Slave Trade. -- On committing the Memorial of the Quakers on the Slave Trade.

House of Representatives, March, 1790.

Mr. TUCKER said, he conceived the memorial to be so glaring an interference with the Constitution, that he had hoped the house would {407} not have given so much countenance to a request so improper in itself. He was sorry that the society had discovered so little prudence in their memorial, as to wish that Congress should intermeddle in the internal regulations of the particular states. He hoped the petition would not be committed, as it would operate directly against the interest of those it was designed to benefit. This is a business that may be attended with the most serious consequences; it may end in a subversion of the government, being a direct attack on the rights and property of the Southern States. He then inquired what satisfaction was to be made to the proprietors of slaves. He believed it was not in the power of the states to make indemnification for the loss that would attend emancipation. He reprobated the interposition of the society, and denied that they possessed any more humanity than other denominations.

Mr. GERRY replied to Mr. Tucker, and desired the gentleman to point out any part of the memorial which proposed that the legislature should infringe on the Constitution. For his part, he heard nothing read that had such a tendency. Its only object was, that Congress should exert their constitutional authority to abate the horrors of slavery so far as they could. He hoped the petition would be committed. Indeed, he considered that all altercation on the subject of commitment was at an end, as the house had essentially determined that it should be committed.

Mr. BURKE reprobated the commitment, as subversive of the Constitution, as sounding an alarm, and blowing the trumpet of sedition in the Southern States. He should oppose the business totally; and if chosen on the committee, he should decline serving.

Mr. SCOTT was in favor of the commitment.

Mr. JACKSON was opposed to it, and painted in strong colors, the alarming consequences to be apprehended from taking up the business, -- revolt, insurrection, and devastation, -- and concluded by an observation similar to Mr. Burke's.

Mr. SHERMAN could see no difficulty in committing the memorial; the committee may bring in such a report as may prove satisfactory to gentlemen on all sides.

Mr. BALDWIN referred to the principles of accommodation which prevailed at the time of forming the government. Those mutual concessions which then took place gave us a Constitution which was to insure the peace and the equal rights and properties of the various states; and to prevent all infraction of the rights in this particular instance, they precluded themselves, by an express stipulation, from all interposition in the slave trade. Congress are not called upon to declare their sentiments upon this occasion; they cannot constitutionally interfere in the business. He deprecated the consequences of such a measure in very forcible terms, and hoped the house would proceed no farther in the investigation of the subject.

Mr. SMITH, (of South Carolina,) recurring to the memorial, observed, that Congress could not constitutionally interfere in the business, upon the prayer of the memorialists, as that went to an entire abolition of slavery; it could not, therefore, with propriety, be referred to a committee.

In the Southern States, difficulties on this account had arisen in respect to the ratification of the Constitution; and, except their apprehensions on this head had been dissipated by their property being secured and guarantied to them by the Constitution itself, they never could have adopted it.

{408} He then depicted the miseries that would result from the interference of Congress in the southern governments. He asserted, as his opinion, that if there were no slaves in the Southern States, they would he entirely depopulated; from the nature of the country, it could not be cultivated without them. Their proprietors are persons of as much humanity as the inhabitants of any part of the continent: they are as conspicuous for their morals as any of their neighbors.

He then asserted that the Quakers are a society not known to the laws; that they stand in exactly the same situation with other religious societies. Their memorial relates to a matter in which they are no more interested than any other sect whatever; and it must therefore be considered in the light of advice; and is it customary to refer a piece of advice to a committee? He then contrasted this memorial with one which might be presented from the sect called Shaking Quakers, whose principles and practices are represented in a very exceptionable point of light; and asked whether Congress would pay any attention to such a memorial. He hoped the memorial would not be committed.

Mr. PAGE was in favor of the commitment. He hoped that the benevolent designs of the respectable memorialists would not he frustrated at the threshold, so far as to preclude a fair discussion of the prayer of their memorial. He observed that they do not apply for a total abolition of slavery. They only request that such measures may be taken, consistent with the Constitution, as may finally issue in the total abolition of the slave trade. He could not conceive that the apprehensions entertained by the gentlemen from Georgia and South Carolina were well founded, as they respected the proposed interference of Congress.

Mr. MADISON observed, that it was his opinion, yesterday, that the best way to proceed in the business was to commit the memorial, without any debate on the subject. From what has taken place, he was more convinced of the propriety of the idea; but, as the business has engaged the attention of many members, and much has been said by gentlemen, he would offer a few observations for the consideration of the house. He then entered into a critical review of the circumstances respecting the adoption of the Constitution; the ideas upon the limitation of the powers of Congress to interfere in the regulation of the commerce in slaves, and showing that they undeniably were not precluded from interposing in their importation; and generally, to regulate the mode in which every species of business shall be transacted. He adverted to the western country, and try the cession of Georgia, in which Congress have certainly the power to regulate the subject of slavery; which shows that gentlemen are mistaken supposing that Congress cannot constitutionally interfere in the business in any degree whatever. He was in favor of committing the petitions, and justified the measure, by repeated precedents in the proceedings of the house.

Mr. GERRY entered into a justification of the interference of Congress, as being fully compatible with the Constitution. He descanted on the miseries to which the Africans are subjected by this traffic, and said that he never contemplated this subject without reflecting what his own feelings would be, in case himself, his children, or friends, were placed in the same deplorable circumstances. He then adverted to the flagrant acts of cruelty which are committed in carrying on that traffic, and asked whether it can be supposed that Congress has no power to prevent such transactions as far as possible. He then referred to the Constitution, and {409} pointed out the restrictions laid on the general government respecting the importation of slaves. It is not, he presumed, in the contemplation of any gentleman in this house to violate that part of the Constitution; but that we have a right to regulate this business is as clear as that we have any rights whatever; nor has the contrary been shown by any person, who has spoken on the occasion. Congress can, agreeably to the Constitution, lay a duty of ten dollars a head on slaves: they may do this immediately. He made a calculation of the value of the slaves in the Southern States. He supposed they might be worth about ten million of dollars. Congress have a right, if they see proper to make a proposal to the Southern States, to purchase the whole of them; and their resources in the western country may furnish them with means. He did not mean to suggest a measure of this kind: he only instanced these particulars to show that Congress certainly have a right to intermeddle in this business. He thought that no objections had been offered of any force to prevent the committing of the memorial.

Mr. BOUDINOT was in favor of the commitment, enlarged on the idea suggested by Mr. Gerry, and observed that the memorial contained only a request that Congress would interfere their authority in the cause of humanity and mercy.

Mr. GERRY and Mr. STONE severally spoke again on the subject. The latter gentleman, in opposition to the commitment, said, that this memorial was a thing of course; for there never was a society of any considerable extent which did not interfere with the concerns of other people; and this interference has at one time or other deluged the world with blood. On this principle he was opposed to the commitment.

Mr. TUCKER moved to modify the first paragraph by striking out all the words after the word opinion, and to insert the following: "that the several memorials proposed to the consideration of this house a subject on which its interference would be unconstitutional, and even its deliberations highly injurious to some of the states of the Union."

Mr. JACKSON rose, and observed, that he had been silent on the subject of the reports coming before the committee, because he wished the principles of the resolutions to be examined fairly, and to be decided on their true grounds. He was against the propositions generally, and would examine the policy, the justice, and use of them; and he hoped, if he could make them appear in the same light to others as they did to him by fair argument, that the gentlemen in opposition were not so determined in their opinions as not to give up their present sentiments.

With respect to the policy of the measure, -- the situation of the slaves here, their situation in their native states, and the disposal of them in case of emancipation, should be considered. That slavery was an evil habit he did not mean to controvert; but that habit was already established, and there were peculiar situations in countries which rendered that habit necessary. Such situations the states of South Carolina and Georgia were in: large tracts of the most fertile lands on the continent remained uncultivated for the want of population. It was frequently advanced on the floor of Congress how unhealthy those climates were, and how impossible it was for northern constitutions to exist there. What, he asked, is to be done with this uncultivated territory? Is it to remain a waste? Is the rice trade to be banished from our coasts? Are Congress willing to deprive themselves of the revenue arising from that trade, and which is daily {410} increasing; and to throw this great advantage into the hands of other countries?

Let us examine the use or the benefit of the resolutions contained in the report. I call upon gentlemen to give me one single instance in which they can be of service. They are of no use to Congress. The powers of that body are already defined, and those powers cannot be amended, confirmed, or diminished, by ten thousand resolutions. Is not the first proposition of the report fully contained in the Constitution? Is not that the guide and rule of this legislature? A multiplicity of laws is reprobated in any society, and tends but to confound and to perplex. How strange would a law appear which was to confirm a law! and how much more strange must it appear for this body to pass resolutions to confirm the Constitution under which they sit! This is the case with others of the resolutions.

A gentleman from Maryland (Mr. STONE) very properly observed that the Union had received the different states with all their ill habits about them. This was one of these habits established long before the Constitution, and could not now be remedied. He begged Congress to reflect on the number on the continent who were opposed to this Constitution, and on the number which yet remained in the Southern States. The violation of this compact they would seize on with avidity; they would make a handle of it to cover their designs against the government; and many good federalists, who would be injured by the measure, would be induced to join them. His heart was truly federal, and it had always been so, and he wished those designs frustrated. He begged Congress to beware, before they went too far. He called on them to attend to the interest of two whole States, as well as to the memorials of a society of Quakers, who came forward to blow the trumpet of sedition, and to destroy that Constitution which they had not in the least contributed by personal service or supply to establish.

He seconded Mr. Tucker's motion.

Mr. SMITH (of South Carolina) said, the gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. GERRY) had declared that it was the opinion of the select committee, of which he was a member, that the memorial from the Pennsylvania society required Congress to violate the Constitution. It was not less astonishing to see Dr. Franklin taking the lead in a business which looks so much like a persecution of the southern inhabitants, when he recollected the parable he had written some time ago, with a view of showing the impropriety of one set of men persecuting others for a difference of opinion. The parable was to this effect: "An old traveller, hungry and weary, applied to the patriarch Abraham for a night's lodging. In conversation, Abraham discovered that the stranger differed with him on religious points, and turned him out of doors. In the night, God appeared unto Abraham, and said, Where is the stranger? Abraham answered, I found that he did not worship the true God, and so I turned him out of doors. The Almighty thus rebuked the patriarch: Have I borne with him three-score and ten years, and couldst thou not bear with him one night?" Has not the Almighty, said Mr. Smith, borne with us for more than threescore years and ten? He has even made our country opulent, and shed the blessings of affluence and prosperity on our land, notwithstanding all its slaves; and must we now be ruined on account of the tender consciences of a few scrupulous individuals, who differ from us on this point?

Mr. BOUDINOT agreed with the general doctrines of Mr. S., but could not agree that the clause in the Constitution relating to the want of {411} power in Congress to prohibit the importation of such persons as any of the states, now existing, shall think proper to admit, prior to the year 1808, and authorizing a tax or duty on such importation; not exceeding ten dollars for each person, did not extend to negro slaves. Candor required that he should acknowledge that this was the express design of the Constitution; and therefore Congress could not interfere in prohibiting the importation or promoting the emancipation of them prior to that period. Mr. Boudinot observed, that he was well informed that the taxer duty of ten dollars was provided, instead of the five per cent. ad valorem, and was so expressly understood by all parties in the Convention; that, therefore, it was the interest and duty of Congress to impose this tax, or it would not be doing justice to the states, or equalizing the duties throughout the Union. If this was not done, merchants might bring their whole capitals into this branch of trade, and save paying any duties whatever. Mr. Boudinot observed, that the gentleman had overlooked the prophecy of St. Peter, where he foretells that, among other damnable heresies, "through covetousness shall they with reigned words make merchandise of you."

[Note. -- In the first edition, p. 211, vol. iv., this head terminated, "Memorial rejected" -- a mistake, which the editor in the present edition corrects, by stating that, with other petitions of a similar object, it was committed to a select committee: that committee made a report; the report was referred to a committee of the whole house, and discussed on four successive days: it was then reported to the house with amendments, and by the house ordered to be inscribed in its Journals, and then laid on the table.

That report, as amended in committee, is in the following words: "The committee to whom were referred sundry memorials from the people called Quakers, and also a memorial from the Pennsylvania Society for promoting the Abolition of Slavery, submit the following report, (as amended in committee of the whole:) --

"First. That the migration or importation of such persons, as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, cannot be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808.

"Secondly. That Congress have no power to interfere in the emancipation of slaves, or in the treatment of them, within any of the states; it remaining with the several states alone to provide any regulation therein which humanity and true policy may require.

"Thirdly. That Congress have authority to restrain the citizens of the United States from carrying on the African slave trade, for the purpose of supplying foreigners with slaves, and of providing, by proper regulations, for the humane treatment, during their passage, of slaves imported by the said citizens into the states admitting such importations.

"Fourthly. That Congress have also authority to prohibit foreigners from fitting out vessels in any part of the United States for transporting persons from Africa to any foreign port."]