An Antebellum Dilemma Uncovered - Part One

From William A. Percy
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“Although historians continue to debate the factors responsible for the atypical growth of the American slave population, their disagreements are less over the existence of these factors than over their relative importance. It is clear that for a variety of reasons American slaves had both higher birth raters and lower mortality rates than those elsewhere in the Americas. Among most New World slaves, deaths consistently exceeded births; in America, as we shall see in chapter 2, births [already] came to exceed deaths during the eighteenth century. During the first half of the nineteenth century, the slave population grew naturally at an annual rate of about 2 percent.” (Kolchin, p.23)

“This growth was entirely the result of natural increase, for the small number of slaves smuggled into the United States was probably exceeded by the number who escaped from slavery. What is more, although slavery disappeared from the Northern states and seemed well on the road to extinction in Delaware and parts of Maryland, in the south as a whole it showed no sign of retreat: in 1860, as in 1790, slaves constituted about one-third of the Southern population.” (Kolchin, p.94)

American exceptionalism is nowhere as unreasonable as in the discussion of the unprecedented increase in the population of African slaves. Percy has been criticizing this exceptionalism since he first arrived amongst the Yankees in 1947. Almost three score years ago when he was fourteen, he went from the heart of the Dixie in Memphis, Tennesse to Middlesex School in Concord, Massachusetts, the stronghold of Yankeedom, proud station on the Underground Railroad, home of Thoreau, Emerson and the Alcotts, where what mattered most socially was how many ancestors you had on the Mayflower. The Yankee boys – Percy was the only southerner in my entering class of 33 – quickly taught him that the Negroes, as they called them, were just as good as we: they confidently asserted that it was the Irish, their predominant servant class, who were inferior. Percy, of course, was well aware of how awful the rednecks were. After all they had tossed out his father’s uncle LeRoy as United States senator in 1912 in the first direct election to the senate in Mississippi. Theodore Bilbo had been the campaign manager for their candidate Vardaman, and even his louche father recognized that Uncle LeRoy’s greatest achievement during the 1920’s had been keeping the Klan out of Washington county, Mississippi, where the county seat Greenville was the center of the Delta. (See Revolt of the Rednecks, 1964) All gentlefolk knew how horrid lynchings were and how stupid, brutal, and corrupt the poor whites, on top since 1912, were. As his Uncle Will wrote in Lanterns on the Levee (1941), from that time forward the bottom rail (the rednecks whom he considered inferior to the blacks) was on top and was going to stay there. But they didn’t protest segregation or the Democratic white primary. Nor did Percy know how brutal and lethal slavery had been, nor even how unfair and humiliating sharecropping was, until he came to study amongst the Damn Yankees.

When he went home on vacations, he began investigations into these northern boys’ claims. Professor Falls, as everyone dutifully called him, ran the school for blacks near his grandmother’s plantation. He told Percy that it was hard to keep the students in school, even though classes were suspended for the most intensive periods of cotton labor, planting and hoeing from spring until the fourth July and picking in fall. Their parents, without education themselves, saw little need for their children to receive schooling. Besides, children became useful on the farm at about age six, and in such hard times, as in the Depression, and even early, post-WW II South – especially on such poor soil as they had near Memphis – every hand was needed. Many didn’t attend school, Professor Falls claimed to Percy's astonishment, because they lacked clothes. That reminded him that during the summers he had seen many totally nude up to puberty, as had also been common in the days of slavery and reconstruction. But that was in the late 30’s, towards the end of the depression and as rural electrification, which had reduced the birth rate, was only beginning, courtesy of the T.V.A.

During these discussions Percy's father, who saw nothing wrong with segregation except that it was enforced by rednecks instead of Bourbons, related how his uncle and guardian the Senator, who had died in 1929, had told him that his father Col. Percy, Princeton 1853, had related how slaves were being imported in great numbers up until the outbreak of The War. (We fervently hope that he was not buying them, but somebody sure was. Perhaps he did, even in spite of his Princeton education. He was hardly immune from the urgent need to enlarge or replenish his work force to keep up with the relentless demand for ever more cotton.) Uncle LeRoy told Percy's father that the Col had told him that the slaves were “broken in” in Cuba before being smuggled into the States – i.e. disciplined, taught to plow, etc., and some words of English so that they could be better exploited and belie the fact that they were recently imported. Ones transshipped from Barbados or other British islands (declining after the end of slavery there in 1833) already knew English of course.

Percy found such a claim about the large numbers of illegally imported slaves dubious, but he never forgot it. Over the years he has done work on demography in medieval Sicily, Renaissance Europe, and more recently in ancient Greece and Rome. Such work and passing acquaintance with comparative studies of slavery convinced me that the extraordinarily rapid increase in the number of African slaves in the Antebellum South, though doubtless undercounted by the census takers, could not possibly have come about by natural increase – even if all the slaves had been treated as paternalistically and benevolently as he had been taught to believe before living in Concord (Fitzhugh’s thesis Cannibals All, 1857) and learning otherwise. This dramatic increase could not even have been accounted for had all the slaveholders in the Old Dominion and other less heavily settled states of the Upper South with worn out land had concentrated exclusively on breeding, which they only very rarely did as it turns out. Never in all recorded history has the slave population grown so exponentially except, if one accepts the standard account, in the Antebellum U.S. and in Bermuda, or as some authorities say, also in the Bahamas.

Slave Population.jpg

From 1810 to 1860, the population increased by 2,819,765 people, a nearly 250% increase in fifty years, and an average of 56,935 people annually.


The reasons for this increase have long been the subject of debate. In the late twentieth century, the opinions of Philip Curtin, influenced by the demography work of J. Potter, prevailed. Asserting that the slave population was subject to a virtually unparalleled natural increase, which had already begun in certain parts of the country in the early eighteenth century, Curtin (The Atlantic Slave Trade, 1969), estimated that the nineteenth century’s staggering growth rate was nothing but a continuation of this phenomenon and that only 1,000 slaves on average were imported into the country annually after the ban. Strange allegations of slave breeding farms have also leaped out, though they have been dubious at best, and this opinion has now been judged as almost completely unsubstantiated. Both before and after independence and before the prohibition of importation, breeding was often “encouraged” in North America, even though we all know that males rarely need encouragement. Given world enough and time, some would do so continuously and unabated. If a master or owner had both male and female adult slaves, or a neighbor did, and they allowed couples to cohabit, or visit, they would breed. That was all the “encouragement” they needed. The women may or may not have been as eager, but they could be just as forced to have sex by black males as by white males. Furthermore during importation’s legal period, more men would have been brought over than women, making it difficult to rely on an adequate female population to breed the amount of children necessary to support a vast natural increase. Unfortunately, census data does not divide slave populations into male and female until 1820, so this is difficult to examine.


The ban on slave imports went into effect in 1808, as per the Constitution’s proviso, and for the first eleven years, it was upheld so poorly that it may as well have not existed. Slavers continued to bring cargo to their desirous customers. During discussions prior to the law’s signing, numerous congressmen noted that this would be exactly the case. Congressman Lowndes of South Carolina said in 1804, while his state had its own ban on imports, “With navigable rivers running into the heart of it [his State], it was impossible, with our means, to prevent our Eastern brethren, who in some parts of the Union, in defiance of the authority of the general Government, have been engaged in this trade, from introducing them into the country. The law was completely evaded, and for the last year or two Africans were introduced into the country in numbers little short, I believe, of what they would have been had the trade been a legal one.” (Spears, p. 122) Jubal Early said, “I tell you that slaves will continue to be imported as heretofore…You cannot get hold of the ships employed in this traffic. Besides, slaves will be brought into Georgia from East Florida. They will be brought into the Mississippi Territory from the bay of Mobile.” (Du Bois, p.99)


Over the arguments of whether to set slaves found to be illegally imported free or sell th at government auction, many voices raised up in support of setting them free or at least putting them into a limited term of indentured servitude. Arguing that government auction would continue to bolster the market they wished to stem, the side against sale of captured slaves claimed that the law would not serve as any detraction to the violators. Nevertheless, this decision was left in the hands of the states, many of which allowed for just such public sale, though quite belatedly, including the Alabama-Mississippi territory, passed in 1815, North Carolina, passed in 1816, Georgia, passed in 1817, and Louisiana. Proving the sound words of those against government sale, Louisiana’s law allowing public auction, with 50 percent of the proceeds going to whoever turned the slaves in, was utilized by the famous Bowie brothers not only to bring in slaves from Africa, but to then profit from the government’s sale of them.

Despite the repeated pleas of customs collectors in Georgia and Louisiana, the government was at best lax in response and at worst totally unresponsive to the knowledge of the illegal traders. The collectors gave specific information as to where the ships were coming in and to where they were sending slaves, and assured that they could stem the flow if they received approbation and assistance from the federal government, but almost none was forthcoming. The law’s oversight was not put into the hands of one department, falling first into the hands of the Secretary of the Treasury and then to the Secretary of the Navy, with sporadic interventions by the Departments of State and War, and a lack of central governance obviated a productive execution. In fact, it was not until Lincoln was president that the effort was consolidated into the hands of the Department of the Interior.

Slaves came in through Georgia, Florida, Mobile, and Galveston, from where they could easily be brought to New Orleans. A ferry from Havana to Pensacola, while Florida was still Spanish territory, made regular trips. “ On January 22, 1811, Secretary of the Navy Paul Hamilton wrote to Captain H.G. Campbell, the commanding naval officer at Charleston, S.C. saying: “I hear, not without great concern, that the law prohibiting the importation of slaves has been violated in frequent instances at St. Mary’s (Ga.), since the gunboats have been withdrawn from that station…Hasten the equipment of gunboats…and dispatch them to St. Mary’s with orders to use all practicable diligence.’” (Spears, p.123) In 1817 the trade in Galveston was reported to the Secretary of the Navy: “the slaves are smuggled in through the numerous inlets to the westward, where the people are but too much disposed to render them every possible assistance. Several hundred slaves are at Galveston, and persons have gone from New Orleans to purchase them. Every exertion will be made to intercept them, but I have little hopes of success.” (Du Bois, p. 113)

In 1818, the United States admitted failure by passing a bill described as, “An act in addition to ‘an act to prohibit the introduction of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States, from and after the first day of January in the year of our lord 1808,’ and to repeal certain parts of the same.” Ten years later, the law of 1808 had proved so ineffectual that the Federal Government felt it necessary to make a new law whose essential purpose was to uphold the original law, this time raising the penalties and offering half of all monies collected in relation to the seizure to the informer. In 1819, Congress passed a law pushing the President to send out armed ships along the United States and African coasts, granting a $100,000 appropriation . A year later, Congress passed a third bill which outlined slavery as piracy and sought to punish slavers with the death penalty, though the first man to suffer the full force of the law was Captain Nathaniel Gordon of the Erie, in 1862. A month before the 1819 bill passed, in a speech to the House, General James Tallmadge claimed, “Our laws are already highly penal against their introduction, and yet, it is a well known fact, that about fourteen thousand slaves have been brought into our country this last year.”

Known accounts of slavers in the decade 1810-1820 run strong. Louis d’Aury, occupier of Galveston Island, a known trader established with the help of Xavier Mina, ran a healthy trade from Texas and later Amelia Island in Georgia. Operating out of d’Aury’s abandoned Galveston mansion, Jean-Pierre Lafitte kept his trade alive until 1821 or 1822, his most famous customers being the Bowie brothers. We have the autobiography of Captain Richard Drake, Revelations of a Slave Smuggler, in which he relates his work in the trade from 1807 to 1857, over which time he claims to have brought over half a million slaves himself. Many are wary of relying on his work, as much of what he includes seems quite dubious, particularly his information about slave breeding farms in Florida. However, even if his half a million claim is four times larger than what he really transported, this alone would account for a 250% increase over Curtin’s annual estimate. So lucrative was the trade that Georgia governor David B. Mitchell resigned his post in 1817 to engage in the illicit practice, operating a smuggling business while serving as United States agent of the Creek Indians, an office more amenable to the trade, nestled in a remote landscape awash with rarely traveled paths seemingly perfect for the clandestine business.

The 1820’s and 1830’s were a period of sporadic international involvement for the United States. The appropriations granted in the 1819 became smaller and not quite annual. Only $11,000 was given out in 1837, with a mere $5,000 having been granted in the previous two appropriations of 1833 and 1834. Though the 1819 bill was intended to establish regular naval patrols off of Africa’s West Coast, this did not happen until 1839, and the efforts were far from exhaustive. In the immediate wake of the bill, some ships were sent over sporadically for limited patrols. One of the first ships, the Cyane, reported knowledge of one hundred slavers and herself captured five. Yet Commodore M.C. Perry of the Shark, sailing in the same year, reported no knowledge of any American slaver.

Though there was an international effort to suppress the trade, the U.S. proved to be mostly a hindrance to other nations patrolling African waters. Largely because of remnant tensions from the War of 1812, search of any ship flying an American flag was forbidden to anyone but an American naval cruiser. In fact, until well into the 1840’s, another country’s ship could not even detain anyone flying an American flag. Thus the trade ran under our flag’s protection. Captured slavers had blank American papers, ready to be filled out in just such trouble. By June of1841, the President declared that the illegal trade was on the rise, and in December of the same year he acknowledged that most likely the bulk of it was carried on under the American flag.


In August of 1842, America and Britain signed the Ashburton treaty to, “maintain in service, on the coast of Africa, a sufficient and adequate squadron or naval force of vessels, of suitable numbers and descriptions, to carry in all not less than eighty guns, to enforce, separately and respectively, the laws, rights, and obligations of each of the two countries for the suppression of the slave-trade.” (Article 8) Squadrons were assigned to regular patrols along the coast of Liberia, yet it took the U.S. eight months from the signing of the treaty to get its first command in place. British ships were still forbidden to search American ships, but the idea of “joint cruising,” a British and an American ship patrolling together, had been strongly advocated in response. It came to pass, however, that this suggestion was rarely heeded. “Says the chaplain to the African squadron in the years 1855-57, himself a believer in slavery, in his book Adventures and Observations on the West Coast of Africa (p.318): ‘The joint cruising has been from the first in spirit and letter dead. It is hardly worth while to inquire upon which party the greater blame rests in the non-fulfilment of this provision; but it is certainly true that the object of the treaty could be better carried out by a hearty and well-understood co-operation. The prevailing indifference on this subject may be seen by the following statement: the flagships of the American and British squadrons met but once, and that at sea. They were two miles apart; they recognized each other by signal, and by the same means held the following communication: ‘Anything to communicate?’… ‘Answer.-‘Nothing to communicate.’” (Spears, p.154) Worst of all, the Americans never managed to muster anywhere near as many ships as the English, and certainly not enough to be called “sufficient and adequate” to patrol the roughly 3,000 miles of coast to which they had been assigned.

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Meanwhile, the average price of slaves in the Upper South increased from $521 to $1,294: more than 100% in thirty years from 1830, and the price in the Deep South soared to nearly $1,700 by 1860.

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“Demand for bondsmen was so strong throughout the antebellum period that even with more than a 200-percent increase in the slave population from 1850 to 1860, prices, as will be seen, nearly doubled.” (Campbell, p.69) As Du Bois noted, “the enhanced price of slaves throughout the American slave market, brought about by the new industrial development and the laws against the slave-trade, was the irresistible temptation that drew American capital and enterprise into that traffic.” (p. 162) The 1850’s, seeing a growth in most sectors of agricultural commerce, brought about a revived interest in the trade. In this decade, Southerners tired of the law’s hindrance, made numerous and fervent proposals to reopen the trade. In 1859-60, the trade may have seen the largest number of transports it had in years. “Senator Stephen Douglas, the Democratic leader, said he thought that 15,000 slaves had been landed that year in the United States by North Americans. He himself claimed to have seen 300 in a pen at Vicksburg, Mississippi, and also some in Memphis, Tennessee.” (Thomas, p.771)

“The policy of pretence that prevailed in connection with the slave-trade was infinitely disgraceful to the nation.” (Spears, ix) The U.S. authorities didn’t want to admit that they could not or would not stop what might be described as the massive importation that may have peaked in 1859 and 1860, when no less than two slave ships were embarking from New York every month. (Farrow, Lang & Frank, p.123) Along with Douglas, Du Bois also made this claim. Du Bois, Douglas and my great grandfather suggested fascinatingly, without hard statistical data, very large numbers. Du Bois guessed that between 1808 and 1860, approximately 250,000 illegal slaves were imported. (Gray, p.649) He must have known many personally and known many more who knew many, many more personally. In 1859, 1860, and1861 the largest crops ever would support the theory of Du Bois and Douglas that the illegal imports surged again along with prices in 1859 and 1860. Many more slaves would have been needed to produce the crops averaging about 3.5 million after 1855 than the 2.4 million from the previous 8 years. So urgent was the need for more easily imported slaves in the South that Louisiana succeeded around 1858 to pass a bill in the House allowing a company to import 2,500 Africans for indentured servitude for “at least” fifteen years. It lost by only two votes in the Senate.

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