Paul Finkelman


In 1807 the United States Congress passed legislation, which became effective on January 1, 1808, to end all importations of slaves into the United States. Even before that date, Congress had passed a series of laws that prevented Americans from participating in the trade as sailors, ship captains, ship owners, ship builders, or investors in slave trading ventures. The bicentennial of the closing of the trade to the United States provides an appropriate moment to examine how the United States withdrew from this form of commerce. At one level the tale is inspiring. This was the first time in history that a slaveholding society voluntarily ceased to import new slaves. At another level, this is a cautionary, but nevertheless instructive, tale about how to use law to effectuate social change. Starting in 1794, the United States Congress passed a series of laws aimed at preventing Americans from participating in the trade. After the 1807 law went into effect, the United States passed a handful of other laws to strengthen the ban and make it more effective. In short, Congress did not successfully end the trade on its first try, or its second or even its third; but building on each legislative attempt, Congress eventually closed the trade to all but the most intrepid smugglers.