The law, which President Thomas Jefferson signed, stipulated stiff penalties for any American convicted of participating in the slave trade: up to $10,000 in fines and five to ten years in prison. In 1823, a new law was passed that punished slave-trading with death.
Congress and the Expansion of Slavery
Banning the importation of slaves would not by itself put an end to slavery in the United States. Slavery would grow naturally even if no new slaves were brought into the country.
Although Congress could not prevent this, it could prevent slavery from spreading geographically to the territories from which new states would eventually be created.
Congress has the power “to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States” (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2), to forbid the migration of slaves into the new territories (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1), and to stipulate conditions for statehood (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2).
Regrettably, early Congresses did not prevent the spread of slavery. Between 1798 and 1822, Congress enacted 10 territorial acts. Only half excluded slavery.
As a result, seven slaveholding states and five free states were admitted into the union. The seeds of what Abraham Lincoln would later call the crisis of the house divided were sown.
Slavery in the Existing States
As for the existing slaveholding states that had ratified the Constitution, what could Congress do to restrict the growth of slavery within their borders? Here Congress had more limited options. After 1808, “the migration” of slaves across state lines could have been prohibited (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1). This was never done.
In principle, slavery could have been taxed out of existence. However, the requirement that direct taxes be apportioned among the states made it impossible to exclusively target slaveholders. A capitation or head tax, for example, even though it would have been more costly for Southerners, would also impose a heavy burden on Northerners.
While one could perhaps have circumvented the apportionment requirement by calling for an indirect tax on slaves—as Sen. Charles Sumner (R-MA), would later do during the Civil War—such arguments were not made in the early republic.
There was one clause in the original Constitution that required cooperation with slaveholders and protected the institution of slavery. Slaves who escaped to freedom were to “be delivered up” to their masters (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3). The motion to include a fugitive slave clause at the constitutional convention passed unanimously and without debate. This would seem to indicate that all knew it would be futile to try to oppose such a measure.
The debate instead focused on the wording. Whereas the original draft had referred to a “person legally held to service or labor in one state,” the final version instead refers to a “person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof.” This change, Madison explains in his notes, was to comply “with the wish of some who thought the term legal equivocal,” as it gave the impression “that slavery was legal in a moral view,” rather than merely permissible under the law.
This remark by Madison captures the Constitution’s stance vis-à-vis slavery: permissible, but not moral. Legal, but not legitimate.
In no way can the Constitution be said to be pro-slavery. The principles of natural right undergirding it are resolutely anti-slavery. Its language conveys disapproval of slavery. And it contains within it several provisions that could have been and were at times used to prevent the spread of slavery.
This may not make it an anti-slavery Constitution. But even before the Thirteenth Amendment, it was a Constitution that, if placed in the right hands, could be made to serve the cause of freedom.
David Azerrad is director of The Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics. This article first appeared in the Daily Signal.
Image: Flickr/Phil Roeder.