The 1790 Debate to Abolish Slavery

By Nancy Spannaus

Feb. 10, 2023—Both abolitionists and slavery proponents understood that the future of the widely-condemned enslavement of African-Americans was not resolved in the Constitutional Convention. Did the federal government have any powers over that controversial institution, or was it left entirely to the states? Ask a Georgian and you’d be told the federal government had no power at all; ask a New Englander, and you’d likely to be told the opposite.

The 1790 Debate to Abolish Slavery
The image on a medallion created by Englishman Josiah Wedgwood in 1787. It became the emblem of the international abolition movement.

It didn’t take long for the issue to come onto the agenda. For on February 11, 1790, the Pennsylvania Society for Promoting the Abolition of Slavery, along with anti-slavery groups from New Jersey, New York, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia, sent a petition to Congress calling on that body to take action. The Pennsylvania petition  to the House of Representatives put it this way:

From a persuasion that equal liberty was originally the Portion, & is still the Birthright of all men, & influenced by the strong ties of Humanity & the Principles of their Institution, your Memorialists conceive themselves bound to use all justifiable endeavours to loosen the bands of Slavery and promote a general Enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom. Under these Impressions they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the Subject of Slavery, that you will be pleased to countenance the Restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual Bondage, and who, amidst the general Joy of surrounding Freemen, are groaning in Servile Subjection, that you will devise means for removing this Inconsistency from the Character of the American People, that you will promote Mercy and Justice towards this distressed Race, & that you will Step to the very verge of the Powers vested in you for discouraging every Species of Traffick in the Persons of our fellow Men.

The Pennsylvania document additionally noted that the Congress’s powers to “promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States” might be used to abolish slavery, which clearly violated it. The other petitions more meekly asked for clarification on Congress’s powers over the issue, and a “sincere and impartial inquiry” into the “licentious wickedness of the African trade for slaves.”

It should be noted that there were many leading politicians at the time who believed that various of the Constitutional powers of the Federal government, in addition to public sentiment, augured an early demise for slavery. This view was reinforced by the fact that the Constitutional Convention had explicitly chosen to call the enslaved “persons,” rather than property, and treated the odious institution as a state, rather than a federal matter.[1]

The 1790 Debate to Abolish Slavery
Pa. Representative James Wilson was one who believed the Constitution’s measures could be used to abolish slavery.

The Declaration of 1790

Predictably, the array of petitions stirred up a proverbial hornet’s nest. Representatives from the Deep South expressed outrage over the threat of interference with their (state) “sovereign” right to hold slaves and treat them as they wished, whereas many of the Northern representatives were chagrined to have such a divisive issue come up so early in the Congress. Some even considered it a regrettable stumbling block to the passage of Treasury Secretary Hamilton’s controversial First Report on Public Credit, which had just come to the House for debate.[2]

Yet, the Pennsylvania petition, signed as it was by senior statesman Benjamin Franklin, apparently could not be ignored. While the other petitions were rejected out of hand, the Pennsylvania one was referred to a special committee that was to consider how to handle the issue. By a vote of 43 to 11, the House voted on Feb. 12 that the committee should decide what powers Congress should have over slavery.

The committee was headed by Abiel Foster, a representative from New Hampshire; all the members but one were from the Northern or Middle states, and were considered to be anti-slavery to some degree.[3]

The committee’s report was issued on March 5th. It argued that just as Congress could not ban the slave trade prior to 1808, neither could it “interfere in the emancipation of slaves” prior to that time. That formulation strongly implied that as of 1808, Congress would have the power to so interfere. However, the report explicitly rejected the idea that Congress’s mandate in the Preamble to “secure the blessings of liberty” gave it the power to regulate domestic slavery. The 7-man committee had apparently split 3 to 3 on this question, after which the tie was broken in the negative direction by its chairman.

Also of critical importance was the committee’s conclusion that while Congress had no power to interfere in regulation of slavery in the states, it “expressed the hope that states would ‘promote the objectives mentioned in the memorials, and every other measure that may tend to the happiness of slaves.’|” Even this gentle prodding provoked outrage from some Southern representatives.

The final two sections of the committee report dealt with the slave trade, stating that Congress had the power to regulate it, to insist on “humane treatment” of the slaves, and to prohibit foreigners from fitting out vessels for the slave trade in U.S. ports.

The 1790 Debate to Abolish Slavery
Rep. James Jackson took the lead in demanding that slavery was a state matter and positive good.

Extensive debate on the Report took place in mid-March, featuring virtual filibusters by Rep. James Jackson of Georgia, among others. James Madison played a critical role in replacing formulations which could be interpreted as permitting federal power over the internal slave trade after 1808, and over the conditions of the enslaved. Shamefully, there was no spirited argument from the side of the on-record anti-slavery Representatives, many of whom even absented themselves from the debate.

The final approved result, issued as the Declaration of 1790, thus failed to achieve the abolitionists’ objectives – although Congress did move ahead in 1794 to “restrain the citizens of the United States from carrying on the African trade, for the purpose of supplying foreigners with slaves” and “to prohibit foreigners from fitting out vessels in any port of the United States for transporting persons from Africa to any foreign port.”

It is under the 1794 law that Alexander Hamilton’s Revenue Cutter Service found itself employed in “interfering” with the slave trade by interdicting slave vessels.

Franklin’s Response

On the very day that the Declaration of 1790 was passed (March 23), the ailing Benjamin Franklin penned his final satirical riposte. He wrote a letter to the Federal Gazette under the title “On the Slave Trade,” in which he compares the speech of Georgia Rep. Jackson to the arguments raised by one “Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim, a member of the Divan of Algiers,” 100 years before. That speech, which Franklin goes on to quote “in translation,” argued against proposals put before Algerian potentate for abolishing piracy and slavery of the Christians.

Benjamin Franklin responded with his traditional satire to the Congressional debate.

Franklin quoted Mehemet’s summation:

Let us then hear no more of this detestable Proposition, the Manumission of Christian Slaves, the Adoption of which would, by depreciating our Lands and Houses, and thereby depriving so many good Citizens of their Properties, create universal Discontent, and provoke Insurrections, to the endangering of Government and producing general Confusion. I have therefore no doubt, but this wise Council will prefer the Comfort and Happiness of a whole Nation of true Believers to the Whim of a few Erika, and dismiss their Petition.

Dismiss it, they did, Franklin reported. He then predicted that current petitions to end the slave trade will also be rejected on the same basis by “the Parliament of England,” “to say nothing of other Legislatures.”

Franklin died on April 17, and the anti-slavery movement was deprived of one of its most creative and eloquent leaders. But, contrary to what many believe today, the abolitionist movement did not die. State abolition societies formed a national association in 1794, and worked on both the state and federal level to mobilize public consciousness, change laws, and improve conditions for the enslaved, all with the explicit aim of eliminating that vile institution.

Yes, the fight against slavery was always part of America’s DNA.

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[1] See https://americansystemnow.com/the-constitution-and-slavery-the-missing-economic-dimension/

[2] Hamilton’s report was considered an existential question for the young nation, and its passage would require support from his critics in the South.

[3] Much material for this report comes from a journal article by Howard A. Ohline entitled “Slavery, Economics, and Congressional Politics, 1790,” published in the Journal of Southern History, vol. 46, no. 3, 1980.