The political importance of the slave trade

The_Slave_Trade_by_Auguste_Francois_Biard
The Slave Trade, by Auguste Francois Biard, 1840

Letter from John Cowden to Gov. John J. Pettus of Mississippi, September 23, 1860:

Give me free trade with Africa and they may have as many Wilmot provisos or (as much) Squatter Sovereignty as they please and all the Territories will be carved and admitted as Slave States. Send poor men from the south without Negroes (as we are now doing) to the Territories and they will vote to make free States — for Instance look at Indiana, Illinois, California, and Kansas, on the other hand meet the men of the abolition aid Society in the Territories with a cheap African — he will make Slave States — make the Local Laws to protect his Negroes and your rights. 1

John J. Pettus
Gov. John J. Pettus of Mississippi

An editorial in the September 19, 1860 New York Times looks at the consequences of the illegal slave trade:

The amount of ponderous stupidity which is expended in some quarters on Mr. SEWARD’s recent admission that the extension of Slavery is not possible without the reopening of the Slave-trade, is a curious example of misdirected patience and industry. Nothing that simple toil can do to deduce from it the conclusion that the Republican Party has no basis, and no real object, has been left undone. The Republican Party, it is said, professes to have in view the restriction of Slavery to the territory it already occupies, but its chief concedes that, unless the Slave-trade be reopened, no extension of the “institution” can take place. No party now in the field proposes to reopen the Slave-trade; therefore the Republicans are fighting against a figment of their own imagination, are disturbers of the public tranquillity, and ought to go home and desist from agitation.

The only thing wanting to make this demolition of Mr. SEWARD complete is that “the facts of the case” should be as they are here stated; but the truth unfortunately is, that the Slave-trade has been reopened de facto, if not de jure.

If Southerners choose to set about nullifying the laws, we want an Executive whose care it shall be that they shall profit nothing by the nullification; that if they will insist on importing negroes, they must glut their own markets with them, and shall not find sale for them in the great territories of the West. It will not pay to import them very long for home consumption. Even if the present holders of the article did not become alarmed by the depreciation of their property, the fall of price to the rate of thirty or forty years ago, would soon make the finest field hands a commodity which no prudent man would care to hold.

The Times concludes by arguing that the continuing illegal slave trade makes it essential that a Republican administration be elected. If slavery cannot be extended into the territories, the market for slaves will collapse, and the illegal slave trade will wither for lack of demand.

As we have seen earlier, it appears that the actual extent of illegal importation of slaves to the US at the time was widely overestimated. Its influence on the political discourse, though, was certainly great. Some cotton-belt Southerners wanted to reopen it; the upper South wanted to suppress it; the Confederate Constitution would prohibit it.

1Barney, W. L. The Secessionist Impulse: Alabama and Mississippi in 1860. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U. Pr., 1974. p. 26.

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