On February 23, 1861, the representatives of the Montgomery Convention, meeting to organize the Confederate government, took up the issue of the African slave trade. For years before the secession winter, some pro-slavery activists had advocated re-legalizing the African slave trade which had been banned in the United States in 1808. These activists had made their presence known in some state secession conventions and were present in Montgomery as well.
Yet the bill introduced at the Montgomery Convention that day did not seek to re-legalize the African slave trade. Rather, in keeping with the Provisional Confederate Constitution, it banned the Confederacy’s participation in the trade. The simple fact was, despite the vociferous support emanating from such quarters as the fire-eating Charleston Mercury, most white Southerners did not support re-legalization. Not only did they find the African slave trade distasteful, but feared it would destabilize the internal slave market in North America. Confederate leaders in Montgomery, representing the interests of slaveholders in the Lower South, worried new importations from Africa would lower the value of existing slave property and hence the wealth of slaveowners, even if it made the price of labor cheaper.
The Montgomery representatives also had another important political consideration in regard to this issue. They wished to coax into their new nation the slave states of the Upper South, which in February 1861 were all still part of the Union. These states, especially Virginia, Maryland, and Delaware, were an important source of slaves sold into the Lower South. Maryland and Delaware, in particular, were deep into the process of a natural economic transition away from slave-based plantation agriculture and selling their surplus slaves to the cotton states was by 1861 the main way they profited from slavery. So to re-legalize the African slave trade would offend the slave states of the Upper South by harming their economic interests. Hence, instead of re-legalizing the African slave trade, both the Provisional Confederate constitution and the slave trade bill introduced 150 years ago today kept legal the existing internal slave trade, although now presumably the trade would cross an international border between the United States and the Confederacy.
One other important factor in its legislative choice was that re-legalizing the African slave trade would put the infant Confederacy into conflict with Great Britain, who by 1861, was spending considerable naval and diplomatic resources into suppressing this commerce. Confederate leaders knew British recognition would be key to their new nation’s viability. Indeed, British diplomats carefully monitored the activity of the Confederacy on this issue. Hence, for reasons of morality and self-interest the Montgomery Convention opted to opt out of re-legalizing slave imports for their new nation from outside mainland North America.
To read the debate on the African slave trade see the minutes of the Montgomery Convention for February 23, 1861.
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.
Thanks for the history lesson. I came to your link via the NYTimes Disunion. I like the way you wrote the last paragraph. To me, it sounds like the new confederacy were politically savvy children, knowing that their actions regarding African slavery were wrong, yet trying to maximize their chances of successfully maintaining this institution by not creating trouble with Great Britain. I’m still amazed that so many people would go and fight for such a cuase; but those were different times.