With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Why 1808 Marked a Pivotal Moment in US History

            The year 1808 is often overlooked when historians and commentators discuss key moments in American history.  Why was 1808 a pivotal year in American history?  Its significance has little to do with the fact that James Madison was elected to succeed his friend Thomas Jefferson as President, extending the Democratic-Republican party’s hold on the White House and increasing Federalist frustration, or with the new nation’s early drift toward future hostilities with the British.  Instead, the signal event of the year was the end of the African slave trade. Over the subsequent decades, this ban on the importation of slaves from overseas dramatically reshaped the institution of slavery in the United States.

            The end of the foreign slave trade limited forever the size of the slave population in the United States.  After 1808, the size of the nation’s slave population depended on the natural increase of the slave population and the scope of slave smuggling.  Hence southern slaveholders, eager to secure enough slave labor to cultivate their staples, knew that only practices which effectively encouraged slave reproduction could insure the continued growth of their workforce.  Once the federal ban took effect, more lower South slaveholders accepted the idea that  encouraging longevity and reproduction among slaves held the key to the future of the region’s economy.  William Johnson, a United States Supreme Court Justice and a South Carolinian, summed up these views in 1815 when he told a Charleston audience that all slaveholders should “see in the propagation of their slaves the only resource for future wealth.” 

            Moreover, this limit on size of the southern slave population prompted white southerners to reconsider possible ways of addressing what many of them still saw, in the tradition of the founders, as the problem of slavery.  After the closing off the foreign slave trade in 1808, both the upper and lower South sought answers to the slavery question in their respective regions through an internal reconfiguration of slavery.  But the two regions sought very different reconfigurations.
            With the supply of slaves now permanently limited, whites in the upper South could envision reducing their dependency on slaves and “whitening” their region through a slow but steady demographic reconfiguration of slavery, accomplished largely be selling off or “diffusing” their slaves to areas of high demand in the cotton South.  Demand for slaves in the domestic market from lower South cotton growers provided an outlet for surplus slaves from the declining tobacco regions of the upper South.  The sale of slaves from the upper South to the lower reduced the enslaved proportion of the upper South population, returned capital to the upper South, and supplying the desired labor for lower South staple growers. 

            But the newly essential internal slave trade also generated its share of tension between the upper and lower South.  Whites in the lower South resented the outflow of capital to the upper South and often suspected that upper South masters and traders dumped unhealthy, troublesome, and even incendiary slaves on the lower South market.  Thus, at times of heightened fear of slave unrest, lower South states passed legislation either banning the importation of slaves for sale altogether or restricting it significantly.  In doing so, they sought to control racial demography, preserve white security, and slow the drain of capital from the region. These efforts of lower South legislatures to restrict the interstate slave trade posed problems for the upper South’s strategy of whitening itself by selling off slaves to the lower South. 

            In the lower South, the same growing dependence on slave labor that gave rise to efforts to better control the domestic slave trade also accelerated the region’s interest in its own reconfiguration of slavery.  To achieve greater security and peace of mind, lower South whites sought not a demographic but an ideological reconfiguration of slavery, one centered around developing a better rationale for the holding and managing of slaves.  Led by a group of unlikely ideological insurgents (Christian ministers and lay leaders), this movement found expression in the ideology of paternalism.  Beginning in the early 1800s as a small but vocal group eager to “reform” slavery, the paternalist movement grew slowly to a  position of respectability and eventually to one of dominance by the late 1830s.  Paternalistic masters were expected to attend to their slaves’ spiritual welfare as well as their physical needs, most often by inculcating Christian doctrine and morality, or at least the masters’ version of them, among the enslaved.  The end of the African slave trade in 1808 made the paternalist project of  “domesticating” slavery plausible in a way unthinkable as long as large numbers of Africans continued to flow into the slave population.  Over the course of three decades, the ideology of paternalism gradually gained hard-won acceptance among lower South whites who sought an ideological reconfiguration that would render slaveholding consistent with existing republican and emerging humanitarian ideals while accepting the inevitability of the region’s reliance on slave labor. 
            To be sure, the paternalistic ideal was not the reality of plantation, farm or urban life across the slaveholding South.  The cotton boom and the rapid expansion of slavery across the lower South in these decades produced as much cruelty and as much disruption of slave family and community life as occurred in earlier generations, and as much tension between masters and slaves as ever.  But even though the precepts of paternalism were honored mainly in their breech, southern slaveholders increasingly conceived of themselves, and explained themselves to a questioning world, through the prism of paternalism.  By accelerating the emergence of paternalism as dominant social ideology in the region, the end of the foreign slave trade facilitated an ideological reconfiguration of slavery in the lower South.

            Thus the desire of whites in the upper South to whiten their region using the internal slave trade ironically cemented upper South whites’ commitment to the concept of “property in man” while lower South whites’ desire to rely heavily on slave labor and yet convince themselves that slavery was both safe and consistent with Christianity generated an ideology that reminded them that their slave property consisted of men and women, who, as southern theologian James Thornwell pointed out, “had a soul of priceless value.”  In sum, the closing of the foreign slave trade facilitated both the upper South’s desire to whiten itself and the lower South’s eagerness to “domesticate” slavery as a way of making it seem safer and less inhumane.  In doing this, the end of transatlantic slave trade reshaped the institution of slavery in antebellum America.