Jefferson Davis vetoes a slave-trade bill
On February 28, 1861, in Montgomery, Alabama, the newly-installed President of the newly-established Confederate States of America contemplated one of the first proposed Confederate laws sent him by the new Congress. Under the bill’s terms, importing black people into the Confederacy as slaves (except from the non-seceded slave states of the United States) was declared a crime. That is, no kidnapped Africans were to be brought to the Confederacy. If this did happen, the importers were to be punished, the black people were to be confiscated and the Confederate President was to follow certain steps to get the Africans shipped to Africa or a free area.
If that option didn’t work, the confiscated black people were to be sold as slaves in some state where such sales were legal.[i]
President Jefferson Davis considered the bill and compared it to the Confederacy’s Provisional Constitution (a “permanent” Constitution would be adopted early in 1862). He probably also considered the political background of the bill.
Let’s go back a bit, to 1858, but still in Montgomery. A “Southern commercial convention” met on the premises of the West Point company railroad from May 10 to May 14. Meeting on railway premises may have seemed appropriate for the 710 delegates, since these commercial conventions were theoretically focused on the economic development of the South, including building up rail systems and industry. In practice, these conventions had become a forum for secessionist radicals. One of these radicals, William Lowndes Yancey of Alabama, wrote to another prominent radical, the editor James D. B. De Bow, that Yancey would prefer, over all topics, to debate the re-opening of the African slave trade.[ii]
Since 1808, the importation of enslaved Africans to the United States had been illegal. Scholars generally think this law was largely adhered to, outside of some dramatic examples. Americans still had complicity in the slave trade, but generally not the slave trade to this country. Slave traffickers, many based in New York and using Northern (including New England) ships and crew, brought captured Africans to Brazil and Cuba as slaves, the focus being on Cuba by the late 1850s. This human trafficking was helped by the fact that unlike other countries, the U. S. had not authorized the British navy to search their vessels for evidence of slaving, and the British were the foremost power when it came to fighting the African trade.[iii]
Yancey didn’t want Brazil and Cuba to have the sole benefit of this trafficking in human souls. He wanted to bring Africans to the United States – legally. Biographer Eric Walther calls Yancey’s 1858 speech in Montgomery his “longest oratorical effort” in an entire lifetime. Rebutting the nervous nellies who thought that agitating the African slave-trade issue would alienate the South’s strongest supporters among Northern Democrats, Yancey said that the Northern Democrats were too weak and unreliable to support the South anyway. At one point Yancey claimed he merely wanted to remove the importation ban’s implied stigma against slavery – “If slavery is right per se, if it is right to raise slaves for sale, does it not appear that it is right to import them?” An import ban made it easier for the South’s Northern enemies to attack slavery in general. Then there were the alleged economic benefits of bringing in more cheap slaves to work in the cotton states, and the political benefit of making slave-ownership more widespread among the whites, reducing the danger of a division between slaveowning whites and poorer non-slaveholders.[iv]
The convention took no action on Yancey’s ideas, but the radicals in attendance had been roused. In the next commercial convention, in 1859 in Vicksburg, De Bow picked up the banner from the now-sick Yancey and preached the African trade to a receptive audience. Convention attendees voted 44-19 to support reopening the African trade.[v]
Moving ahead to January 1861, we find a revived Yancey in Montgomery, attending the Alabama secession convention. By now Yancey had changed his tune on the African slave trade. He explained to other secessionist delegates that when he’d raised the issue of the African trade, the South was vulnerable because of its political connection to a hostile North, and no concessions could safely be made to anything resembling antislavery sentiment. Now, though, with a new slaveholding Confederacy free of Northern entanglements, the South could afford to give up its African-slave-trade agitation. More bluntly, one might speculate that Yancey no longer needed to promote the African trade to drive a wedge between South and North and promote secession. Secession being accomplished, Yancey could stop agitating the issue. The Alabama Convention, with Yancey’s backing, resolved to oppose the African trade.[vi]
Even so, support for importing Africans still persisted in some Confederate quarters, though other Southern leaders were against it. Humanitarian concerns about the Middle Passage, fears of new imports of potentially-rebellious new slaves, fears of foreign (especially British) opinion, and the availability of upper-South states like Virginia as sources of cotton-belt slaves, all argued against reviving the African traffic. Virginia and other slave-exporting states might be alienated by attempts to allow competition with their slave supply.
Shortly after the Alabama secession meeting, Montgomery became the capital of the new Confederacy – at the time consisting of South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Georgia, Florida and Texas. Items of business included drawing up a provisional Constitution and electing a President under that Constitution. One item of debate in drafting the provisional Constitution was the African trade. Supporters of the African trade wanted to adopt language drawn from the U. S. Constitution, empowering but not requiring Congress to limit the importation of Africans. That would open the door to legalization. However, most of the delegates would only let Congress legalize foreign slave imports from the as-yet-unseceded slave states of the United States.[vii] The Provisional Constitution ultimately read: “The importation of African negroes from any foreign country other than the slave-holding States of the United States, is hereby forbidden; and Congress are required to pass such laws as shall effectually prevent the same” (the so-called “Permanent” Constitution would include a similar provision).[viii]
Jefferson Davis was elected the Confederate President, and a Confederate Congress got to work passing bills. A bill reported in Congress duly banned the importation of black Africans as slaves. Under the bill, once a slaver was caught trying to import Africans into the Confederacy, then in addition to prosecuting the slaver, the Confederate President would have to find a proper way to dispose of the Africans without cost to the Confederate treasury. The first option, in case the slave ship had initially sailed from a port in a U. S. state, was to offer the Africans to that state in exchange for an assurance that the Africans would be sent back to their continent or enjoy the rights of freemen in the U. S. The second option was to find some private philanthropist or philanthropic association to resettle the Africans in Africa.[ix]
Up to this point, the bill might seem in line with Davis’ own ideas. With its insistence that liberated Africans not become the financial responsibility of the Confederate government, the Confederate Congress was following a policy advocated by then-Senator Jefferson Davis in the United States Congress on the eve of secession. By mid-1860, the U. S. Navy had captured several slaving vessels which were trying to bring Africans to Cuba. The U. S. put almost 1,500 rescued Africans in Key West, Florida while their fate was debated in Congress. The Buchanan administration, following prior U. S. policy, wanted to send the liberated captives to Liberia under the auspices of the American Colonization Society (ACS), using federal funds to support them in their new home for a year. Senator Davis objected – “Charity begins at home. I have no right to tax our people in order that we may support and educate the barbarians of Africa.” President Buchanan’s proposal passed Congress, though, and the dissenting votes (like Davis’) largely came from Southerners.
Based on now-President Davis’ voting record in the U. S. Senate, the Confederate Congressmen may have anticipated that Davis would appreciate the slave-trade bill’s emphasis on deporting liberated Africans without cost to Southern taxpayers. And in providing an option to settle liberated Africans in the North, the Congressmen, echoing Davis in 1860, may have been trollishly taunting the North for hypocrisy and racism – the North was seemingly being mocked for being involved in the illegal slave trade while refusing to let freed Africans live in Northern territory. Davis had sneered in 1860: “Turn them [the Key West captives] loose among those who claim that there is no distinction of color and no distinction of race. Let them have them to their hearts’ content.”[x]
Even if President Davis liked the money-saving and North-baiting parts of the Confederate slave-trade bill, another provision met his objection. Under the bill, if the North or private associations failed to deport or free captured Africans without charge to the Confederacy, the Africans were to be sold off as slaves in some Confederate state where the sale was permitted. “This provision seems to me,” said Davis’ veto message, “to be in opposition to the policy declared in the [Provisional] Constitution – the prohibition of the importation of African negroes – and in derogation of its mandate to legislate for the effectuation of that object.”[xi]
President Davis may have had more than constitutional reasons for his veto. He expected Great Britain to support the Confederacy thanks to its dependence on cotton and its presumed happiness at seeing its U. S. rival divided.[xii] Davis wouldn’t want to alienate Britain by challenging that country’s anti-slave-trade policy, backed by the Royal Navy. Nor would Davis have wanted to antagonize the upper-South states which stood to lose from competition from the African slave market.
The reaction to Davis’ veto indicates that the bill may indeed have been responsive to lingering African-trade sentiment, and may to some of its supporters have been a way to sneak in the trade by a back door. William C. Davis, historian of the Confederacy’s founding, writes: “Some, especially the South Carolinians, would condemn it [the veto] roundly and hint that Davis secretly favored emancipation.” Tom Cobb of Georgia deliberately burned his bridges with the Davis administration with an unsuccessful attempt to override the veto – the veto was sustained on March 2. William Davis also writes that “in the slave trade debate, some coalitions – it was too soon to call them parties yet – began to emerge, chiefly the more radical eastern cotton states versus the western Gulf and Mississippi states.”[xiii]
As it turned out, the question of importing Africans into the Confederacy was quite academic. The Northern blockade would have deterred slave-traders from seeking a Confederate market. Politically, though, Davis’ veto was the last stage of an agitation of the issue by Southern extremists, who turned out to be too “out there” even for the slave republic of the Confederacy.
[i] “Jefferson Davis’ Veto,” Civil War Emancipation, February 28, 2011, Jefferson Davis’ Veto | Civil War Emancipation (wordpress.com).
[ii] Eric H. Walther, William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2006, 214-15, 219; Eric H. Walther, The Fire-Eaters. Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 1992, 217.
[iii] For the involvement of Americans in the slave-trade from Africa to Brazil and Cuba, see generally, Warren S. Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1963; Leonardo Marques, The United States and the Transatlantic Slave Trade to the Americas, 1776-1867, New Haven, Yale University Press 2016; Dale T. Graden, Disease, Resistance and Lies: The Demise of the Transatlantic Slave Trade to Brazil and Cuba, Baton Rouge, LSU Press, 2014.
[iv] Walther, Yancey, 215-19.
[v] Walther, Yancey, 220-21; Walther, Fire-Eaters, 218.
[vi] Walther, Yancey, 291.
[vii] William C. Davis, “A Government of Our Own”: The Making of the Confederacy, New York, The Free Press, 1994, 86-87, 105.
[viii] “Confederate States of American – Constitution for the Provisional Government,” Avalon Project, Avalon Project – Confederate States of America – Constitution for the Provisional Government (yale.edu); “Constitution of the Confederate States of America,” Constitution of the Confederate States of America – The U.S. Constitution Online – USConstitution.net. The African slave trade clause is in Article I, Section 7 of the Provisional Constitution and Article 1, Section 9 of the “Permanent” Constitution.
[ix] William C. Davis, 234; “Jefferson Davis’ Veto,” Civil War Emancipation, February 28, 2011, Jefferson Davis’ Veto | Civil War Emancipation (wordpress.com).
[x] Ted Maris-Wolf, “’Of Blood and Treasure’: Recaptive Africans and the Politics of Slave-Trade Suppression,” Journal of the Civil War Era, Vol. 4, No. 1 (March 2014), 53-83. The “Charity begins at home” quote is on p. 67. The “hearts’ content” quote is on p. 74.
[xi] “Confederate States of America – Veto Message February 28, 1861 (Slave Trade), Avalon Project,
Avalon Project – Confederate States of America – Veto Message February 28, 1861 (Slave Trade) (yale.edu); William C. Davis, 234.
[xii] William J. Cooper, Jr. Jefferson Davis, American, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 2002, 336.
[xiii] William C. Davis, 234-35.
6 Responses to Jefferson Davis vetoes a slave-trade bill
Excellent article. I learned something today.
Thank you for this interesting and informative post. Keep them coming.
Norman Vickers, Pensacola Civil War Roundtable
Very good post and analysis. It’s also documented that from Day One of his Presidency (Nov ’61), the Davis was discussing emancipation in return for support from Britain/France, so his mindset was firmly in the camp of emancipation. These efforts continued until March ’65, and weren’t successful in an environment of complex political turmoil (or excuses) in both countries. However, Davis clearly believed that direct free trade with Europe would set the economic stage for emancipation.
Fascinating article. Thank you.
Optics: the appearance of some state of affairs, versus its true interaction with reality. Also known as “public perception.”
Jefferson Davis was acknowledged as a Constitutional Scholar, who commenced his study of the U.S. Constitution at West Point, and continued that course, mostly via self-education, throughout his life. Although an acknowledged antebellum ambition of Southern Elites was the reinstitution of the African Slave Trade (as proclaimed at numerous Southern Agricultural Conventions and Commercial Conventions), Provisional-President Davis knew that “timing was important.” In February 1861 a Peace Convention was held in Washington D.C., which had potential to reward the seceded States with a majority of their demands, possibly resulting in their return to the fold (similar to what occurred as result of the Nullification Crisis of 1831/2.) Also, the Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States was practically a copy of the U.S. Constitution (and Provisional-President Davis could not, in good faith, support a bill that ran counter to his own Constitution.)
The point being: OPTICS in February 1861 were important. TIME would TELL whether further action in regard to Provisional Laws (and amendment to the Provisional Constitution) were required. See the attached link and read “Davis’s concerns about compatibility of the proposed Bill with the Provisional Constitution” carefully https://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/csa_v022861.asp
Among the many hypocrisies of slavery pre-Civil War, it was okay and perhaps even beneficial to own slaves, but bad to trade them on an international basis. Just as with slave traders themselves within the US. They were looked down on in polite Southern society, but it was still okay otherwise to own slaves.