The Slave Trade Clause

The Slave Trade Clause

1. In what way did the Committee of 11 alter the Report of the Committee of Detail concerning the slave trade? Who was on that committee who was not on the Committee of Detail? Did the delegates who voted against the 1808 compromise want a date of “never” or of 1800?
2. Why did it take until the end of August to consider the slave trade clause? Does this clause resolve issues raised by Sections 4, 5 and 6 of Article VII of the Committee of Detail Report? How does the Fugitive Slave Clause temper our understanding of the Founders’ expectation that the institution of slavery would end?

No mentions of this document


The Committee of Detail Report (1787) presented on August 6 listed, for the first time, 18 powers of Congress. Among those powers was the power to regulate international trade. And a vital part of international trade was the slave trade. Without a specific restriction, it would be constitutionally possible for Congress, under the Committee of Detail draft, to regulate the international slave trade. But the five member Committee — chaired by John Rutledge of South Carolina — were well aware of the warning issued by General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina on July 23 that South Carolina would not sign the Constitution if there were a move toward “the emancipation of slaves.” Both sides in the debate over slavery accepted the premise that slave trade policy would have a major impact on the future of slavery in the new nation.

Sections 4, 5 and 6 of Article VII of the Committee of Detail Report shaped the discussion in August over what Congress could and could not do with respect to the slave trade. There were three identifiable groups at the Convention with respect to the Slave Trade clause in the COD Report.

In the first group, John Langdon of New Hampshire “was strenuous for giving the power to the general government” to control the slave trade. John Dickinson of Delaware, Luther Martin of Maryland, and Madison wanted an end to the slave trade on the grounds of principle. So did James Wilson and Gouverner Morris of Pennsylvania.

The second group included Charles Pinckney, from South Carolina, and Hugh Williamson, from North Carolina, reminded the delegates of political reality: be careful not to drive the Deep South into bolting the union. Abraham Baldwin of Georgia was not interested in “an attempt to abridge (Georgia) one of her favorite prerogatives.”

The third perspective came from Roger Sherman of Connecticut asserted: “it was better to let the Southern States import slaves than to part with [those states], if they made that a sine qua non.” Massachusetts seemed accommodating. Rufus King of Massachusetts said the whole “subject should be considered in a political light only.”

To deal with these differences, in late August, the delegates established a Committee of 11 to alter the recommendation of the Committee of Detail so the entire convention could agree and move forward to other matters.

—Gordon Lloyd

Source: Gordon Lloyd, ed., Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787 by James Madison, a Member (Ashland, Ohio: Ashbrook Center, 2014), 404-419, 428, 435-437.

August 21

Mr. L. MARTIN proposed to vary Article 7, Section 4, so as to allow a prohibition or tax on the importation of slaves. In the first place, as five slaves are to be counted as three freemen, in the apportionment of Representatives, such a clause would leave an encouragement to this traffic. In the second place, slaves weakened one part of the Union, which the other parts were bound to protect; the privilege of importing them was therefore unreasonable. And in the third place, it was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character, to have such a feature in the Constitution.

Mr. RUTLEDGE[1] did not see how the importation of slaves could be encouraged by this section. He was not apprehensive of insurrections, and would readily exempt the other States from the obligation to protect the Southern against them. Religion and humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is, whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of slaves, which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.

Mr. ELLSWORTH[2] was for leaving the clause as it stands. Let every State import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the States themselves. What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the States are the best judges of their particular interest. The old Confederation had not meddled with this point; and he did not see any greater necessity for bringing it within the policy of the new one.

Mr. PINCKNEY. South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave-trade. In every proposed extension of the powers of Congress, that State has expressly and watchfully excepted that of meddling with the importation of negroes. If the States be all left at liberty on this subject, South Carolina may perhaps, by degrees do of herself what is wished, as Virginia and Maryland already have done.[3]


August 22

In Convention. — Article 7, Section 4, was resumed.

Mr. SHERMAN was for leaving the clause as it stands. He disapproved of the slave-trade; yet as the States were now possessed of the right to import slaves, as the public good did not require it to be taken from them, and as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, he thought it best to leave the matter as we find it. He observed that the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the United States, and that the good sense of the several States would probably by degrees complete it. He urged on the Convention the necessity of dispatching its business.

Colonel MASON.[4] This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British Government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing States alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves as it did by the tories.[5] He mentioned the dangerous insurrections of the slaves in Greece and Sicily; and the instructions given by Cromwell to the commissioners sent to Virginia, to arm the servants and slaves, in case other means of obtaining its submission should fail. Maryland and Virginia, he said, had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain, if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands; and will fill that country with slaves, if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the emigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren had, from a lust of gain, embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential in every point of view, that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.

Mr. ELLSWORTH, as he had never owned a slave, could not judge of the effects of slavery on character. He said, however, that if it was to be considered in a moral light, we ought to go further and free those already in the country. As slaves also multiply so fast in Virginia and Maryland that it is cheaper to raise than import them, whilst in the sickly rice swamps foreign supplies are necessary, if we go no further than is urged, we shall be unjust towards South Carolina and Georgia. Let us not intermeddle. As population increases, poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery in time, will not be a speck in our country. Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it. And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts. As to the danger of insurrections from foreign influence, that will become a motive to kind treatment of the slaves.

Mr. PINCKNEY. If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world. He cited the case of Greece, Rome, and other ancient states; the sanction given by France, England, Holland, and other modern states. In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves. If the Southern States were let alone, they will probably of themselves stop importations. He would himself, as a citizen of South Carolina, vote for it. An attempt to take away the right, as proposed, will produce serious objections to the Constitution, which he wished to see adopted.

General PINCKNEY[6] declared it to be his firm opinion, that if himself and all his colleagues were to sign the Constitution, and use their personal influence, it would be of no avail towards obtaining the assent of their constituents. South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves. As to Virginia, she will gain by stopping the importations. Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants. It would be unequal, to require South Carolina and Georgia to confederate on such unequal terms. He said the Royal assent, before the Revolution, had never been refused to South Carolina, as to Virginia. He contended, that the importation of slaves would be for the interest of the whole Union. The more slaves, the more produce to employ the carrying trade; the more consumption also; and the more of this, the more revenue for the common treasury. He admitted it to be reasonable that slaves should be dutied like other imports; but should consider a rejection of the clause as an exclusion of South Carolina from the Union.

Mr. BALDWIN had conceived national objects alone to be before the Convention; not such as, like the present, were of a local nature. Georgia was decided on this point. That State has always hitherto supposed a General Government to be the pursuit of the central States, who wished to have a vortex[7] for every thing; that her distance would preclude her from equal advantage; and that she could not prudently purchase it by yielding national powers. From this it might be understood, in what light she would view an attempt to abridge one of her favorite prerogatives. If left to herself, she may probably put a stop to the evil. As one ground for this conjecture, he took notice of the sect of —; which he said was a respectable class of people, who carried their ethics beyond the mere equality of men, extending their humanity to the claims of the whole animal creation.

Mr. WILSON observed, that if South Carolina and Georgia were themselves disposed to get rid of the importation of slaves in a short time, as had been suggested, they would never refuse to unite because the importation might be prohibited. As the section now stands, all articles imported are to be taxed. Slaves alone are exempt. This is in fact a bounty on that article.

Mr. GERRY[8] thought we had nothing to do with the conduct of the States as to slaves, but ought to be careful not to give any sanction to it.

Mr. DICKINSON considered it as inadmissible, on every principle of honor and safety, that the importation of slaves should be authorized to the States by the Constitution. The true question was, whether the national happiness would be promoted or impeded by the importation; and this question ought to be left to the National Government, not to the States particularly interested. If England and France permit slavery, slaves are, at the same time, excluded from both those kingdoms. Greece and Rome were made unhappy by their slaves. He could not believe that the Southern States would refuse to confederate on the account apprehended; especially as the power was not likely to be immediately exercised by the General Government.

Mr. WILLIAMSON stated the law of North Carolina on the subject, to wit, that it did not directly prohibit the importation of slaves. It imposed a duty of £5 on each slave imported from Africa; £10 on each from elsewhere; and £50 on each from a State licensing manumission.[9] He thought the Southern States could not be members of the Union, if the clause should be rejected; and that it was wrong to force any thing down not absolutely necessary, and which any State must disagree to.

Mr. KING thought the subject should be considered in a political light only. If two States will not agree to the Constitution, as stated on one side, he could affirm with equal belief on the other, that great and equal opposition would be experienced from the other States. He remarked on the exemption of slaves from duty, whilst every other import was subjected to it, as an inequality that could not fail to strike the commercial sagacity of the Northern and Middle States.

Mr. LANGDON was strenuous for giving the power to the General Government. He could not, with a good conscience, leave it with the States, who could then go on with the traffic, without being restrained by the opinions here given, that they will themselves cease to import slaves.

General PINCKNEY thought himself bound to declare candidly, that he did not think South Carolina would stop her importations of slaves in any short time; but only stop them occasionally, as she now does. He moved to commit the clause, that slaves might be made liable to an equal tax with other imports; which he thought right, and which would remove one difficulty that had been started.

Mr. RUTLEDGE. If the Convention thinks that North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, will ever agree to the plan, unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is vain. The people of those States will never be such fools as to give up so important an interest. He was strenuous against striking out the section, and seconded the motion of General PINCKNEY for a commitment.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS wished the whole subject to be committed,[10] including the clauses relating to taxes on exports and to a navigation act. These things may form a bargain among the Northern and Southern States.

Mr. BUTLER[11] declared, that he never would agree to the power of taxing exports.

Mr. SHERMAN said it was better to let the Southern States import slaves than to part with them, if they made that a sine qua non. He was opposed to a tax on slaves imported, as making the matter worse, because it implied they were property. He acknowledged that if the power of prohibiting the importation should be given to the General Government, it would be exercised. He thought it would be its duty to exercise the power.

Mr. READ[12] was for the commitment, provided the clause concerning taxes on exports should also be committed.

Mr. SHERMAN observed, that that clause had been agreed to, and therefore could not be committed.

Mr. RANDOLPH[13] was for committing, in order that some middle ground might, if possible, be found. He could never agree to the clause as it stands. He would sooner risk the Constitution. He dwelt on the dilemma to which the Convention was exposed. By agreeing to the clause, it would revolt the Quakers, the Methodists, and many others in the States having no slaves. On the other hand, two States might be lost to the Union. Let us then, he said, try the chance of a commitment.

On the question for committing the remaining part of Sections 4 and 5 of Article 7, — Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Delaware, no, — 3; Massachusetts, absent.

Mr. PINCKNEY and Mr. LANGDON moved to commit Section 6, as to a navigation act by two thirds of each House.

Mr. GORHAM[14] did not see the propriety of it. Is it meant to require a greater proportion of votes? He desired it to be remembered, that the Eastern States had no motive to union but a commercial one. They were able to protect themselves. They were not afraid of external danger, and did not need the aid of the Southern States.

Mr. WILSON wished for a commitment, in order to reduce the proportion of votes required.

Mr. ELLSWORTH was for taking the plan as it is. This widening of opinions had a threatening aspect. If we do not agree on this middle and moderate ground, he was afraid we should lose two States, with such others as may be disposed to stand aloof; should fly into a variety of shapes and directions, and most probably into several confederations, — and not without bloodshed.

On the question for committing Section 6, as to a navigation act, to a member from each State, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 9; Connecticut, New Jersey no, — 2.


To this committee were referred also the two clauses, above mentioned of the fourth and fifth Sections of Article 7.

August 24

In Convention, — Governor LIVINGSTON, from the Committee of eleven, to whom were referred the two remaining clauses of the fourth Section, and the fifth and sixth Sections of the seventh Article, delivered the following Report:

“Strike out so much of the fourth Section as was referred to the Committee, and insert, ‘The migration or importation of such persons as the several States, now existing, shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Legislature prior to the year 1800; but a tax or duty may be imposed on such migration or importation, at a rate not exceeding the average of the duties laid on imports.’

“The fifth section to remain as in the Report.”

“The sixth Section to be stricken out. . . . ”

August 25

The Report of the Committee of eleven being taken up, —

General PINCKNEY moved to strike out the words, “the year eighteen hundred,” as the year limiting the importation of slaves; and to insert the words “the year eighteen hundred and eight.”

Mr. GORHAM seconded the motion.

Mr. MADISON. Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.

On the motion, which passed in the affirmative, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, — 4.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was for making the clause read at once, “the importation of slaves into North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, shall not be prohibited, &c.” This he said would be most fair, and would avoid the ambiguity by which, under the power with regard to naturalization, the liberty reserved to the States might be defeated. He wished it to be known, also, that this part of the Constitution was a compliance with those States. If the change of language, however, should be objected to, by the members from those states, he should not urge it.

Colonel MASON was not against using the term “slaves,” but against naming North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, lest it should give offence to the people of those States.

Mr. SHERMAN liked a description better than the terms proposed, which had been declined by the old Congress, and were not pleasing to some people.

Mr. CLYMER concurred with Mr. SHERMAN.

Mr. WILLIAMSON said, that both in opinion and practice he was against slavery; but thought it more in favor of humanity, from a view of all circumstances, to let in South Carolina and Georgia on those terms, than to exclude them from the Union.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS withdrew his motion.

Mr. DICKINSON wished the clause to be confined to the States which had not themselves prohibited the importation of slaves; and for that purpose moved to amend the clause, so as to read: “The importation of slaves into such of the states as shall permit the same, shall not be prohibited by the legislature of the United States until the year 1808; which was disagreed to, nem. con.[18]

The first part of the Report was then agreed to, amended as follows: “The migration or importation of such persons as the several states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the legislature prior to the year 1808,” —

New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina. South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, — 4.

Mr. BALDWIN, in order to restrain and more explicitly define, “the average duty,” moved to strike out of the second part the words, “average of the duties laid on imports,” and insert “common impost on articles not enumerated”; which was agreed to, nem. con.

Mr. SHERMAN was against this second part, as acknowledging men to be property, by taxing them as such under the character of slaves.

Mr. KING and Mr. LANGDON considered this as the price of the first part.

General PINCKNEY admitted that it was so.

Colonel MASON. Not to tax, will be equivalent to a bounty on, the importation of slaves.

Mr. GORHAM thought that Mr. SHERMAN should consider the duty, not as implying that slaves are property, but as a discouragement to the importation of them.

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS remarked, that, as the clause now stands, it implies that the Legislature may tax freemen imported.

Mr. SHERMAN, in answer to Mr. GORHAM, observed, that the smallness of the duty showed revenue to be the object, not the discouragement of the importation.

Mr. MADISON thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not, like merchandise, consumed, &c.

Colonel MASON, in answer to Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. The provision, as it stands, was necessary for the case of convicts, in order to prevent the introduction of them.

It was finally agreed, nem. con., to make the clause read: “but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person”; and then the second part, as amended, was agreed to.

Article 7, Sect. 5, was agreed to, nem. con., as reported.

Article 7, Sect. 6, in the Report was postponed. . . .

  1. 1. John Rutledge, South Carolina
  2. 2. Oliver Ellsworth, Connecticut
  3. 3. See George Mason’s comments on the decision of Maryland and Virginia (August 22, below).
  4. 4. George Mason, Virginia
  5. 5. The British failed to make effective use of slaves to foment insurrections in the American states, as they also failed to do with Tories, or loyalists.
  6. 6. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the elder second cousin of Charles Pinckney; both were from South Carolina.
  7. 7. Baldwin seems to say that Georgia believes that the central states seek a way of drawing the entire country into an arrangement that would best suit the central states.
  8. 8. Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts
  9. 9. allowing the freeing of slaves
  10. 10. That is, Morris wished that all these issues be referred to a committee, who would study them and make recommendations.
  11. 11. Pierce Butler, South Carolina
  12. 12. George Read, Delaware
  13. 13. Edmund Randolph, Virginia
  14. 14. Nathaniel Gorham, Massachusetts
  15. 15. William Samuel Johnson, Connecticut
  16. 16. William Livingston, New Jersey, then governor of the state
  17. 17. George Clymer, Pennsylvania
  18. 18. an abbreviation of nemine contradicente, Latin for “no one dissenting”