The slave trade was abolished in America by Congressional action on January 1, 1808, with strong support from both North and South. By the late 1850s, though, a few southern “fire-eaters” were calling for it to be resumed. A couple of Southern editorials reproduced in the Nov. 20, 1856 New York Times give an idea of the tenor of their arguments:
Humanity Demands the Revival of the Slave-Trade
From the Washington Star, Nov. 18
The result of all that has been done to put a stop to it, (the Slave-trade,) has only been an increase of all its bad features. No man of common sense imagines that the African negro is not in a better condition in Slavery in America than in barbarous captivity or even barbarous freedom in his native land. Humanity superinduced the abolishment of the legality of the traffic; and matters now look as though, with the increasing horrible Cooly Slave-trade, (which already equals the African Slave-trade in extent when that was greatest) humanity will ere long cry aloud for the removal of all existing restrictions on the old trade between Africa and America.
From the Richmond Enquirer.
The liberation of the slaves of the West Indies and of South America begat a vastly increased demand for African slaves, and men have been found bold enough to supply this demand, regardless of risk or consequences. Added to this, the Cooly-trade from various portions of Asia makes more new slaves than the old African trade; and the Coolies are treated more cruelly than the negroes, because their masters are less interested in preserving their lives. It is also admitted, on all hands, that the African trade is conducted with ten times the cruelty now that it was formerly.
Advocates for legalization of the slave trade were a highly vocal but small minority. The trade continued illegally, though. In the New York Times for August 15, 1860, a letter to the editor signed “Salt” criticizes American failure to police this trade, and takes issue with the fire-eaters’ arguments.
It is a matter of regret to see a paper, conducted with so much ability, and with a circulation so extended as the TIMES has fairly received by its high tone, intimating that the combined cruisers on the African coast cannot break up the Slave trade. This conclusion, it is said, is based on the experiment of men-of-war erasing for several years, in the unsuccessful attempt at humiliating the traffic. We say, with a full knowledge of the subject, that the cruisers, years ago, would have swept the Slave-trade from the African coast had the slavers which they captured, or might have captured, been condemned in our Courts, on the evidence which condemns a slaver in the British Admiralty Court.
We must also as unequivocally dissent from the opinion expressed in your editorial article, that the fear of discovery makes slavemasters more cruel and barbarous in the treatment of slaves, and increases the horrors of the middle passage, for history shows that when that trade was legalized its barbarity and the inhuman treatment of these wretched creatures ware greater, if possible, than it has been since civilized nations have pronounced the traffic piracy.
There were claims at the time that thousands of slaves were being brought from Africa to America every year. Potter, in The Impending Crisis, finds no credible evidence that slaves were being brought in such quantities to this country. American slave ships still operated, but their cargoes were going to Cuba and Brazil. As Potter also shows, the high tide of the Southern fire-eaters’ push for reopening the slave trade occurred at the Southern Commercial Convention of 1859 at Vicksburg, which adopted a resolution to that effect. Despite the support of several Southern newspapers, the move went nowhere. In part this was because the Upper South was profiting from the sale of slaves to the cotton plantations of the Lower South, and they didn’t want imported slaves from Africa undercutting their prices (Potter, 395-397).
The move to reopen the slave trade was part of a broader tendency in the South in the decades leading up to the Civil War to depict slavery as a moral good. The revolutionary generation of the late 18th century had agreed that slavery was an evil the country was saddled with, to be ameliorated where possible, with the hope that it would eventually be phased out. Lincoln, in debates with Douglas, speculated that it might take another century for slavery to wither peacefully, if it could be prevented from expanding into the territories. Nineteenth-century abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison had no patience for this slow process, and wanted all slaves freed immediately. In both cases, though, the Northern attitude was increasingly to depict slavery and slave-owners as cruel and backward.
Southerners responded defensively, hardening their stance and claiming the moral high ground, depicting slavery as a positive good for both black and white. The Southern sense of wounded pride at being depicted in the North as “Simon Legree” may have been one of the most important factors in the cultural divide between North and South, ultimately helping bring about secession and the Civil War.