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Why the Confederates Banned the African Slave Trade

Why the Confederates Banned the African Slave Trade
AI visualization of enslaved African Americans working in a rice field in South Carolina.

One of the more counterintuitive features of the Confederate Constitution is that, unlike the original U.S. Consitution, it enshrined a ban on the gruesome international slave trade, to the dismay of South Carolina fire-eater Leonidas W. Spratt, who angrily wrote a letter to one of the delegates.

It's interesting that Spratt's concerns weren't economic -- enslaved workers could be replaced by cheap European immigrant labor -- but cultural: he saw slavery as essential to maintaining the aristocratic social order in South Carolina, where the governor was still chosen by the legislature, to give you an idea of the state's resistance to democratic trends. (When Boston abolitionist minister Theodore Parker declared that the South hated the North's democratic institutions, he may have been painting with too broad a brush, but as Spratt's letter shows, Parker had a point.)

So why did the Provisional Confederate Congress ban the African slave trade? In his book A Government of Our Own: The Making of the Confederacy, William C. Davis writes:

The prohibition came from no opposition to slavery itself, but rather from a long held belief that with some four million slaves in the South now, more than a sufficient population existed to provide for any future needs in such property. Having no carrying trade of their own, Southerners also resisted becoming dependent upon Yankee merchants for providing them with anything, including slaves, and moreover feared that the introduction of more blacks from outside only served to reduce the value of those already held. As a gloved fist raised toward the Border States, they also decided to empower Congress to prohibit trade with other slave states not members of this confederation. It was probably with no sense of irony at all that immediately after the slave provisions, they appended the old Bill of Rights along with the Eleventh Amendment.

They also hoped that the ban would help them secure recognition from Britain, which although antislavery was still, like much of the South, in many respects a squirearchy and wouldn't recognize universal male suffrage until 1918. But Christopher Dickey's Our Man in Charleston: Britain's Secret Agent in the Civil War South recounts a conversation between James Mason, the Confederate envoy to London, and Lord Donoughmore, a Conservative whom Mason thought "a very intelligent gentleman, and a warm and earnest friend of the South":

Donoughmore, lest Mason miss the point, was perfectly blunt: “Lord Palmerston will not enter into a treaty with you unless you agree in that treaty not to permit the African Slave Trade.”
Mason knew the boilerplate response and gave it: the Confederate constitution banned the slave trade with Africa.
Donoughmore said that was all well and good, and everybody understood the official position, but it wasn’t enough: “The sentiment of England on this subject is such that no minister could hold his place for a day if he negotiated a treaty without such a clause.” As [British Consul to Charleston Robert] Bunch and [British Ambassador to the U.S. Richard Bickerton Pemell] Lyons had reported from the time the Confederate constitution was written, its guarantees against the African trade were legally ephemeral and at any rate unenforceable among such a loose agglomeration of sovereignties. If South Carolina or Louisiana or any other state wanted to reopen the gruesome trade with Congo, there would be very little that the Confederate government could or would do about it. So the British would accept nothing less than an explicit commitment to the Crown that no slaves would be imported, and even that might not be enough.
Donoughmore continued to be blunt: even if the Palmerston government fell, and the Tories went in, any treaty recognizing the Confederacy would have to have that unequivocal stipulation that the African trade would not be reopened.
Mason could not guarantee that his government would sign such a document. And [former Confederate Attorney General Judah P.] Benjamin, who was now the Confederade secretary of state and still a bit too much the lawyer, would not budge on the point after he received Mason's letter. Benjamin declared that the South’s position on the issue was clear enough in its constitution. To go beyond that, or reiterate it, was unconstitutional and unacceptable, and any further amendments would be for the individual member states of the Confederacy to decide. Benjamin could not have known about the dispatches from Charleston and Washington that had discredited that constitution even before it was written.

For a conversation on the African slave trade between Bunch and another South Carolina fire-eater, see this post.

As for Spratt, by 1861 he should have been used to his attempts to reopen the international slave trade going nowhere. As David M. Potter noted in his masterpiece The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861, the movement's "greatest legislative triumph was to carry one vote, in one house, of one state legislature" (Louisiana's House of Representatives, which euphemistically called for the importation of "apprentices"):

The possibility of reopening the slave trade promised, at first glance, to solve certain problems of the South, but upon further scrutiny, it also presented serious difficulties in connection with most of those problems. ...
Not only would a reopening of the trade have antagonized the entire upper South, but it also presented serious economic dangers, both for slaveholders, despite claims that they needed more labor, and for nonslaveholders, despite claims that lower prices would enable them to own slaves. For the slaveholders, a renewal of the trade meant a reduction in the price of slaves, which, in turn, meant a staggering loss in the value of the slave property which they already held. For nonslaveholders, slaves from Africa would mean the competition of cheap labor in their own labor market, and instead of an opportunity to own slaves, it might mean impoverishment. A nonslaveholder, writing to the Edgefield Advertiser in South Carolina, asked, "If we are to have negro labor in abundance, where will my support come from? If my labor is to be supplanted by that of negroes, how can I live?"
But most fundamentally, perhaps, it became apparent that a considerable part of the southern public had real moral objections to the trade. It may now seem hard to believe that men in the south could have condemned the trade as morally wrong and at the same time have regarded slavery as morally right; but this is perhaps no more anamalous than the fact that the men of the North condemned slavery as morally wrong and regarded racial discrimination as morally right. The fact was that the South thought of slavery and the slave trade not logically but in sets of images. Its images of slavery were somewhat idealized, and it was prepared to defend the ideal. Its image of the slave trade was odious, and it remained unmoved by the logic of Leonidas Spratt.

The South continued to remain unmoved by Spratt's logic after secession.

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