Fact is, when Thomas Jefferson became president, Jefferson submitted legislation to stop the import of African slaves into the United States. That was in 1806. The Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 is a United States federal law that stated that no new slaves were permitted to be imported into the United States. That act took effect on January 1st, 1808. Though passed in 1807, that was the earliest date permitted by the Constitution.
So yes, in reality, importing slaves into the United States was legal from 1783 when we won our independence from England to January of 1808 when it became illegal to bring slaves to America. That's only 25 years.
After January 1, 1808, it would "not be lawful to import or bring into the United States or the territories thereof from any foreign kingdom, place, or country, any negro, mulatto, or person of color, with intent to hold, sell, or dispose of such [person] ... as a slave, to be held to service or labor."
The act stated there would be a fines of up to $20,000 for anyone building a ship specifically meant to be used in the slave trade -- or anyone found fitting an existing ship to be used in the slave trade. Americans slavers saw fines up to $10,000 and jail terms of five years or more. The penalties for ships of any nation found in American ports or "hovering off the American coast with Africans on them" were seized and forfeited. Ship's captains faced a $10,000 fine and five to ten years in prison. Americans purchasing illegally imported slaves would lose that slave and be fined $8,000 for every slave they purchased.
Please understand that $8,000 in 1808 is equivalent in purchasing power to $160,492.70 in 2019. So no, that wasn't a small amount of money.
The act allowed the U.S. Navy to stop and board ships thought to be involved in the illegal slave trade. And since the domestic slave trade was still legal until 1865, the 1808 law required ships which were legally transporting slaves from one part of the nation to another to register their passengers with port authorities before setting out on their voyage.
Fact is the 1808 the law stopping the import of slaves was tough. It certainly had teeth. But, there was an unexpected problem that took place as a result of the 1808 law. The problem had to do with what to do with the slaves who were brought to the United States illegally?
Remember, as a nation, we had only been in existence for 25 years. No, not since 1776 but since 1783 when we won our fight to be free. While some count the Revolutionary War years as the start of our being a nation, I had a teacher who told me that the Brits would have told you different until the Treaty of Paris officially declared the end of the war and the United States a sovereign nation.
So for a very young nation, the question as to whether slaves should be sent back to Africa or simply set free in the United States was a huge dilemma.
Jefferson had no interest in freeing Africans who were illegally introduced into the United States. In reality, he wanted them repatriated back to Africa. But, since America was not a wealthy nation at the time, Jefferson was against spending the funds needed to return them to their homelands. He also knew that once they were returned, their own people would sell them back slavers headed for South America. We should keep in mind that the vast majority of African slaves sold into slavery by African chiefs actually ended up in South America and the Caribbean -- not the United States.
The 1808 law stated that slaves illegally found in the United States would be treated according to the law of the state in which they were found. Of course that meant they would become slaves in the United States because of the slave states where they ended up.
So in reality, while the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 placed huge fines and resulted in jail time for slavers, it did nothing for the slaves. Sadly, it also didn't stop the slave trade which was taking place within the United States borders.
And by the way, when you hear someone saying Americans bought and sold slaves for "hundreds of years," that's not true. Actually, Americans legally brought slaves into the United States for 25 years. before the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 went into effect in 1808. And if we look at how many years there are from 1808 to when slavery was officially abolished in 1865, we find that was 57 years. While it was a horrible chapter in the history of the United States which culminated into the Civil War, it was no where near the "hundreds of years" that some claim.
What slowed progress in stopping slavery sooner? Well, what didn't help was when, in 1857, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney's decision in Dred Scott v. Sandford was that Africans "have no rights" and remain slaves.
While the law that went into effect in January of 1808 stopped the flow of legally bringing slaves into the United States, slavers wanting to bring in African slaves still did so illegally. Yes, those slavers were like the modern-day "coyotes" on the U.S.-Mexican border today.
Of course, I'm sure most folks don't think of Yankees when they think about slavers at the time. Most everyone that I know think all slavers were Southerners. For those unfamiliar with the term "slaver," that's a person dealing in or owning slaves. Most think of Southerners as slavers. But in reality, many a Yankee was a slaver before and after the laws under the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 went into effect.
Take for example the case of Nathaniel "The Slave Trader" Gordon. Nathaniel Gordon was born in Portland, Maine, around 1834. He is interesting in that he was the first and only American slave trader to be tried, convicted, and hanged "for being engaged in the slave trade." All in accordance with the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves of 1807 and the Piracy Law of 1820.
With the help of African chiefs, Gordon loaded 897 African slaves aboard his ship the Erie at Sharks Point on the Congo River in West Africa in mid to late July of 1860. The U.S. Navy's USS Mohican intercepted and captured Gordon's ship the Erie just 50 miles from New York where the Erie was to make port on August 8th, 1860. Yes, he was going to offload his "cargo" of illegals in New York.
His ship was captured for transporting illegal slaves, but he was actually arrested on August 8, 1860, for "piratically confining and detaining negroes with intent of making them slaves" and committing homicide. Believe it or not, he was charged with the unlawful killing of more than 30 slaves which he was trying to bring in illegally. His victims were men, women, and children.
How did he kill them? What was his method of murdering those 30 men, women, and children? Overcrowding, filth, starvation, and disease. The murders took place while at sea in July and August of 1860.
His first trial resulted in a hung jury. The second trial in the circuit court in New York City ended with a conviction on November 9, 1861. But, he wasn't convicted for the murders of those slaves. Instead, he was convicted of "piratically confining and detaining negroes with intent of making them slaves." In effect, he was convicted "for being engaged in the slave trade." He was sentenced to hang on February 7th, 1862.
On December 7, 1861, The Worcester Aegis and Transcript reported what presiding Judge W. D. Shipman had to say to Gordon when he passed his sentence. The judge stated the following:
"Let me implore you to seek the spiritual guidance of the ministers of religion; and let your repentance be as humble and thorough as your crime was great. Do not attempt to hide its enormity from yourself; think of the cruelty and wickedness of seizing nearly a thousand fellow beings, who never did you harm, and thrusting them beneath the decks of a small ship, beneath a burning tropical sun, to die in of disease or suffocation, or be transported to distant lands, and be consigned, they and their posterity, to a fate far more cruel than death.
Think of the sufferings of the unhappy beings whom you crowded on the Erie; of their helpless agony and terror as you took them from their native land; and especially of their miseries on the ---- ----- place of your capture to Monrovia! Remember that you showed mercy to none, carrying off as you did not only those of your own sex, but women and helpless children.
Do not flatter yourself that because they belonged to a different race from yourself, your guilt is therefore lessened – rather fear that it is increased. In the just and generous heart, the humble and the weak inspire compassion, and call for pity and forbearance. As you are soon to pass into the presence of that God of the black man as well as the white man, who is no respecter of persons, do not indulge for a moment the thought that he hears with indifference the cry of the humblest of his children. Do not imagine that because others shared in the guilt of this enterprise, yours, is thereby diminished; but remember the awful admonition of your Bible, "Though hand joined in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished."
While the judge understood such evil, Gordon had supporters. Many signed petitions and sent letters to appeal his conviction to President Abraham Lincoln. They wanted President Lincoln to issue a pardon. Fact is that between 1837 and 1860, there had been 74 cases of arrests made relating to the slave trade. Of those, all had been tried and very few men were convicted. And as for those convicted, they received only light sentences. Nathaniel Gordon was the first to be convicted and sentenced to death.
It's said that President Lincoln was known for his compassion. He is said to have issued a number of pardons during his presidency. This time was different. In the case of Nathaniel Gordon, President Lincoln not only refused to issue a pardon for Gordon -- he also refused to meet with anyone who had the nerve to support Gordon.
President Lincoln's statement regarding Gordon is as follows:
"I believe I am kindly enough in nature, and can be moved to pity and to pardon the perpetrator of almost the worst crime that the mind of man can conceive or the arm of man can execute; but any man, who, for paltry gain and stimulated only by avarice, can rob Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage, I never will pardon."
President Lincoln did issue a stay of Gordon's execution until February 21, 1862, so that Gordon would have time to get his affairs in order.
A few days before his execution, U.S. Marines were brought in to provide security for the hanging. On the morning before the hanging, Gordon tried to commit suicide. It's said someone smuggled strychnine poison to him. The only thing it did was make him sick. Those in charge of carrying out his sentence simply moved his scheduled hanging at noon to a few hours later at 2:30 p.m..
Of the people there that day, all were "invited guests."
At 12 o'clock, a clergyman entered Gordon's cell and prayed with him. Some say the priest prayed for him. After the priest left, Gordon dressed with some help by the authorities. Those authorities are said to have given him a "large drink of clear whiskey." After that, his arms were tied, and a black cap was put on his head. Reporters there said that he was carried out of the cell on a deputy's shoulders and set down in a chair in the corridor outside his cell. Newspapers reported that the sight of him "was simply shocking."
Because of the lingering effects of the strychnine, coupled with the whisky, he appeared almost drunk and unable to stand on his own. His gaze was said to be listless, and he seemed almost unaffected by what was taking place.
Even after the authorities read his death-warrant, he seemed disconnected from what was happening. In fact, that was so much the case that he stopped the marshal from reading his death-warrant to ask for another glass of whiskey. Believe it or not, more whiskey was given to him.
It's said that he did not whimper or cry or carry on as the deputies escorted him to the gallows. It's said that he listened to a deputy who advised him to "die like a man." With that Gordon walked to the rope just so no one could later accuse him of being a coward. In fact his bravado was noted by the newspapers, who reported Gordon saying, "Well, a man can't die but once; I'm not afraid."
The hangman's noose was carefully set under his ear, then he waited. Suddenly with a jerk, he went up into the air and then dropped to the length of the rope. His body swayed for a few moments, and all was quiet. Reports said that there were "no twitchings, no convulsions, no throes, no agonies. His legs opened once, but closed again, and he hung like a lump of dishonored clay."
Gordon's hanging seemed to trigger all sorts anti-slavery legislation being enacted. And while slavers knew that dealing in the slave trade was punishable by death since 1820, Gordon was the first and only man ever executed for the crime of slavery.
So the man who the newspapers dubbed Nathaniel "The Slave Trader" Gordon would go down in American history as the only man to be executed for the crime of slave trading. And yes, he was a Yankee.