Jefferson Davis’ Veto

On February 28, 1861, Jefferson Davis vetoed the bill that the Montgomery Convention had passed banning Confederate participation in the African slave trade. Davis did not veto the bill because he favored the trade’s resumption. Instead, he was concerned that the provisional Confederate congress had created a loophole whereby Africans might still be imported into the Confederacy from overseas to become slaves.  Davis stated in this veto message:

In the sixth section of the bill provision is made for the transfer of persons who may have been illegally imported into the Confederate States to the custody of foreign States or societies, upon condition of deportation and future freedom, and if the proposition thus to surrender them shall not be accepted, it is then made the duty of the President to cause said negroes to be sold at public outcry to the highest bidder in any one of the States where such sale shall not be inconsistent with the laws thereof. This provision seems to me to be in opposition to the policy declared in the Constitution – the prohibition of the importation of African negroes – and in derogation of its mandate to legislate for the effectuation of that object.

The text of the 6th section of the bill had stated:

Sect. 6. Every negro illegally imported as aforesaid into the Confederate States shall be arrested by the Marshal or his deputies, or any officer of the said States charged in any manner with the execution of this Act, and shall be safely kept, subject to the disposition hereinafter provided. And the said officer shall immediately notify the President of the Confederacy of such arrest and confinement. The President shall, as soon as possible, communicate with the Governor of the State whence the vessel in which such negroes were imported cleared, if the same be one of the United States of America, and shall offer to deliver such negroes to the said State, on receiving a guarantee from such State that the said negroes shall enjoy the rights and privileges of freemen in such State, or in any other State of The United States, or that said negroes shall be transported to Africa, and there placed at liberty, free of expense to this Government. If such proposition be rejected, or if the contingency specified above shall not have occurred, the President shall receive any proposition which maybe made by any responsible persons or society, who will furnish satisfactory guarantee to the President that such negroes will be transported to Africa, and there placed at liberty, free of expense to this Government; and if no such proposition shall be made within a reasonable time, the President shall cause said negroes to be sold at public outcry to the highest bidder in any one of the States where such sale shall not be inconsistent with the laws thereof, under such regulations as he may prescribe; the proceeds of which sale, after paying all the expenses incurred by the Government in the capture, detention, and sale of such negroes, and in the prosecution of the offenders, shall be paid, one-half to the informer (if he be bond fide such), and the other half into the Treasury of the Confederate States.

In retrospect, Davis’ veto and the bill itself were largely superfluous. In 1861, the African slave trade still existed, but was under tremendous pressure from western navies, particularly Great Britain’s Royal Navy, but also from the U.S. Navy’s African Squadron. Indeed, three days before Davis’ veto, the USS Saratoga had seized a suspected slave ship, the Express, off the coast of what is today the Republic of the Congo. The last known ship to deliver African slaves to mainland North America, the Clotilde, had discharged its cargo in Alabama in 1859. Although the concern of Confederate leaders over the African slave trade was not unfounded, by the time of the bill and Davis’ veto it was essentially dead in North America. Not surprisingly, the Confederacy never revisited the issue as they soon had more urgent issues to deal with, but both the African slave trade bill of the veto served a useful diplomatic purpose in distancing the Confederacy from this odious commerce–which perhaps had been the point all along.

To read Jefferson Davis’ full veto message visit: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_v022861.asp

For the complete text of the Confederate bill banning its participation in the African slave trade see: British and Foreign State Papers: 1861-1862, Vol. 52 (London: William Ridgway, 1868),  728-731, available through Google Books.

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About Donald R. Shaffer

Donald R. Shaffer is the author of _After the Glory: The Struggles of Black Civil War Veterans_ (Kansas, 2004), which won the Peter Seaborg Award for Civil War Scholarship in 2005. More recently he published (with Elizabeth Regosin), _Voices of Emancipation: Understanding Slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction through the U.S. Pension Bureau Files_ (2008). Dr. Shaffer teaches online exclusively (i.e., a virtual professor). He lives in Arizona and can be contacted at donald_shaffer@yahoo.com
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