The subjects provoking political strife in the troubled period that followed the era of good feeling were many in number, the most fruitful being that of slavery, which roused a tremendous clash of factions near the close of Monroe’s first administration. The North in general was for freedom, the South in general for slavery because of the growing profits of slave labor in the cotton fields, but this divergence of interests did not produce a cleavage in politics till the two sections came into collision over the admission of the territory of Missouri into the Union as a state.
The Beginning of Slavery.
Slavery had existed in America from the days of Columbus, first the slavery of the native Indian, and then that of the blacks of Africa. After the English set up a permanent colony in Virginia, a Dutch trading ship brought the first negro slaves to the settlement at Jamestown in 1619.
Negro slavery exercised a strong sway over the British colonies. In the rice swamps of the Carolinas and in the sugar and tobacco plantations both of the mainland and of the West Indies, the slaves performed services of immense economic value; in the North, where the unyielding soil required more careful and intelligent cultivation, they were less useful. Under the charter of the British King, the Royal African Company, many of the members of which were prominent in the social and political life of Great Britain, carried on a hugely profitable trade transporting the African blacks to America. It has been estimated that at the beginning of the eighteenth century British vessels brought 25,000 slaves annually to the British colonies in America, and that the number imported in the single year 1771 reached 47,000.
When the colonies endeavored to put a stop to this traffic, their laws taxing the trade and even in some cases actually prohibiting it, encountered the royal veto. The First Continental Congress resolved: "We will neither import nor purchase any slave imported after the first of December next; after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave trade." The Second Continental Congress two years later voted that no slave "be imported into any of the thirteen colonies." This was the high-water mark of colonial anti-slavery.
Slavery in 1776.
The Declaration of Independence adopted three months later ignored the subject. In his collected writings Thomas Jefferson tells how in the original draft of the Declaration he had inserted a clause condemning the King for waging "cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating them and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither…. Determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce." This clause was struck out "in complaisance to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never attempted to restrain the importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to continue it. Our northern brethren, also, I believe felt a little tender under those censures; for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others."
Emancipation after 1783.
In the enthusiasm for human rights and liberty which attended and followed the Revolution, the Northern States stopped the importation of slaves and gradually went to the length of freeing the slaves within their borders. Many Southerners would have adopted the same policy in their states could they have carried the majority with them. Jefferson labored to induce his native state to purchase all the slaves in Virginia and to colonize and educate them outside the nation at the state’s expense. He failed in this effort, but, nothing daunted, proposed a plan to the Congress of the Confederation to exclude slavery from all the public lands west of the Appalachians. This was defeated by a narrow margin, but the plan was applied by the same Congress, in the celebrated Ordinance of 1787, to that part of the western domain lying northwest of the Ohio River.
Slavery in 1787.
The constitutional convention, which was in session in Philadelphia when the Congress of the Confederation passed the vote against slavery in the Northwest Territory, discussed the subject of slavery, but did not see fit to recognize the system directly. In fact, the words slave and slavery do not appear in the Constitution. Indirectly, however, the document recognized slavery in several ways. The merely negative act of separating the jurisdiction of the states and the nation led to important results in this connection. On the ground that the states possessed all the powers which they had not delegated to the national government or which had not been granted it by the Constitution, it was a well-respected principle of politics down to 1862 that the United States government could not prohibit slavery in the states. In further recognition of the institution, the constitutional convention made the decision that three-fifths of all slaves should be counted as population in determining the size of a state’s representation in the House of Representatives and its share in direct taxes imposed by the general government; and it put off till 1808 the date when Congress might prohibit the foreign slave trade; but in each case a circumlocution was resorted to in order to avoid the actual use of the term slave. A national law prohibiting the importation of slaves went into effect at the earliest possible date, January 1, 1808, the same day that Great Britian’s ban on the trade went into effect.
Colonization of Blacks.
The American Colonization Society was formed to take freed slaves out of the country to a colony prepared for them in Africa, later recognized as the independent republic of Liberia. Henry Clay was at one time president of this society, and many eminent men were included in the list of its members, but the scheme of colonization of the blacks never proved a success. There were also emancipation societies in these early days of the nineteenth century both in the Southern States and in the states of the North.