January 1st, 1808: Slave Importation Banned In US

Considering we spend a good deal of time focusing on legislation that protects consumers and/or (usually or) businesses, we thought it appropriate to point out one of the big historical moments of trade law, not to mention human rights—tomorrow marks the “200th anniversary of Jan. 1, 1808, when the importation of slaves into the United States was prohibited.” Hey, it didn’t stop the madness, but at least it was a start.

Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University, argues in an Op-Ed piece that it was in fact this early shaping of the US slave-based economy that helped prevent an even more disastrous human rights scenario by the time the Civil War erupted:

[Without the ban,] it is plausible to assume that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Africans would have been brought into the country.

This most likely would have resulted in the “democratization” of slavery as prices fell and more and more whites could afford to purchase slaves, along with a further increase in Southern political power thanks to the Constitution’s three-fifths clause. These were the very reasons advanced by South Carolina’s political leaders when they tried, unsuccessfully, to reopen the African slave trade in the 1850s.

More slaves would also have meant heightened fear of revolt and ever more stringent controls on the slave population. It would have reinforced Southerners’ demands to annex to the United States areas suitable for plantation slavery in the Caribbean and Central America. Had the importation of slaves continued unchecked, the United States could well have become the hemispheric slave-based empire of which many Southerners dreamed.

Awww snap! Take that, dead Southerners of the 19th century! Y’all didn’t get your empire! Happy new year.

“Forgotten Step Toward Freedom” [New York Times]
(Photo: Getty)