New England's Foul Traffic

Below, author Robert L. Dabney arraigns New England for perpetuating the slave trade and populating the American South with its “foul traffic.” He notes that “When the late Confederate Government adopted a constitution, although it was composed exclusively of slaveholding States, it voluntarily did what the United States has never done: it placed an absolute prohibition of the foreign slave trade in its organic law.”

Bernhard Thuersam, Circ1865


New England’s Foul Traffic

“The government of Virginia was unquestionably actuated, in prohibiting the slave trade, by a sincere sense of its intrinsic injustice and cruelty. Mr. Jefferson, a representative man, in his “Notes on Virginia,” had given indignant expression to this sentiment. And the reprobation of that national wrong, with regret for the presence of the African on the soil, was the universal feeling of that generation which succeeded the Revolution; while they firmly asserted the rightfulness of that slavery which they had inherited.

[The Founders’] . . . were sober, wise and practical men, who felt that to protect the rights, purity, and prosperity of their own country and posterity, was more properly their task, than to plead the wrongs of a distant and alien people, great although those wrongs might be.

They deprecated the slave trade, because it was peopling their soil so largely with an inferior and savage race, incapable of union, instead of with civilized Englishmen. This was precisely their apprehension of the enormous wrong done the colony by the mother country . . . the colonies felt that the forcing of the Africans upon them was as much a political as a social wrong.

The contrast between the policy and principles of Virginia and of the New England colonies will be concluded with two evidences. Mr. Jefferson, the author [of the Declaration of Independence], states that he had inserted in the enumeration of grievances against the King . . . a paragraph strongly reprobating his arbitrary support of the slave trade, against the remonstrances of some of the colonies.

When the Congress discussed the paper, this paragraph was struck out . . . [with Georgia, South Carolina and Massachusetts opposing. Our Northern brethren . . . felt a little tender . . . for though their people had very few slaves themselves, yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others. Thus New England assisted to expunge from that immortal paper a testimony against the slave trade, which Virginia endeavored to place there.

In the Convention of 1787, which framed the Constitution of the United States, [the question] concerning African slaves caused dissension. Upon the supreme right of the States over the whole subject of slavery within their own dominions, upon the recognition of slaves as property protected by the federal laws, wherever slavery existed, and upon the fugitive slave law, not a voice was raised in opposition.

[New England’s policy was] simply mercenary [and] prompted by her sense of her own interests, and not of the rights of the Negro. The people of that section renewed their activity on the African coast, with a diligence continually increasing up to 1808. Carey, in his work on the slave trade, estimates the importation into the thirteen colonies between 1771 and 1790 [at 34,000]; but that between the institution of the federal government and 1808, he places it at seventy thousand.

His estimate here is unquestionably far too low; because forty thousand were introduced at the port of Charleston . . . alone, the last four years, and within the years 1806 and 1807, there were six hundred arrivals of New England slavers at that place. [By] 1860, six hundred and twenty-five thousand more slaves in the United States than would have been found here, had not New England’s cruelty and avarice assisted to prolong the slave trade nineteen years after Virginia and the federal government would otherwise have arrested it.

In this illicit trade, no Virginian (and indeed, no Southern) ship or shipmaster has ever been in a single case implicated, although our State had meantime begun no inconsiderable career of maritime adventure. But adventurers from New England and New York were continually sharing the lion’s portion of the foul spoils.”

(A Defense of Virginia and the South, Robert L. Dabney, E.J. Hale & Son, 1867, pp. 53-60)

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