In February 1790, two Quaker delegations presented petitions to the House demanding that the federal government immediately abolish the slave trade. Many representatives found this “interruption” ludicrous, refusing to believe the government should take the question of abolition seriously. They dismissed the Quakers as anti-patriotic pacifists. In any case, the Constitution contained a stipulation preventing Congress from restricting the slave trade in any way until 1808. Nevertheless, certain congressmen expressed fears about the Quakers’ demand, suggesting that a desire for the total abolition of slavery would surely follow.
The beginning of this chapter introduces another paradox. The reaction to the Quaker interruption was generally hostile. Many congressmen did not want to consider restricting the slave trade, and there was even a clause technically making that impossible until 1808. Yet many representatives were still greatly disturbed by the Quaker intrusion, despite the fact that it was caused by a relatively powerless minority.
Madison reassured his colleagues, saying that the Quakers’ petition would be reviewed by the committee but only “as a matter of course.” He advised the best thing to do was stay calm and the whole matter would go away, as no congressman would seriously entertain the idea of restricting the slave trade. However, the next day the Pennsylvania Abolition Society sent yet another petition to Congress, this time advocating abolition. The petition argued that slavery violated the values of the American Revolution and challenged the constitutional ban on restricting the slave trade. It was signed by Benjamin Franklin.
Madison’s reaction is typical of a figure who trusts the processes of government, believing that they form a natural barrier to extremes. Regardless of whether such a position is ethical, this passage suggests that it might also be inaccurate. Simply letting the petitions fizzle out by submitting them through official processes seemed less plausible after it was revealed that Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers, was supporting them.
Franklin’s support meant that Madison was wrong; the problem would not go away simply by ignoring it. Instead, the House spent four to six hours debating the petitions. Never before had this issue received such treatment on a national level; discussions of how slavery was to be handled usually occurred either in secret or within a firmly local context. Several congressmen insisted that the discussion was paving the way for civil war. Representatives from the Deep South implied that the Constitution prevented slavery from even being discussed in Congress, let alone altered or abolished.
For a variety of reasons, slavery was a taboo subject in Congress at this time. Northerners, who mostly considered slavery an “evil” yet who were concerned about restricting or abolishing it, refused to talk about it out of anxiety and shame. Most representatives from the Deep South support the continuation and expansion of slavery, and didn’t want to discuss it because they worried this would lead to abolition.
The petitioners suggested that the Constitution limited Congress’ ability to end the slave trade, but not slavery itself. James Jackson of Georgia replied with a long “sermon” filled with religious justifications for slavery. Another Georgia congressman, William Loughton Smith, chimed in with a pro-slavery argument based on economics and white supremacy. He then emphasized that the Constitution forbade Congress from taking action to curtail slavery. Some northern representatives disagreed that the Bible or the Constitution supported slavery, while conceding that slavery could be “tolerated” for the moment because it certainly would eventually be abolished.
This passage demonstrates that slavery carried very different meanings for different people. There were social, economic, political, religious, and practical issues to consider, and different figures tended to emphasize different aspects of the institution in their discussion. It is notable that outside of the abolitionists, few representatives framed slavery as a major human rights violation or institution of extreme injustice or brutality that needed urgent attention.
Elbridge Gerry, a representative from Massachusetts, expressed sympathy with slaveholders, whom he saw as having inherited the problem of slavery through no fault of their own. He suggested that the government could buy all living slaves, calculating that this would cost 10 million dollars (in reality, it would have cost significantly more). Instead of raising this money through taxes, he suggested it be obtained through the sale of western land.
Gerry’s position represents the perverse thinking that was prevalent at this time regarding slavery. Even those who recognized slavery as a problem often viewed it as a problem for slaveholders, hardly paying attention to the experience of enslaved people themselves.
Virginian representatives were divided on the matter. One warned that the government ought to begin curtailing slavery because if enslaved people knew Congress was refusing any thought of abolition, they would violently rebel. Madison, meanwhile, was adamant that Congress could not act before 1808 but that there was no problem in discussing the issue. In the end, those present voted 43 to 11 to forward the petitions to a committee. Most of the negative votes came from South Carolina and Georgia.
The beginning of this passage reminds us that many of those who supported abolition did not do so for noble or ethical reasons. Rather, they were concerned about the practical issues slavery presented, including the threat of rebellion and the question of where freed slaves should live.
In hindsight, we know that the divide over slavery would not go away, but instead grow so significant that it eventually led to the Civil War. However, those living in 1790 did not know this, and thus based their decisions on the past, trying to figure out what the legacy of the Revolution meant in the context of slavery. The answer tended to change greatly depending on whether one considered 1776 or 1787 to be the most important founding moment in the history of the republic.
The inability to see that slavery would eventually become an enormous threat to the unity of the nation can, in hindsight, seem like willful ignorance. Yet so much about the future of the nation was undetermined at this period that it is unsurprising that many could not predict slavery would eventually tear the country apart.
In Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration of Independence, he included a paragraph characterizing slavery as a way in which the evil English monarchy corrupted the innocent project of American settlers. This paragraph was deleted, but the final draft of the Declaration, with its profound statements about human equality and rights, arguably indicated that slavery could not last in the new nation. Indeed, the Declaration could be read as “an unambiguous tract for abolition.” During the Revolutionary War, several key figures made efforts to curtail the slave trade and begin freeing enslaved people. However, these gestures ultimately achieved little.
In hindsight, we know that the Declaration of Independence became a key document in the quest for abolition and is still cited today as evidence that the US is dedicated to preserving human rights and equality. Yet at the time, there was a powerful refusal to admit that this is what the document meant. Furthermore, Jefferson’s original argument characterizing slavery as corrupting the innocent settlers does not exactly hold up considering that mass murder of Native people was inherent within the settler project.
Right after the war, many northern states abolished slavery. Meanwhile, Jefferson laid out a plan in Notes on the State of Virginia for the gradual emancipation of enslaved people in his home state. He also proposed a bill in Congress prohibiting slavery in the western territories, but no one voted in favor of it. At times it seemed like slavery was on the decline, but in fact this was an illusion. Even if slavery contradicted the ideals of the Revolution, it was deeply enmeshed in the realty of America as a nation. Ideas themselves were not enough to fight it.
The end of this passage conveys a key point about the issue of slavery in the early American republic. Slavery may have theoretically been antithetical to the values on which the country was founded, but at the same time it was impossible to imagine the reality of an America without slavery.
During the drafting of the Constitution, the problem of slavery became much more pronounced. Madison observed that the most severe division during this process was between slaveholding and non-slaveholding states. Many northerners demanded an immediate end to the slave trade and plan for gradual emancipation, arguing that slavery was evil and incompatible with the principles of the Revolution. Representatives from the Deep South, meanwhile, argued that slavery was essential to the survival of their states. They demanded support for the expansion of the slave trade and assurance that their “property” rights would not be put in jeopardy.
Those on the proslavery side used both practical and ideological arguments in order to justify their cause. Opponents of slavery, meanwhile, had to rely on ideological arguments alone not only because slavery was immensely profitable, but because abolition would be challenging in practice. The antislavery side was of course in the ideologically and morally superior position, but this often seemed to matter little in the face of pragmatic issues.
Both sides were somewhat disappointed by the final draft of the Constitution, which neither committed to emancipation nor explicitly supported slavery. The document was noncommittal when it came to slavery in order to ensure that it would be ratified. In July 1787, the Confederation Congress passed an act banning slavery in area north of the Ohio River, a move that, on the one hand, suggested slavery would be forbidden in new states, while also suggesting slavery would be allowed to proliferate in the southwestern territories.
Ellis often observes that certain figures or policies were noncommittal or avoidant when it came to slavery. While this is technically true, the fact that this avoidance was taking place while slavery was already being perpetrated meant that it was not neutral, but rather a tacit endorsement of the continuation of slavery.
The most significant compromise achieved by the Constitutional Convention, meanwhile, was a bargain in which New Englanders agreed to support the expansion of the slave trade for twenty years in exchange for making the federal regulation of commerce a majority, rather than supermajority (2/3) vote in Congress. Both sides assumed they had “won,” and conflicting opinions remained over whether the end of slavery was inevitable or unimaginable.
This passage shows that to many representatives (and particularly northerners), slavery was simply one political issue among many, and could be used as a bargaining chip. While many leaders at the time may have opposed slavery in theory, in reality they were happy to make compromises which allowed slavery to flourish.
Virginia had the largest populations of both enslaved people and free black people in the country. It was the only southern state where there was a significant level of opposition to slavery and desire for emancipation. At the same time, many Virginians also did not want the federal government to have any control over slavery and its future in the state. The reality was that Virginians had intense economic investment in the continuation of slavery. They may have “talked northern,” but they “thought southern.”
People sometimes assume that in this period of American history it was so rare to consider slavery morally wrong that it is unsurprising that leaders allowed it to continue. In reality, many people (even in Virginia) claimed to oppose slavery—yet their actions did not align with their stated position.
On March 8 1790, the committee that had reviewed the petitions was ready to submit their report. Representatives from the Deep South objected to hearing the committee’s report before they even knew what it contained. Two such representatives, Loughton Smith and James Jackson, launched a tirade attacking the Quakers and defending slavery in strikingly explicit terms. Jackson denied that slavery was “a crime,” instead framing it as a “necessary evil.” He read passages from the Bible that sanctioned slavery, as well as quotes from Notes on the State of Virginia in which Jefferson declared that white and black people would not be able to live alongside one another as free citizens due to mutual resentment and hatred.
This passage demonstrates just how intense and insidious the opposition to abolition was. Jackson’s words show that people were able to accept an institution that they believed was “evil”; his distinction between a “necessary evil” and a “crime” highlights a perverse respect for law above morality. The fact that he was able to use Jefferson’s own writing to support his proslavery argument reminds us that most white people who supported abolition were nonetheless still deeply racist.
Jackson stoked fears about interracial marriage and asked where a population of freed black people could be forced to settle, arguing that neither locations in Africa nor the American West were plausible. The next day, Smith spoke for two hours, mostly repeating Jackson’s arguments. It was the first time that the proslavery argument had been explicitly articulated in Congress. Before this, slavery had been treated as the “unmentionable family secret” by the nation’s political leaders.
Looking back on this time from the present, it is hard to assess who had less moral integrity: those who may have theoretically opposed slavery but would not even allow it to be discussed in Congress, or those who supported slavery but at least took the responsibility of owning up to this position.
Another novel factor was the data gathered by the census of 1790, which confirmed that slavery was “flourishing” in the South while steeply declining in the North (with the exception of New York and New Jersey). Meanwhile, the Upper South (Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina) had large populations of both enslaved and free black people. Overall, the number of enslaved people in America was, like the settler population, increasing at a staggering rate. The sheer number of enslaved people meant that gradual emancipation was appearing less and less plausible, and 1790 may have been the last possible moment at which it could have taken place.
While America’s political leaders refused to discuss the issue of slavery, preferring to adopt a tactic of willful ignorance, in the meantime thousands of slaves were being forcibly transported to the United States. The decision not to act may look like neutrality, but in fact it served as support for the continuation of the slave trade and the expansion of slavery.
The most persuasive element of the proslavery argument was its focus on the practical difficulties of abolition. The threats of secession that came from South Carolina and Georgia convinced many of those who were otherwise sympathetic to abolition that it would tear the nation apart. In 1790, no one actually presented a plan for emancipation to Congress. Those who advocated gradual emancipation generally agreed that slaveholders would have to be compensated and that most of the freed population would have to be deported, either to African, the American West, or the Caribbean.
Again, even those concerned about the moral dimension of slavery could subsume these concerns if it meant holding the nation together. Slavery could be justified in the name of national unity; indeed, this argument was made right until the point when the end of the Civil War finally extinguished this threat.
Because of this, gradual emancipation was thought to be a highly expensive endeavor, wildly exceeding the federal budget. On the other hand, a gradual emancipation scheme could theoretically mean that the costs of abolition was spread out over many years, rather than hitting the country in one go. Gradual emancipation may have been “daunting,” but it was not “fiscally impossible.” Yet the issue of relocation remained. Many historians do not discuss this in depth, instead focusing only on the racist ideology that convinced many at the time that relocation was necessary. Yet Ellis insists that without a relocation plan, no emancipation proposal would have had a chance of being passed.
Here, Ellis again stresses that the actions of historical figures should be judged in their proper context. We might now consider relocation as a product of racism, but, according to Ellis, at the time it would have been an absolutely vital component of any plan for emancipation. This strategy is not shared by all historians. Yet regardless of one’s personal position, it is clear that many figures at the time used the problem of relocation as a justification for their own inaction on slavery.
In 1790, almost 90 percent of the black population of the US lived south of the Potomac. All of the possible resettlement locations (the West, the Caribbean, Africa) were difficult, and thus relocation was actually a bigger roadblock than compensation. It was extremely unlikely that an emancipation plan would have successfully passed in 1790. At the same time, the achievements of 1776 and 1787 seemed unlikely (even impossible) before they occurred. In both cases, extraordinary leadership was able to overcome these unlikely odds. Yet in 1790 such an act of leadership, while it would have properly fulfilled the values of the revolution, would have torn the country apart.
Here, Ellis arguably undermines his earlier point that it would have been impossible to pass an emancipation proposal without a resettlement plan. It is certainly right to say that such an outcome would be highly unlikely, but as Ellis points out, the American Revolution itself seemed impossible to many—until it actually happened.
In March 1790, Benjamin Franklin was weak and unwell, though had lived so long that he seemed “immortal.” He had been present at every major event in the founding of the American republic. Franklin was a truly extraordinary person, in some ways akin to a god on earth, with an incredible knack for being in the right place (and on the right side) at the right time. In 1787, Franklin became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, having decided to dedicate the final years of his life to abolition. (In the past he had owned a few house slaves and had not given much time to antislavery efforts.)
Like several other Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin was both strongly committed to his principles and unopposed to changing those principles over time. Such flexibility was an important aspect of the political culture of the Revolutionary period, during which everything was in flux, and politicians generally had to be adaptable in order to survive.
Franklin argued that slavery violated the ideals of the revolution, and wrote a scathing parody of Jackson’s proslavery speech. Some people reacted to Franklin’s arguments by accusing him of having a “senile” moment, while others suggested that Franklin was one of the few voices staying true to revolutionary principles. In hindsight, we can see that Franklin’s support for abolition was prophetic, anticipating the change in public opinion about slavery that would eventually take place. Yet in 1790, he stood out among the Founding Fathers, most of whom personally opposed slavery but failed to actively support abolition.
The evolution of Benjamin Franklin’s position on slavery shows that it is not necessarily true that people always become more cynical and conservative with age. In many cases, age endows people with experience and knowledge that leads to greater compassion and optimism, rather than the other way around.
Madison’s position was representative of many other Virginians. He rejected any explicit proslavery stance and expressed a desire for slavery to end soon. However, he also claimed that he could not fully “embrace” abolition. He called slavery “evil” yet said it would be “improper” to introduce a plan for emancipation in Congress. Essentially, Madison did not have a position on slavery. His most explicit opinion was that the issue should be pushed to the side because it was so controversial and threatening to the republic.
Again, Ellis arguably conflates not having a position on slavery with being willing to tacitly support slavery while publicly claiming to be against it. As Desmond Tutu famously argues, “To be neutral in situations of injustice is to side with the oppressor.” Was it really possible for any political figure to be “neutral” about slavery in the late eighteenth century?
While some northern representatives had initially been sympathetic to the Quaker petition, after a while they began claiming that the whole thing had grown out of control. Many sided with those from the Deep South who argued that the committee’s report should be tabled. However, Congress voted 29 to 25 to accept the report, which consisted of seven resolutions, each of which appeased a different party. While it included vague references to “justice” and “humanity,” overall the report confirmed that Congress was prohibited from curtailing slavery or setting up an emancipation plan until 1808.
Just as fear of authoritarian, monarchical-style government led figures such as Madison to reject the cause of federalism, fear of the consequences of abolition led those who initially sympathized with the petitioners to withdraw their support. In the end, Congress decided to play it safe, which meant sacrificing the lives of the enslaved in order to appease slaveholders and their allies.
Ultimately the report was reduced to only three resolutions, which focused on Congress’ inability to interfere with slavery. Washington expressed his relief, writing to a friend that the slavery issue “has at last [been] put to rest.” This set a precedent used by future proslavery advocates, who would defer to the 1790 decision even after it technically expired in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Perhaps 1790 would already have been too late to institute gradual emancipation. Yet it is beyond question that when Franklin died on April 17, 1790, the possibility of gradual emancipation died with him.
Setting ideological and moral issues aside, the decision to defer any federal decision-making on slavery until (at least) 1808 had dire practical consequences for the republic, as it helped pave the way for the Civil War. Some might argue that the Civil War was inevitable, and that it is better that it happened in the 1860s than in 1790. Of course, this does not morally justify the continuation of slavery in the intervening period.