Among the low points at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 was the decision to include in the Constitution language that extended the slave trade for eight more years—until 1808—meaning that from 1788, when the Constitution was ratified, to 1808, many thousands of slaves were legally imported into America.
Unfortunately, even after 1808 when the slave trade became illegal, it still flourished, mostly because it was so profitable the laws against it weren’t enforced. And on those rare occasions when slave traders were caught and tried, they were usually acquitted or pardoned. As the historian Don Fehrenbacher once wrote, the reason was simple: anti-slavery was merely a sentiment; slavery was an interest.
And a national interest at that. Although, unlike the South, the North had mostly weaned itself from the labor of slaves, the transporting of slaves was another matter. Northern shipping interests in New York, Massachusetts and elsewhere made fortunes carrying slaves from Africa to the American South, fortunes they had no intention of jeopardizing just because the year 1808 had arrived.
And so the illegal slave trade flourished as politicians from all sections of the country averted their eyes—until, in 1861, a politician named Abe Lincoln was elected president on the platform of ending slavery’s expansion. To Lincoln that included, at the very least, enforcing current anti-slavery laws.
Lincoln intended to rigorously pursue illegal slave traders on the high seas and bring them to justice, but he had one problem. He was fighting a civil war against 11 Confederate states that had seceded from the Union in great part because of his stand on slavery. As a result the few seaworthy ships the Union possessed were needed for the war effort.
So Lincoln made a deal. This week (July 11) in 1862 he signed a treaty with Great Britain that gave British ships permission to search and seize American ships carrying slaves as cargo. Britain, of course, possessed the world’s greatest navy and it had already outlawed its own slave trade.
To say the least allowing the British navy to ignore American sovereignty at sea was a tough decision, made tougher because just seven months earlier America and Great Britain had almost gone to war over a naval sovereignty issue when an American vessel boarded a British vessel, the Trent, and arrested two Confederate diplomats traveling to Britain to lobby for British aid. To avoid war with Britain, Lincoln had quickly backed down, freeing the diplomats, so once again having to accede to British naval superiority was undoubtedly painful.
But allowing the American slave trade to continue was more so. Slavery may have been an interest but Lincoln was guided by a principle.