Sectional Crises and the Fate of Africans Illegally Imported into the United States, 1806-1860
AbstractThe problem of how to dispose of Africans illegally imported as slaves into the United States, and its part played in the destruction of the Union, has been neglected by historians. First arising in 1806-07, it caused immediate sectional antagonism provoking threats of Civil War. Why? Because it involved more than just the broadly unanimous desire to end the slave trade but touched the much more sensitive issue of slavery as well. The issue of illegal slave imports underscored sectional differences, pitting Northerners against Southerners in their attitudes to slavery. Its ability to inflame politics was such that both sides acquiesced in an imperfect solution to the problem that tacitly supported the efforts of the controversial American Colonization Society to establish a colony in Africa which could be used to dump illegal slave imports. Yet appropriating money to carry out the terms of this solution gave rise to further sectional rhetoric reflecting deteriorating relations, which the problem itself contributed to, after Missouri. Cases of slave ships and debates centred on the fate of Africans found aboard them contributed to Southern anxiety and aggressiveness about federal interference in slavery and provoked the North into making clear anti-slavery statements. Successive debates provided an opportunity for both sections to articulate, and in turn, develop, radically different ideological standpoints: the North implacably anti-slavery and the South overwhelmingly pro-slavery. The fruition of pro-slavery ideology ultimately convinced the South to see the compulsory return of illegal slave imports to Africa as a slur against their institution and supported a revision of the terms of disposition. It was a compromise solution to their own struggle to marry a continuing commitment to ending the slave trade with a pride in slavery.