U.S. First Congress: Debates Slavery, 1790

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians no taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[1]

In addition, the First Congress in 1789 implicitly recognizing slavery when it enacted statues for an U.S. census and U.S. naturalization citizenship requirements. [2]

As the First Congress prepared to commence operations, emancipation advocates were seeking regulation of the slave trade or abolition of slavery while defenders of the “peculiar institution” contemplated secession if that happened. The latter’s House representation, of course, was bolstered by having their population increased by 60% (3/5th) of the number of their slaves.[3]

The emancipation advocates were led by Quakers who starting in early February 1790 “way-laid” and “assailed” Senators and Congressmen with pamphlets and diagrams of overcrowded slaves ships while urging support of anti-slavery petitions. One such petition asked Congress “with a sense of religious duty” to end “the gross national iniquity of trafficking in the persons of fellow men” and “the inhuman tyranny and blood guiltiness inseparable from it.” Another petition that was signed by Benjamin Franklin called for use of “all justifiable measures to loosen the bonds of Slavery & promote a general enjoyment of the blessings of Freedom.”

Southern reaction to these petitions was “explosive.” They accused the Quakers of “intemperate and unwarrantable meddling,” of “an intolerant spirit of persecution” against the slave states, of disloyalty and cowardice during the Revolutionary War (because on religious principles they did not bear arms) and the promotion of “Insurrections & bloodshed & persecution.” A Georgia Congressman said religion “from Genesis to Revelations” had approved of slavery.

The three petitions were referred to a House select committee, which later reported that Congress had no power to emancipate slaves or interfere with the slave trade before 1808. On the other hand, the committee said, Congress had the power to put a tax on imported slaves and thereby motivate slave-owners and slave states to improve their treatment of slaves.

Thereafter the pro-slavery forces went on the attack. Their leader quoted Scripture, suggested that nothing could be done about it, that the new country needed exports to Africa and that slaves were incapable of mastering freedom. Some of the nation’s leaders personally opposed slavery—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison-even though they were slave owners, but remained quiet in Congress because they feared loss of Southern support for other measures or a breakup of the new country.

The result? The House concluded that all power to end slavery and tax imported slaves rested with the states. In short, it was an endorsement of the status quo and the protection of slavery.

Fergus Bordewich, the author of a leading book on the First Congress, concludes that the “most consequential failure of the First Congress was its evasion of the corrosive problem of slavery. . . . Even members who loathed slavery feared that the new government could not risk an open debate on the subject without splintering . . . . [Thus,] for the next seven decades this evasion encouraged southerners to bully any northern politicians who challenged slavery by threatening secession and war, as the number of enslaved Americans swelled from 323,000 in 1790 to almost 4 million in 1861, and the moral problem of slavery became ever more deeply enmeshed with the politics of states’ rights.”[4]

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[1] The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[2] U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and U.S. Citizenship Naturalization, 1790, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 20, 2017).

[3] Bordewich, the First Congress at 3,6, 75-77, 104, 112, 124-25, 149, 151-52, 172, 178, 183, 195-96, 198-220, 223-24, 230, 244-45, 249, 276, 279-80 (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016). http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/The-First-Congress/Fergus-M-Bordewich/9781451691931

[4] Id. at 304.

U.S. First Congress: Establishment of Racial Categories for the U.S. Census and Citizenship Naturalization, 1790

Important tasks for the First Congress of the U.S. were establishing the requirements for the first census of the country and for becoming a citizen by naturalization. [1]

Anyone who has studied any American history knows that slavery existed at the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and that the Constitution’s original Article I, Section 2 apportioned representatives in the House of Representatives “according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons [i.e., slaves].” (Emphasis added.)[2]

Therefore, it should not be surprising that the very First Congress of the U.S. enacted a statute for the first U.S. census and a statute establishing requirements for becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, both of which distinguished between “white” individuals and “slaves.” Nevertheless, it was still startling for me to discover these two statutes and the subsequent history of these aspects of U.S. law.

The First U.S. Census

On March 1, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that established the following categories for the first enumeration or census: “Free white males of sixteen years and upwards, including heads of families; Free white males under sixteen years; Free white females, including heads of families; All other free persons; and Slaves.” (Emphasis added.) It also called for identifying an individual’s occupation.[3]

These provisions were not controversial. There, however, was controversy, according to Fegus Bordewich, over whether the first census “was too ambitious, too detailed, and subdivided the population into [occupational] ‘classes too minute’” and was too invasive of privacy. (P. 196)

The First Naturalization Statute

On January 8, 1790, President George Washington delivered the first State of the Union address, in which he said, “Various considerations also render it expedient that the terms on which foreigners may be admitted to the rights of citizens should be speedily ascertained by a uniform rule of naturalization.”(P. 180) [4]

Thereafter the members of the First Congress debated whether an oath of allegiance should suffice, whether there should be a residence requirement, whether there should be a national or a state-by-state requirement and whether foreign seamen could easily become citizens. The answer to these fears apparently was provided by Virginia’s Representative John Page, a large slave owner: “’It is nothing to us whether Jews, or Roman Catholics, settle amongst us; whether subjects of kings or citizens of free states wish to reside in the [U.S.], they will find it their interest to be good citizens; and neither their religious or political opinions can injure us, if we have good laws, well executed.’” (Pp. 196-97)

On March 26, 1790, the First Congress enacted a statute that limited naturalization to an “alien, being a “free white person.”(Emphasis added.) Although the statute did not define that term, it clearly excluded Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, free blacks and Asians from this method of obtaining U.S. citizenship. Other requirements were being a “resident” for one year of a state, possessing “good character,” and having taken “an oath or affirmation . . . to support the constitution of the [U.S.].” [5]

As discussed in another post, the “white” racial category (with subsequent additions of other racial categories) for naturalization remained in U.S. statutes until 1952 when Congress enacted the McCarran-Walter Act, 60 Stat. 163, 239 (1952), which states in section 311, “The right of a person to become a naturalized citizen of the United States shall not be denied or abridged because of race or sex or because such person is married.” [6]

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[1] See generally The U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 15, 2017);Fergus Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster, New York, 2016)[the above text of this post cites to to specific pages of this book].

[2]  The above provision of the original Constitution was deleted by Section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment thereto, which was adopted after the Civil War in 1868 and which states: “Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed.”

[3] An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, 1 Stat. 101 (1790),U.S. ConstitutionU https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/1st-congress/c1.pdf The “white” category has been used in every decennial census through 2010 while “slave” was used through 1840.

[4] President Washington, State of the Union Address (Jan. 8, 1790), http:www.presidency.ucsb.edu/was/?pid=29431.

[5] An Act to establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization,” 1 Stat. 103 (1790), http://library.uwb.edu/Static/USimmigration/1%20stat%20103.pdf.

[6] History of Recism in U.S. Laws Regarding United States Citizenship, dwkcommentaries.com (June 24, 2016).

U.S. First Congress: Overview, 1789-1791

The First Congress of the United States of America and thus the official commencement of the U.S. federal government under the U.S. Constitution began on March 4, 1789, and ended on March 4, 1791.[1]

This Congress’ First Session (March 4, 1789—September 29, 1989) and Second Session (January 4, 1790—August 12, 1790) took place at Federal Hall in New York City. The Third Session (December 6, 1790—March 3, 1791), at Congress Hall in Philadelphia. Below are drawings of those buildings:

Federal Hall
Federal Hall
Congress Hall
Congress Hall

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the start of the First Congress there were 22 senators and 59 representatives. After ratifications of the U.S. Constitution by North Carolina on November 21, 1789, and by Rhode Island on May 29, 1790, there were 26 senators and 64 representatives.

There were no standing committees of this Congress. Instead the Senate and House of Representatives acted as committees of the whole to consider individual bills. Thus, there are no committee reports regarding bills like those that exist today. Moreover, there are no transcripts of debates such as exist today in the Congressional Record. The record of the 94 separate pieces of legislation produced by the First Congress, however, is available in 204 pages of 1 U.S. Statutes.

In addition, the 1st Federal Congress Project at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. serves as a research/education center for the First Congress and has collected, researched, edited and published the Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, l789-l791 (DHFFC). Fergus Bordewich,the author of The First Congress, acknowledged his indebtedness to this Project, which has “brought together virtually every known piece of writing composed by or about the members of the First Congress . . . as well as the best official records of their debates.” [2]

As Mr. Bordewich puts it in The First Congress, “Beginning less than two years after the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention and before all thirteen states had ratified that document, the First Congress was charged with creating a new government almost from scratch. No one, neither in Congress nor outside it, knew if it would or could succeed. How it did so is an epic story of political combat, vivid personalities, clashing idealisms, and extraordinary determination. It breathed life into the Constitution, established precedents that still guide the nation’s government, and set the stage for political battles that continue to be fought our across the political landscape of the twenty-first century.” (P. 1)

Subsequent posts will examine the First Congress’ adoption of the first congressional proposed amendments to the U.S. Constitution; the statute creating the federal courts (the Judiciary Act of 1789); the statutes creating the requirements for the first census (An Act providing for the enumeration of the Inhabitants of the United States, 1 Stat. 101 (1790)) and an individual’s becoming a U.S. citizen (the Naturalization Act of 1790); and debates regarding slavery.

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[1] Bordewich, The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government (Simon & Schuster; New York, 2016); 1st United States Congress, Wikipedia; Federal Hall, Wikipedia; Toogood, U.S. Congress (1790-1800), Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia; 1 U.S. Stat. 23-225 (1845)  (the statutes of the First Congress).

[2] I have not done any original research regarding the First Congress other than examining the constitutional amendments it proposed and some of the statutes it enacted. Instead for the purpose of this and subsequent posts I have relied on Mr. Bordewich’s book, but I confess that it would be fascinating to examine the records at the 1st Federal Congress Project.

 

Early U.S. Desire To Own or Control Cuba Driven by U.S. Slaveholders

A new book documents that before the Civil War, “Southern politicians and pro-slavery ambitions shaped the foreign policy of the United States in order to protect slavery at home and advance its interests abroad.” The book is “This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy” by Matthew Karp, Assistant Professor of History at Princeton University.[1]

According to the book’s review in the Wall Street Journal, in this era, “Cuba was a particular obsession for pro-slavery policy makers. The island’s wealth was fabulous—in the 1850s, it produced fully a quarter of the world’s sugar—and slavery was firmly established there. American diplomats tried for years to purchase the island outright and forestall any attempt at emancipation by Cuba’s Spanish rulers. ‘We regard an attempt . . . to blast with the plague of emancipation that garden of the West, as a crime against civilization,’ wrote the Charleston Mercury, a frequent mouthpiece for pro-slavery opinion.”

Indeed, says Karp, few southern leaders “believed that the United States could digest a meal so unpalatable as a free black Cuba.”

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[1] Harvard Univ. Press, This Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy (Sept. 2016); Bordewich, Dixie’s Foreign Policy, W.S.J. (Dec. 12, 2016).

Honoring Victims of Racial Lynchings and Injustice 

On August 16 the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) of Montgomery Alabama announced plans for two projects honoring victims of U.S. racial lynchings and injustice.[1]

One is the Memorial for Peace and Justice to honor the over 4,000 black victims of lynchings that will sit on six acres, the highest spot in Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy. The memorial will be a large, four-sided gallery of 801 six-foot columns hanging in the air as if from trees like a lynching. Each column will represent a U.S. county where a lynching took place and be etched with the name(s) of the person(s) lynched. Here is a rendering of the memorial and a map showing the locations of the lynchings.

national-lynching-memorial-2

map-of-73-years-of-lynching-1423543271115-master495

An adjacent field will have duplicates of those columns, which will be offered as a challenge to be moved to the home counties of the lynchings; those that remain will be silent rebukes to the places that refuse to acknowledge their history of lynching.

The other project is a museum, “From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration,” which is scheduled to open completely next April in EJI’s 11,000-square-foot headquarters in Montgomery. Tracing the country’s racial history from slavery to the era of mass incarceration, it will contain high-tech exhibits, artifacts, recordings, and films, as well as a comprehensive database and information on lynching and racial segregation. Its virtual reality stations will enable people to understand what it was like to be in the cargo hold of a slave trafficking ship, to endure angry taunts during a lunch counter sit-in and to sit in a contemporary overcrowded prison. Below are photographs of one part of the museum and of jars of dirt from sites of lynchings.

 

from-enslavement-to-mass-incarceration

 

jars of dirt

As reported by Montgomery’s newspaper, the founder and Executive Director of EJI, Bryan Stevenson, said, “Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”

StevesnsonStevenson is a widely acclaimed public interest lawyer. (To the right is a photograph of Stevenson and the cover of his highly acclaimed book, Just Mercy.) His work fighting poverty and challenging racial discrimination in the criminal justice system has won him numerous awards including the ABA Wisdom Award for Public Service, the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship Award Prize, the Olaf Palme International Prize, the ACLU National Medal Of Liberty, the National Public Interest Lawyer of the Year Award, the Gruber Prize for International Justice and the Ford Foundation Visionaries Award. He is a graduate of the Harvard Law School and the Harvard School of Government, has been awarded 16 honorary doctorate degrees, and is a Professor of Law at New York University School of Law.[2]

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[1] EJI, EJI Announces Plans To Build Museum and National Lynching Memorial (Aug. 16, 2016); Robertson, Memorial in Alabama Will Honor Victims of Lynchings, N.Y. Times (Aug. 15, 2016); Troyan, National memorial to lynching victims to be built in Montgomery, Montgomery Advertiser (Aug. 16, 2016); Edgemon, Nation’s first memorial to lynching victims set for Montgomery, al.com (Aug. 16, 2016); Toobin, Justice Delayed, New Yorker (Aug. 22, 2016).

[2] There is a lot about Stevenson in the previously cited New Yorker article by Jeffrey Toobin and in two previous blog posts: Bryan Stevenson’s Amazing Advocacy for Justice, dwkcommentaries.com (Jan. 19, 2016); Evaluating Bryan Stevenson Through the Prism of President Obama’s Howard University Speech, dwkcommentaries.com (May 4, 2016).

Caveats to Celebration of the American Declaration of Independence

United_States_Declaration_of_IndependenceJuly 4, 1776, is a treasured date in American history with the Continental Congress’ adoption of the Declaration of Independence. It stirringly says, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The creation and adoption of this document deserves the annual celebration it receives in the United States of America and around the world.

There, however, should be caveats to that celebration.

First, as others have pointed out, the Declaration did not condemn slavery which is not surprising since there were many slaves in the colonies.

Moreover, as Robert G. Parkinson, Assistant Professor of History at Binghamton University, argues, the failure to condemn slavery was no accident.[1]

First, the draft of the Declaration by Thomas Jefferson, a slave owner himself, contained an attack on King George III for imposing slavery on the colonists, but those words were deleted in the final document by the Continental Congress.

Second, the Declaration’s lengthy bill of particulars against the King that justified the colonists’ declaration of independence ended with these words:

  • “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” (Emphasis added.)

According to Parkinson, “in the context of the 18th century, ‘domestic insurrections’ refers to rebellious slaves.” This provision in the bill of particulars was inserted, says Parkinson, “because in the 15 months between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and independence, reports about the role African-Americans and Indians would play in the coming conflict was the most widely discussed news. And British officials all over North America did seek the aid of slaves and Indians to quell the rebellion.”[2]

Important in this “inciting” of “domestic insurrections” was the November 14, 1775, proclamation by the Royal Governor of the Colony of Virginia offering freedom to slaves who would leave their masters and join the British side. Although only an estimated 800 slaves immediately joined the British in Virginia as a result of this Proclamation, eventually as many as 30,000 slaves throughout the colonies did so and worked as soldiers, laborers, pilots, cooks, and musicians for the British.[3]

After the end of the American Revolutionary War in 1783, the British evacuated all of their personnel from Manhattan plus 3,000 former black slaves or Black Loyalists who were listed in “The Book of Negroes.”[4]

Parkinson’s fascinating article has created another project for me: reading his book, “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution” (2016); re-reading Pauline Maier’s book, “American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence” (1997); and writing blog posts to summarize the results of this and other additional research.

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[1] Parkinson, Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence?, N.Y. Times (July 4, 2016).

[2] The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2013).

[3] Ibid.

[4] The American Revolutionary War’s End in New York City, 1783, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 14, 2012); The Fate of Black British Loyalists in the American Revolutionary War, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 19, 2013). The historical “Book of Negroes” became an inspiration for a novel with the same name (in Canada (but “Someone Knows My Name” in the U.S.) by Canadian author, Lawrence Hill. (The Black British Loyalists Through the Eyes of Novelist Lawrence Hill, dwkcommentaries.com Feb. 21, 2013): Further Reflections on “The Book of Negroes” Novel, dwkcommentaries.com (Feb. 23, 2013).)

Exploring Sub-Saharan African History

 I am currently taking a brief course, “Sub-Saharan African History to Colonialism,” to learn about such history “from many angles: anthropological, historical, geographic, cultural, and religious. From human origins through the populating of the continent, the great civilizations, the slave trades, to the beginning of European domination.” Offered by the University of Minnesota’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI), the course’s instructor is Tom O’Toole, Emeritus Professor of Sociology and Anthropology of Minnesota’s St. Cloud State University.

Why does this Euro-American septuagenarian take this course? Foremost, I know virtually nothing about this history and want to know more. I also realize that I have various direct and indirect connections with Africa.

The most immediate precipitating cause is reading the discussion of the names of African and African-American intellectuals and historical figures that were discovered at Howard University by African-American author Ta-Nehisi Coates and recounted in his book “Between the World and Me” and my realizing that I did not know virtually any of these people. This book also has prompted me to research and investigate my own notions of race, including my recent posts about statements from the American Anthropological Association about race’s non-scientific basis and historical and cultural background. Further posts about notions of race are forthcoming.

I learned more about one of these figures of African history this spring when my 10th-grade grandson wrote a History Day paper on Mansa Musa, who was a 14th century Emperor or King of Mali. Moreover, one of my sons knows more about this history from his having studied African history and Swahili at the University of Minnesota and from spending a semester in Kenya with a program of the National Outdoor Leadership School and then a week on his own living with a Maasai tribesman in that country.

Coates also legitimately castigates the U.S. history of slavery and its lasting impacts on our country. This has underscored my interest in the importation of slaves from Africa to the Western Hemisphere. This was part of Lawrence Hill’s fascinating novel “The Book of Negroes” (“Someone Knows My Name”), about which I have written. Moreover, I have visited Matanzas, Cuba and Salvador, Brazil, which were major ports of importation of African slaves to work on sugar plantations in those countries.

I have a number of friends from West Africa (Cameroon, Nigeria and Ghana) and visited Cameroon on a mission trip from Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. There I learned about the country’s having been a German colony (Kamerun) in the 19th century and then having French and British administration under League of Nations mandates after Germany was stripped of its African colonies by the 1919 Treaty of Versailles ending World War I. Forty-plus years later Cameroon became an independent country with the joinder of the Francophone and Anglophone territories. Yet life today in the country is still affected by the language and cultural differences from the French and British governance and less so by the previous 30-plus years of German rule.

I also have visited Namibia, Botswana and South Africa focused primarily on observing their magnificent wildlife and nature, but also the prison on Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other African National Congress leaders were imprisoned during the years of apartheid. In addition, I had the opportunity to see and hear Mandela speak at a 2003 celebration of the centennial of the Rhodes Scholarships held at Westminster Hall in London and to see him escorted through the Hall’s audience, only 10 feet from me and my wife, by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair.

The visit to South Africa also included stopping at Cecil Rhodes’ Cottage and Museum at Mulzenberg overlooking False Bay and the Indian Ocean at the southwest corner of the country. (My interest in Cecil Rhodes, the Founder of the Scholarships, and his 19th century involvement in South Africa and Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) stems from being a Rhodes Scholar who was “up” at Oxford, 1961-1963, and from my gratitude for being a beneficiary of his largess.)

While co-teaching international human rights law at the University of Minnesota Law School, I learned about the International Criminal Court, whose initial cases all came from Africa, thereby prompting some resistance from African leaders who thought this was anti-African discrimination. (I have written many blog posts about the ICC.) Previously I had been a pro bono lawyer for two Somali men’s successful applications for asylum in the U.S.

Other indirect connections are provided by three Grinnell College classmates. One became a professor of African history. Another served in Africa with the Peace Corps in Ethiopia, where he met his English wife serving in a similar British program and where they both frequently return to participate in a project of preparing and distributing audio textbooks for blind students. The third classmate, also in the Peace Corps, served in Mali, where he was involved in smallpox eradication. In addition, one of my Grinnell roommates from Chicago now lives in South Africa.

All of these direct and indirect connections with Africa provided additional motivation to learn more about its history. In a subsequent post I will attempt to summarize the key points of this brief exploration of African history.