Anniversary of end of slave trade

Eric Foner:

WE Americans live in a society awash in historical celebrations. The last few years have witnessed commemorations of the bicentennial of the Louisiana Purchase (2003) and the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II (2005). Looming on the horizon are the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth (2009) and the sesquicentennial of the outbreak of the Civil War (2011). But one significant milestone has gone strangely unnoticed: the 200th anniversary of Jan. 1, 1808, when the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited.

This neglect stands in striking contrast to the many scholarly and public events in Britain that marked the 2007 bicentennial of that country’s banning of the slave trade. There were historical conferences, museum exhibits, even a high-budget film, “Amazing Grace,” about William Wilberforce, the leader of the parliamentary crusade that resulted in abolition.

What explains this divergence? Throughout the 1780s, the horrors of the Middle Passage were widely publicized on both sides of the Atlantic and by 1792 the British Parliament stood on the verge of banning the trade. But when war broke out with revolutionary France, the idea was shelved. Final prohibition came in 1807 and it proved a major step toward the abolition of slavery in the empire.

The British campaign against the African slave trade not only launched the modern concern for human rights as an international principle, but today offers a usable past for a society increasingly aware of its multiracial character. It remains a historic chapter of which Britons of all origins can be proud.

In the United States, however, slavery not only survived the end of the African trade but embarked on an era of unprecedented expansion. Americans have had to look elsewhere for memories that ameliorate our racial discontents, which helps explain our recent focus on the 19th-century Underground Railroad as an example (widely commemorated and often exaggerated) of blacks and whites working together in a common cause.

Nonetheless, the abolition of the slave trade to the United States is well worth remembering. Only a small fraction (perhaps 5 percent) of the estimated 11 million Africans brought to the New World in the four centuries of the slave trade were destined for the area that became the United States. But in the Colonial era, Southern planters regularly purchased imported slaves, and merchants in New York and New England profited handsomely from the trade.

The American Revolution threw the slave trade and slavery itself into crisis. In the run-up to war, Congress banned the importation of slaves as part of a broader nonimportation policy. During the War of Independence, tens of thousands of slaves escaped to British lines. Many accompanied the British out of the country when peace arrived.

Inspired by the ideals of the Revolution, most of the newly independent American states banned the slave trade. But importation resumed to South Carolina and Georgia, which had been occupied by the British during the war and lost the largest number of slaves.

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.

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The action in 1808 was largely symbolic since the British were imposing a ban on the trade already and the US was not in a position to defy that ban anyway.

What I find interesting about this piece is the estimate that only five percent of the slaves brought to the new world came to what is now the US. This number throws a serious crimp in the argument that the wealth of the US was built with slave labor, since our wealth substantially exceeds that of the areas that got 95 percent of the slaves. If the argument is that wealth was built on slave labor, why isn't Haiti a wealthy country, rather than a basket case of incompetence?

The answer is that a culture that creates the environment for success is the cause of wealth. Most of the wealth of this country has been created since slavery was abolished and if it still existed we would not be nearly as wealthy or successful. One of the many problems with slavery is that it is anti productive. The only incentives to productivity with slave labor are negative and history has proven that positive incentives are far more successful.

Consider an enterprise that is based on sales. A salesman who gets a commission is far more interested in making a sale than a slave would be. What incentive does the latter have to make a sale?

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