolutionary War, slave labor diminished as a critical element of the Northern economy, and most Northern states passed legislation to abolish slavery. In the South, however, the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 created the phenomenon of King Cotton as a major industry and sharply increased the perceived need for slave labor.
Anti-slave importation legislation was promoted by Pres.Thomas Jefferson, who called for its enactment in his 1806 State of the Union Address. In a notable paradox, he had promoted the idea since the 1770’s, and by 1804, all Northern states had abolished slavery, leaving the practice confined strictly to the South.
In January 1807, with a self-sustaining population of over four million slaves in the South, some Southern congressmen joined with the North in voting to abolish the African slave trade, an act that became effective January 1, 1808. The widespread trade of slaves within the South was not prohibited, however, and children of slaves automatically continued in bondage themselves, thus ensuring a self-sustaining slave population.
Such immoral half-measures in governance and resultant events, including the Missouri and 1850 Compromises, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Bleeding Kansas and the Dred Scott decision, caused the open wound to fester through the Civil War, with their abhorrent vestiges persisting to this very hour.