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The Slave Importation Clause

We’ve had occasion of late to consider two pro-slavery statutes that were part of the original Constitution of the Unites States of America. We should rightly rejoice that subsequent Amendments to the Constitution rendered null and void such clauses. One more heinous clause in our Constitution is known as the Slave Importation Clause. Continue reading . . . 

We’ve had occasion of late to consider two pro-slavery statutes that were part of the original Constitution of the Unites States of America. We should rightly rejoice that subsequent Amendments to the Constitution rendered null and void such clauses. One more heinous clause in our Constitution is known as the Slave Importation Clause. It is found in Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1:

“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

Once again the framers of the Constitution carefully avoided using the word “Slavery”. Thus some might read this clause and think that it speaks only of our country’s immigration policy. But “in the political context of 1787, “Importation” of “such Persons” as the states “shall think proper” could only mean one thing: Congress would have no power to ban the African slave trade for twenty years” (Paulsen and Paulsen, The Constitution: An Introduction, 81).

It would appear that if the North was powerless to eliminate slavery all at once, at least it could put an end to the slave trade by which men, women, and children were abducted from Africa and shipped in utterly inhumane conditions to America. But once again the delegates from the South prevailed and were able to secure a legal guarantee that the slave trade could continue for at least another twenty years.

The Paulsens point out that this “is the first example in the Constitution of a ‘right’ – a provision listing something that government cannot do. The first constitutional right was thus a grave constitutional wrong: the protection of the African slave trade for two more decades” (82).

The only good feature in this clause is that it put a definite limit on the time during which the slave trade could continue. But it also served as an open invitation to Southern states to import as many slaves as they could over the next twenty years. Studies have confirmed that the Deep South imported more slaves from Africa between 1788 and 1808 than in any other twenty year period. “The one small silver lining in this dark constitutional cloud is that Congress did ban the slave trade at the earliest opportunity, in 1808” (Paulsen and Paulsen, 82).

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