End of Slave Trade Meant New Normal for America

Two hundred years ago this month, the United States abolished the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Eric Foner, a historian at Columbia University, takes listeners inside the historical moment tied to one of America's darkest eras.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up: some suggestions on how to dispose of your old television sets and computers and protect the environment. It's our Next Big Thing segment.

But first, 200 years ago on January 1st, 1808, the U.S. officially banned the importation of slaves. This month, we've been marking the bicentennial of that event by talking about new scholarship on slavery and the world the slaves made. Today, we want to look at the abolition of the slave trade itself.

And to do that, we're joined by one of the country's most prominent historians, Eric Foner. We talked with him in his office at Columbia University.

Welcome, Professor Foner.

Professor ERIC FONER (History, Columbia University): I'm happy to talk to you.

MARTIN: First of all, could you give us some historical context? How important was the slave trade for America?

Prof. FONER: The slave trade is very important in American history. Now, it is true that most of the slaves that were shipped from Africa to the New World in the four centuries of the slave trade did not come to the area that became the United States. Most of them went to the West Indies or to Brazil. But several hundred thousand slaves were brought into this country during the period when the slave trade was legal, during the colonial period in the early 19th century. And that, of course, formed the basis of a thriving system of slavery which began in the 17th century and lasted up into the Civil War.

MARTIN: Did the ban have an immediate effect?

Prof. FONER: The ban of 1808 did basically stop the importation of slaves from Africa or from the West Indies. There was some smuggling of slaves. After that, all the way up to the Civil War, the ban was not totally enforced, but it certainly ended what had been before then an open, legal and fairly large slave trade.

The slave trade had been banned before, during the run-up to the American Revolution when the colonists banned imports from Britain. That included slaves. But after the Revolution, after the Constitution, South Carolina and Georgia and Louisiana - after it joined the union - allowed the importation of slaves. And so in those places, it continued all the way up to 1808.

MARTIN: In an article you wrote for the New York Times, you point out that we don't really acknowledge the date in this country. We don't really acknowledge the date that the U.S. banning importation of slaves. It would seem that that was an important marking, you know, in the history of this country. So why do you think it is that we don't acknowledge that date?

Prof. FONER: I think few people really think very much about this particular anniversary because the abolition of the slave trade didn't seemed to have any particular effect on the abolition of slavery. In the British Empire, for example, slavery - the slave trade was banned in 1807. And then, in the 1830s, slavery was abolished altogether, and that was a major step toward ending slavery, the - banning the slave trade.

But in this country, of course, slavery lasted another 50 or more years. It actually grew significantly after the slave trade was ended, because in this country, unlike many others, the slave population reproduced itself just by natural increase. And so the slave population continued to grow. Slavery became more and more prominent economically with the rise of the Cotton Kingdom in the Deep South, and it took a civil war, as, of course, we know, to get rid of slavery.

MARTIN: Two questions for you. One is why was there the political will to ban the importation of slaves, but not to end slavery? And secondly, why is that the slave population reproduced itself here in the U.S. and not in other places, the Caribbean, Brazil, as you mentioned?

Prof. FONER: The second question is easier. The slave population reproduced itself here because the death rate was much, much lower among both whites and blacks. This is not - the United States is not in the tropical zone, where these diseases like yellow fever, malaria, et cetera, took a tremendous toll on both slaves and free people alike.

But there were many Southerners who wanted to ban the slave trade, particularly in the upper South, in Virginia. Virginia, by the early 19th century, was already exporting slaves to other states. And once the slave trade was abolished, Virginia became a major source of the internal slave trade.

As slavery expanded into the South and the Southwest, the Alabama, Mississippi, et cetera, where did they get those slaves from after Africans couldn't be brought in? They were gotten from the upper South. And so there were a lot of people even within the South who didn't want the competition of the African slave trade because their livelihood it was based on selling slaves within the United States.

But also, there had been a big campaign in the 1780s, 1790s on both sides of the Atlantic which identified the African slave trade as what we would call today a violation of human rights, a crime against humanity. But somehow, many of the people who opposed the slave trade were themselves slave owners, like Thomas Jefferson. And they made that distinction between the right of property and slaves where slavery existed, and the right to seize people and ship them across the ocean, which they say was really illegitimate.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. And we're speaking with Professor Eric Foner about the bicentennial of the end of the transatlantic slave trade.

So they created a sort of an established kind of a moral hierarchy around treatment in a way that perhaps people think, okay, it's acceptable to keep pets, but it's not acceptable to treat, you know, livestock in a certain way.

Prof. FONER: That's exactly right. And indeed, another reason we don't really remember the abolition of the slave trade is that the achievement of that actually led to a waning of the abolitionist movement in general. That is, many people found, okay, we've achieved our main aim, and therefore, criticism of slavery actually declined after the abolition of the slave trade. And it revived again in the 1820s and 1830s. It took another generation for a radical abolitionist movement to emerge in the United States. And so some people say, well, the abolition of the slave trade kind of diverted attention from the pressing need to attack slavery itself.

MARTIN: But you also noted in your article there's a big difference between the way the British noted the bicentennial versus how the Americans commemorated the bicentennial. In Britain, it seems like the end of the transatlantic slave trade was seen as the forerunner of the end of slavery in general. I'm just wondering what you think accounts for that difference.

Prof. FONER: I think the much greater commemoration and attention to the 200th anniversary of ending the African slave trade, the much greater attention in Britain arises from two things. One is history and one is current society. The history is that in the British Empire, unlike the United States, abolishing the slave trade led pretty directly to eventually abolishing slavery. But more than that, I think, you know, what people choose to remember and celebrate in history really reflects their own society, not what happened in the past.

Britain today is a country which is suddenly coming to terms with the fact that it is a multi-racial society. And I think the latching on to the abolition of the slave trade, you might say, gave British society what we call a usable past - that is, a vision of history to which people could look with pride from all backgrounds. It's a sign of black and white cooperating together, sort of, for a noble cause. And I think there was a lot of government-promoted commemoration in order to make all Britons feel part of the same process, whatever their background.

Now in the United States, we are still pretty divided by the legacy of slavery. There's a lot of bitterness about it. There's debate about reparations for slavery, about apologies to slavery. We haven't really reached any kind of national consensus about how we should think about and remember slavery. And so we are a little closer to slavery and its legacy for our society, perhaps, than the British seemed to be.

MARTIN: Now, I know as an historian, you're more interested in the world of what is as supposed to the world of what should be. But would you like to see this date acknowledged in a more overt fashion in the U.S.? Do you think that would be useful?

Prof. FONER: I think what we remember in history, as I said, tells us a lot of ourselves. I would like to see January 1st, 1808 remembered as an important turning point. It was the first time, really, that Congress stigmatized, at least, an aspect of slavery as immoral, illegitimate and worthy of being prohibited. And it did raise the question of slavery itself - even though it didn't lead directly to the abolition of slavery.

Half a century later, Abraham Lincoln, in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, would say, look. You know, the Southerners claim they have a right of property in slaves. Well, why, then, is the importation of slaves wrong? Why don't they just keep importing slaves if it's no different than any other property? We don't we have a ban on importing any other form of property. Obviously, there is something different about slaves that makes people, you know, feel that this trade is illegitimate. And that is a condemnation of slavery itself.

So I think it was a very important moment. And, of course, one can think what would have happened if the slave traders had continued? There would have been hundreds of thousands of more slaves brought into the country. The South would have grown more powerful, more politically dominant. It probably would have expanded slavery into Cuba, into the Caribbean, into Mexico. More slaves would have led to the United States becoming a slave empire in a way in which many Southerners wanted. And that would have been a terrible fate.

MARTIN: Hmm. And finally, is there any way in which - I guess I'm trying to figure out a way to ask you what you would like us to draw from those events today. Obviously, I think a lot of us are interested in history for lots of different reasons.

Prof. FONER: Yeah, yeah.

MARTIN: And some because of what - how it informs the present. So is there something that you think about or you'd like us to think about in thinking about that date in what it means for us today?

Prof. FONER: I think we should remember the movement against the African slave trade, which was an international movement. You might almost say it was the first international human rights movement, of which we have many in existence today. It united people on both sides of the Atlantic in Britain, in Africa, in France, in the United States. It united black people and white people. And it was a noble crusade to really bring about an increase in human rights in this world. It didn't solve all the problems. It did not abolish slavery immediately. But I think it is something that we can all look back on with pride. And, you know, as a model for movements now, two centuries later, which are trying to - in an international manner - uphold the principle of human rights.

MARTIN: Eric Foner is DeWitt Clinton professor of History at Columbia University. He joined us from his office.

Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Prof. FONER: A pleasure to talk to you.

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