Why Did The Confederate Constitution Ban the International Slave Trade?

"Three Scenes From the Slave Trade in the USA," The Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Three Scenes From the Slave Trade in the USA,” The Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last year I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant and a number of claims on social media alleging him to have owned slaves during the Civil War. Using primary sources in Grant’s own writing I demonstrated that these claims were completely false, and that a number of statements alleged to have come from Grant were actually made up quotes by people with too much time on their hands. The only enslaved person known to have been owned by Grant was William Jones, whom Grant freed in St. Louis in 1859. I wondered aloud if these claims intending to paint Grant as a slaveholding Union general spoke to a larger desire to portray the Civil War as a conflict that had little to do with slavery as a cause of the war. After all, how could the war be about slavery if the savior of the Union was a slaveholder? Moreover, I argued–and the credit for this argument goes to historian Brooks Simpson–that Grant’s views one way or the other towards slavery were irrelevant for understanding the causes of the Civil War since Grant had no political role in the coming of the war or the decision of eleven states to secede from the Union. He was a clerk for his father’s leather good store in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the war, far removed from the political crisis emerging in Washington, D.C. with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The other day I received three comments from a person eager to contest that essay, and one of his arguments (which had nothing to do with the subject at hand but is nonetheless revealing) seems to suggest that the Confederate Constitution could have been seen as calling for the eventual end of slavery in the Confederacy because it banned the international slave trade. Again, it wasn’t all about slavery! This claim is an interesting one and worth exploring further. Does it have any merit?

The U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 9.1 that the international slave trade would be closed in 1808, but that Congress could not prohibit the trade until that time. The Confederate Constitution was in most regards almost an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution also bans the international slave trade within the Confederate states. There are two significant changes in Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution, however. One is that while the U.S. Constitution only vaguely refers to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the Confederate Constitution clearly stipulates that the subjects under consideration were “Negroes of the African race from any foreign country.” The other extremely significant change is that the Confederate Constitution did not call for a complete ban on the international importation of slaves. An additional clause stipulates that slaves from “the slaveholding states or territories of the United States of America” (which were now considered part of a foreign country) could still be imported into the Confederate states. The Confederate Constitution, in other words, still allowed for the importation of enslaved people from the border slaves states and Western territories like New Mexico that had not yet seceded from the Union.

This is when the date of the Confederate Constitution’s ratification comes into play. That constitution was adopted on March 11, 1861, roughly one month before the firing of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. At that time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, and eight border slaves states remained in the Union: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Banning the international slave trade was one method by which the Confederacy aimed to convince these states to secede, especially in the case of Virginia, whose economy by 1860 largely revolved around the interstate slave trade and the shipping of slaves to the South and West. By allowing the slave trade to continue between the U.S. and the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution allowed the uncertain border slave states a chance to continue selling their slaves to the Confederate states in the short-term while they debated their next step. In the long-term, after these border slave states had ostensibly left the Union and joined forces with the Confederacy, their continued financial interests in the slave trade would not be challenged by international trade with slaveholding countries in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Removing all protections for the domestic slave trade and embracing a “free trade” approach ran the risk of lowering the price of slave labor and putting border state slave traders out of business. There was also an international motivation for banning most of the international slave trade. The Confederacy attempted to make a pitch for support from European countries like England and France that had already banned slavery by demonstrating that they were willing to ban parts of the slave trade, even though they really had no desire of ending slavery as a whole any time soon.

Through these examples we can clearly see that the Confederacy’s banning of most of the international slave trade in its Constitution was not done in the hope of eventually abolishing slavery in the Confederacy, but to strengthen its domestic slave trade while hopefully winning points with England and France.

It’s also worth mentioning that a good number of Confederate supporters–although probably not the majority–supported the idea of re-opening the slave trade precisely because they knew it would help lower the cost of slave labor. James Paisley Hendrix, Jr.’s 1969 article in Louisiana History shows that support for a reopening of the trade increased greatly in the 1850s, and that a Southern convention in 1859 passed a resolution saying as much. The New Orleans Delta reflected these desires when they wrote an editorial in support of opening the trade, arguing that “We would re-open the African slave trade [so] that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more Negroes . . . Our true purpose is to diffuse the slave population as much as possible, and thus secure in the whole community the motives of self-interest for its support.”

So yeah, slavery had something to do with all of this.

Cheers

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15 responses

  1. There’s even more to this than you suggest. It’s all in the date: that is, before Virginia’s entry into the Confederacy.

    There had been a battle over reopening the international slave trade in the 1850s, with South Carolina’s Lawrence Keitt at the forefront. The argument was that reopening the trade would lower prices, so more (white) southerners could own slaves. In opposition was Virginia, which had the largest enslaved population in the US at the time. Slaves were one of Virginia’s most profitable exports, and the Virginians wanted to close the international market so southern whites would buy slaves from Virginia slaveholders.

    Fast forward to 1861. Note how the new clause courts Virginia. If it stays in the Union, it can still sell slaves to Confederate slaveowners. Join the Confederacy, and Virginia’s export commodity in human beings is protected from foreign competition.

    Yes, Virginia, it was about slavery.

    1. Thank you very much for this thoughtful comment.

  2. So I guess for Keitt it always ends in a “cold harbor.”

    I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’ll show myself out.

  3. Looking at the history of enslaved resistance in Haiti, Jamaica, Barbados, and many of the other Islands in the Caribbean as well as in Central and South America, how much do you think that fear of enslaved Africans rebelling played in the decision to ban importation? We know that was huge reason why the US banned the trade in 1808.

    1. Tough question. I’m sure it played some sort of role in the process. One of the greatest contradictions within the pro-slavery argument at the time was that on the one hand, U.S. slavery was portrayed as an benevolent, positive institution and that black slaves would not run away to freedom if given the chance. On the other hand, these same advocates always feared a potential slave revolt and argued that slavery was a form of social control. So yes, I’m sure some of those concerns played a role.

  4. This article is good, but incomplete. It leaves out how the Confederate Congress would then have the option of allowing or banning slave imports from the United States. In other words, it was an economic carrot AND STICK to the upper south states that resisted the initial call for secession.

    “You can keep your monopoly on slave sales down the river! Unless the US goverment ticks us off, in which case we can cut off one of your major sources of income.

    But if you secede and join us, that income is secure. We CAN’T ban the internal interstate slave trade!

    And if SOME of you upper south states secede and others don’t, we can at any time put the ban on US slaves to give the states that join us an even tighter monopoly, while punishing the holdouts.”

    1. Thanks for the comment and additional information. Your point is taken and I agree with it.

  5. Robert Sherman Nix III | Reply

    I think you really seek to blame the Confederacy for what was legal, and I don’t care for slavery but you also slander slaves who are merely the poor in a long line of history under God back to time of Pharaoh. To say the South had slaves is similar to saying the South had contracts, laws, employees, and Indians but decry it all as illegal when in fact it was legal. So what they had slaves, who had Indians? So what Africans were slaves, they entered into slavers sold by their relatives for trinkets and baubles, matches, buttons, mirrors, and knives. So what the slaves lost rights after the slave rebellions. So what did Yankees own in New York City? The many blends and kinds if people went through slavery and different peoples were in slavery in the South? So what? They inherited slavery from Europe ! So what? Europe went into slavery to Rome! So what? The whole work went through slavery from stages of savages to civilization. So what? The slaves were in honorable service and Yankees come insisting it was dishonorable! So what? Go to China and India and tell them they have slaves who in fact are honorable poor people? So what they were slaves, were YOU? Our families were slaves and slave owners in different parts of life so What ? Is it the jealousy of slaves or the money hungry Lincoln that motivated the North? So what there were slaves, this is our flag that the Sates have rights to defend as to what is legal to begin is legal to end and slaves were legal? If slaves were illegally stole let them be paid but if the slaveowners were stole from then let them be paid? So what, in reality began the War and say it for Ft. Sumpter which is nonsensical to claim it is the Norths at that point. So what, they were all ready to fight over money and honor and rights and the slaves really were under control due to slave rebellions but would you all say such crimes were okay? Can you describe what is legal and illegal? So what they were slaves, the United States fought for slavery from Great Britain which fought to end slavery? ???

    1. This comment makes absolutely no sense.

      1. Actually it does, it’s just a bit of a bumpy ride…

        1. I will leave it to more readers more intelligent to me to determine what he’s saying.

  6. Missing from all this is the fact that all these human beings were being traded from yankee ports such as Portsmouth and Boston. That’s where the distilleries were that made the rum used to buy these people. A successful transatlantic crossing could net a yankee slave captain up to $300,000, plenty of money to set up a factory and sell the products to Southerners at high prices due to the 33% excise tax. Section 9, Articles 1 and 2 of the Confederate Constitution were designed to stop yankee entrepreneurs from further bleeding southern pocketbooks. Notice that article 1 specifically excluded New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, etc. from shipping their captured people to the Confederacy. That’s why New England states were most vehement for war. More agricultural states such as Ohio and Indiana, who also suffered from the tariff (excise tax) were much less excited about it.

    1. Section 9, Articles 1 and 2 do NOT specifically mention any northern states and the clause has nothing to do with them because they had all abolished slavery long before the Civil War. It was about the question of importing slaves from different countries and, by banning the international slave trade, raising the value of U.S. slave property and inducing the border slave states to join the Confederacy.

      “The importation of negroes of the African race from any foreign country other than the slaveholding States or Territories of the United States of America, is hereby forbidden; and Congress is required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same.”

      “Congress shall also have power to prohibit the introduction of slaves from any State not a member of, or Territory not belonging to, this Confederacy.”

      New York, Massachusetts, and other states did not have “captured people” to send to the Confederacy since the international slave trade was abolished in 1808. It is true that the North profited from slavery and that occasionally a slave trade ship from the North did get through the Navy’s lax patrolling for slave ships. But your argument here, as I see it, is that the war was all about tariffs, and that’s just not accurate. Your last two sentences are also debatable.

      Because I’m curious, what sources are you relying on to make your argument here?

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