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US law abolishing transatlantic slave trade takes effect

This Day in World History

January 1, 1808

US Law abolishing transatlantic slave trade takes effect

On January 1, 1808, the importation of slaves into the United States was formally, and finally, abolished.

The story behind this ban begins at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, when slavery lurked beneath several debates and figured in several compromises fashioned to win the support of Southern delegates for the Constitution. One such compromise was a constitutional clause preventing Congress from banning the importation of slaves from Africa for twenty years.

As the years passed, several states outlawed the slave trade in their territory. By 1806, in fact, only South Carolina still imported slaves. Congress, meanwhile, took some steps against the trade, such as making it illegal for any American citizen to trade slaves in foreign ports.

In 1806, President Thomas Jefferson invited Congress to take the final step. In a message to both houses, he expressed his hope that Congress would end the slave trade and “withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have so long been continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa.” Congress passed the act in March of 1807, and Jefferson quickly signed it into law. (Great Britain’s similar law, the Slave Trade Act, was passed by Parliament later the same month.) The law set its effective date as January 1, 1808—the earliest date possible under the Constitution.

The act, though significant, had limits. An illegal slave trade did continue, though in smaller numbers than had been true of the legal trade. The law also did nothing to stop the sale of those already held in slavery. For the next several decades, as many a million enslaved African Americans were sold within the United States. Not until after the American Civil War would slavery—and this internal slave trade—be finally abolished.

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