RECAP: “‘A terror to others’: Thomas Jefferson’s Quiet Campaign against the Slave Trade,” colloquium w/ Andrew J. B. Fagal (TJ Papers) and Craig Hollander (College of NJ)

For a figure as studied as Thomas Jefferson, relatively little ink has been spilled on his time in the executive office. We get the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis & Clark expedition in our textbooks, Jefferson Papers Associate Editor Andrew J. B. Fagal noted, and if we’re lucky, The Embargo Act. Similarly, as understandably central as Jefferson is to critical discussions of slavery’s history in the United States, attention to Jefferson and the trans-Atlantic slave trade is far scarcer. And this in spite of the fact that the international slave trade met its constitutional demise in the U.S. during the Jefferson administration.

As Fagal and College of New Jersey Associate Professor of History Craig Hollander argue in the co-authored article that they presented for the Kinder Institute’s February 5 “Contextualizing Jefferson” colloquium, Jefferson’s stance on the slave trade is its own distinct and curious matter, worthy of concentrated study. In describing what led him to the project, Hollander pointed toward the fact that U.S. participation in the foreign slave trade peaked during Jefferson’s time in office, as the cotton boom saw a geographic shift in enslavement from the Chesapeake and Upper South regions to the Old Southwest (Georgia and Mississippi) and then, post-Louisiana Purchase, into the Lower Mississippi Valley. There is, he went on to offer, a readymade explanation for this: Jefferson, a laissez-faire, states’ rights enslaver with a political power base deeply invested in the institution of slavery, at best turned a blind eye toward, and at worst was complicit in, the slave trade’s heyday. The problem, though—and the subject of the aforementioned article—is that the archives tell a much different story. Rather than involved in the early-19th-century rise of the slave trade, Jefferson, with the help of a wide range of other actors, waged a quiet but vigorous war against it during his presidential tenure.

In the early years of the Jefferson administration, this war largely, and largely unsuccessfully, played out in district courts. In 1801, for example, the Sally set sail from Charleston loaded, among other things, with muskets, handcuffs, and bolts, only to be beaten back by a storm to Nottingham, MD. With cargo that clearly exposed the ship’s captain as a slaver, Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin, and U.S. Attorney General Levi Lincoln demanded that the Maryland District Court investigate the ship for being in violation of a 1794 federal law prohibiting the trafficking of slaves between foreign ports. The law, however, proved hastily and clumsily crafted, and the judge in the case ruled in favor of the Sally’s captain on the grounds that, while the statute deemed it illegal to outfit a ship for human trafficking, it provided no clear answer to the question of when—as soon as it left port? only once human cargo was on board?—a ship could legally be considered so fitted out. Soon after, just up the eastern seaboard, a similar case unfolded after a Liverpool slave ship, the Young Ralph, was captured by French privateers and sold at auction in New York City to a Danish merchant who had notoriously financed slave voyages throughout the 1790s. Port of New York Collector David Gelston (appointed by Jefferson) seized the vessel after being tipped off to the fact that it was outfitted with handcuffs and a boiler to feed 200 people, and Jefferson demanded that Edward Livingston, U.S. District Attorney in New York at the time, try the case as, again, a violation of the 1794 anti-slave trade law. While Livingston secured testimony from multiple witnesses that the ship’s captain had told them that the Young Ralph was set to embark on a slaving voyage, Alexander Hamilton, hired as a defense attorney by the ship’s owner, successfully discredited the witness testimony as hearsay and, relying on the same strategy that worked with the Sally, pointed out that the 1794 law didn’t specify when fitting out occurs (the Supreme Court would eventually close this loophole, but only after a decade of it being exploited).

Unable to secure victories in the courts—a similarly-structured case against the Charles & Harriet was twice withdrawn in Rhode Island—Jefferson and Secretary of State James Madison turned to legislative means. Responding to claims from the U.S. Consul in Cuba that trafficking trips were being made with ease to Georgia and South Carolina in particular, the Jefferson administration promoted congressional passage of an 1803 law that essentially federalized existing state bans on the foreign slave trade (bans that all states by that point had passed). If the federal government couldn’t constitutionally abolish the slave trade until 1808, it could, Jefferson reasoned, devote its resources toward augmenting the states’ efforts to do so. And augment it did, as early 1803 saw a surge of anti-trade enforcement, with ships seized, and their owners and captains prosecuted.

Neither did this strategy achieve its desired end, however. To the outrage of the nation, it instead led to South Carolina repealing its ban on the foreign slave trade later that year, a key factor in the early-19th-century spike in international human trafficking that Hollander highlighted at the talk’s beginning, and a response to which the Jefferson administration had little recourse. Jefferson’s condemnation of the slave trade would nonetheless continue in the years after. In an 1805 letter to Navy Secretary Robert Smith, Jefferson insisted in no uncertain terms that U.S. forces should extend zero protection to any vessel engaged in slaving. In his 1806 Annual Message to Congress, Jefferson, apparently no longer inclined to wage a quiet war, openly and enthusiastically congratulated his fellow citizens on approaching the year when the slave trade would at long last no longer exist. And in 1807, he and Congress ensured this would happen via legislation that demanded that the slave trade be closed, and fines and punishments for anyone who dared still engage in it enhanced, as soon as it was constitutionally possible.

Still, Hollander and Fagal noted in closing, the question of why Jefferson did so much behind the scenes to suppress the slave trade remains unanswered. Some, they suggested, might argue that he wanted to stop the foreign traffic of slaves to increase the value of his own domestic assets, but this wouldn’t explain the energy and resources he expended to stop the traffic of enslaved persons to other parts of the world. Perhaps, they concluded, Jefferson saw it as a necessary humanitarian endeavor, if also an intensely contradictory one. Specifically, like many others of his time, Jefferson saw the Middle Passage as something far different—something far more barbaric and inhumane—than slavery itself, which might have led to the actions he took against the former in spite of his continued participation in the latter.