Prologue Magazine

Living with the Hydra

The Documentation of Slavery and the Slave Trade in Federal Records

Winter 2000, Vol. 32, No. 4

By Walter B. Hill, Jr.


refer to caption

George Washington Williams's History of the Negro in American from 1619 to 1880 viewed slavery as a legal and political problem at the core of the new federal government. (Author's collection)

In 1883 George Washington Williams published his History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880. Williams was a member of the first generation of African Americans to study, research, and write the history of the Negro in America. Williams's career began in the military with service in the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War, enlistment with the Army of the Republic of Mexico against the Emperor Maximilian, and further service with the Tenth U.S. Cavalry in the West. After a short academic stay at Howard University, he graduated on June 10, 1874, as an ordained minister from the Newton Theological Institute near Boston.1 While in Boston as a student and minister, Williams became active in the politics and discussion of race and democracy and established a journal to speak for the African American community. In September 1875, Williams's journal, The Commoner, appeared. Mounting debts forced its closure, and shortly thereafter in February 1876, the Union Baptist Church of Cincinnati, Ohio, called Williams to serve as pastor. There he entered into state politics, serving a term in the legislature, but soon gave it up to pursue the study of his people.

George Washington Williams must be understood as a significant figure in the evolution of the researching, writing, and interpreting the history of African American people in the United States. His book established a standard for African American history in the nineteenth century, and scholars of the twentieth century developed many of the themes he founded. He emerged as perhaps the first historian and writer of the African American experience in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to conclude that slavery poisoned the entire fabric of American society, corrupting its people and laws, setting the nation on a dangerous path to conflict, and damaging the American psyche regarding race.2 Unlike most of his contemporaries, Williams believed that the U.S. government bore much of the responsibility for the maintenance of the institution. He adhered to the ideological tradition of the Garrisonians that interpreted the United States Constitution as a protective device for slavery.3 He believed that the institution should have been abolished with the establishment of the government, thus avoiding the insidious conflict that ultimately engulfed the nation decades later. In detailing his research on the constitutional convention, he wrote

I have brought the first volume down to the close of the 18th Century, detailing the great struggle through which the slavery problem passed. I have given as fair an idea of the debate on this question, in the convention that framed the Constitution, as possible. It was then and there that the hydra of slavery struck its fangs in the Constitution; and once inoculated with the poison of the monster, the government was only able to purify itself in the flames of a great civil war. . . . Unable to destroy slavery by constitutional law, the best thought and effort of this period were directed against the extension of the evil in the territory beyond the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri Rivers. . . . [H]aving pledged the Constitution to the protection of slave property, it required a superhuman effort to confine the evil to one section of the country. Like a loathsome disease it spread itself over the body politic until our nation became the eyesore of the age, and a byeword [sic] among the nations of the world. The time came when our beloved country had to submit to heroic treatment, and the cancer of slavery was removed by sword.4

George Washington Williams discussed slavery as a legal and political problem for the new government. While colonists and later Americans may have differed on their views about slavery and the enslavement of Africans, the institution nonetheless operated under the guise of the colonial statutory law in the thirteen colonies before the American Revolution. In chapter 31, "Slavery as a Political and Legal Problem," Williams assessed the new government's efforts to both protect and provide some sense of a restriction for the growth and spread of slavery. He saw a government paralyzed by pro-slavery thinking and action and great national leaders and important figures unwilling to set themselves apart to denounce slavery. While he lauded the words and intent of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, Williams also recognized that "from the earliest moment of the birth of the United States government, slavery began to receive political support and encouragement."5 He discussed the protective clauses skillfully embedded in the Constitution and the growing political and legal boundaries established by the courts and Congress to guide and protect the interests of the slaveholding class. In Williams's metaphorical style and language, politics and culture breathed the vapors of slavery and infected the entire thought and values of Americans who believed that humans could be held as property. He believed the Civil War acted as a catharsis for America and saved the nation's soul. Despite the growing contamination of society and culture, the federal government's role and position remained paramount to Williams.

Williams understood the centrality of the government and used its published records to condemn it for maintaining slavery. Modern scholars and students of slavery have the distinct advantage of using sources unavailable to Williams's generation. With the establishment of the National Archives in 1934, the documented heritage of the United States not only became permanently preserved but also opened an amazing window to scholarship and research into America's past. Federal records document the business of the governing bodies during the American Revolution, the establishment of the new official government in 1789, the evolving structure and administration of the government, and its relationships with the American people and the governments of the world. When the framers of the Constitution protected slavery, they left a paper trail that detailed the legal and political complexity of the octopus-like institution. Most agencies of the new but small and growing government had to tackle multifaceted issues posed by slavery and the international slave trade. The documentation of these actions is preserved in the records of the National Archives and Records Administration.

By the time of the American Revolution, slavery had existed in British mainland North America for a century and a half. It had become a vibrant social and economic institution, accepted and practiced in all of the thirteen colonies.6 While the Revolution centered on the struggle for independence from British rule, it had critical implications for the slave trade and slavery and the status of black people in general. As the war progressed, manumission and the status of free people became intensely discussed and debated issues. The Continental Congresses, the first formal national governing institution (First Congress: September 5–October 26, 1774; Second Congress: May 10, 1775–March 2, 1781), addressed the multiple issues spawned by slavery. One of the first actions regarding slavery came about in a 1774 resolution banning slave importation and forbidding Americans to participate in the slave trade.

Congress and the military command soon grappled with the recruitment and arming of blacks for the Continental Army. Blacks, free and slave, were serving in the various military organizations of the individual colonies before those who opposed their service could question their enlistment. Gen. George Washington and the military command of the Continental Army raised objections to their service, and in September 1775 the Continental Congress debated the enlistment or rejection of blacks. No coherent or consistent stance emerged; consequently, the Congress followed the policy of leaving the matter to the various colonies. Each debated the questions of whether service gave slaves their freedom and if free blacks should be allowed to serve. Slaveholders objected to any consideration of offering freedom to slaves in exchange for military service. The British use of slaves influenced most colonies to consider enlisting slaves, and by late 1775 General Washington departed from established policy of refusing enlistment of free blacks and began accepting them. He remained, however, ambivalent regarding slaves. The enlistment of free blacks and slaves remained a contested issue in the Continental Congress, and individual colonies throughout the war struggled with it because of the questions of freedom for slaves and the possible abolition of slavery. Despite this debate, more than five thousand slaves and free blacks served, with many gaining their freedom, and the Continental Congress and the Continental Army praised their service.7

The escape of slaves and the British evacuation of them emerged quickly as a contentious issue in the Continental Congress. Slaveholders from the New England, Middle Atlantic, and in particular the upper and lower southern colonies sent numerous complaints and petitions to Congress seeking redress and greater protective measures for their property. They besieged Washington with requests to assist in the reclaiming of their slaves from the British. The formal resolution of this matter in the Treaty of Paris, Article VII, prohibited the British from carrying off "negroes or other property belonging to the inhabitants of the United States of America."8

Article VII failed to resolve the contentious problem. Throughout the remainder of the eighteenth century into the first decades of the nineteenth, the two nations attempted to negotiate, make proposals, and offer compensation; however, none of these worked. At the center of the discussion surrounding the Treaty of Paris (1783) and Jay Treaty (1794) rested the question of who had legal ownership of the slave refugees removed during the war. The British held out the promise of freedom and declared that slaves who came within British lines were by the laws of war British property. The federal government held contrary views, contending that such flight failed to change their status as slaves and remove ownership from American slaveholders.9 The War of 1812 exacerbated the problem because Great Britain again issued freedom proclamations, recruited slaves to fight, and resettled them in their colonies when hostilities ceased. The dispute over property and slaves lost during the war and the issue of Great Britain's failure to honor the 1783 and 1794 treaties surfaced in the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814. The two nations failed to agree on a settlement and referred to the emperor of Russia for arbitration. On April 22, 1822, the emperor ruled in favor of the United States. A mixed claims commission was established on June 30, 1822, to determine the validity of claims and adequate compensation for slave properties. Additional negotiations in 1826 led to an agreement by Great Britain to pay compensation and the establishment of a new domestic claims commission in Washington, D.C. (4 Stat. L. 219) to determine the amounts to be awarded. The commission met between July 10, 1827, and August 31, 1828. These commissions ended the long-standing dispute between Great Britain and the United States over the return of and compensation for refugee slaves.10

Discussion of the protection and maintenance of slavery emerged early in the 1787 Constitutional Convention, and slavery became one of the central points of disagreement. The abolition of slavery was ruled out, and southern delegates insisted on some protection of the institution. Consequently, the final draft of the new Constitution of the United States of America established the legal structure for slavery and U.S. involvement in the international slave trade. The always astute James Madison averted a potential fracturing of the convention and observed on May 30 that:

every peculiar interest whether in any class of citizens, or any description of States, ought to be secured as far as possible. Wherever there is danger of attack there ought be given a constitutional power of defence. . . . the states were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, by other circumstances; the most material of which resulted partly from climate, but principally from the effects of their having or not having slaves. These two causes concurred in forming the great division of interests in the United States. It did not lie between the large and small states: it lay between the Northern and Southern. And if any defensive power were necessary, it ought to be mutually given to these two interests.11

On July 14 Madison would again remind the of delegates the need for compromise and acceptance of differences during a heated debate about apportionment of political power in the new Union when he wrote:

It seemed now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lay, not between the large and small but between Northern and Southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences formed the line of discrimination.12

Playing a pivotal role, Madison gave slavery serious consideration and relied on the new government to maintain a balance of power between northern and southern states.

While northern states had undertaken some degree of abolition of slavery and manumission of slaves, southern states refused to sacrifice their way of life—slavery—to the principles of freedom and democracy being embedded in the Declaration of Independence, Bill of Rights, and the Constitution. Through intense debates, negotiations, and accommodation among the delegates, slavery and the international trade were directly protected and restricted in six articles and indirectly in four other articles of the U.S. Constitution. With the protection and restriction of slavery and the slave trade firmly established in the Constitution, several executive agencies and the U.S. Congress had to establish boundaries by which the government respected the rights of Americans to hold Africans in bondage. Congressional laws would ultimately address a variety of issues directly and indirectly related to the institution and the trade. Internal and external pressures forced the government to grapple with the legal and political dynamics of slavery until 1865. That fall, Congress added the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, abolishing slavery in a brief and simple statement.13

While the U.S. Constitution crafted a national scope and framework for slavery and the slave trade, Congress created the federal apparatus to handle matters arising between the federal government and the states and the American citizenry. While Congress established the first three executive agencies, State (1 Stat. L. 28, July 27, 1789), War (1 Stat. L. 49, August 7, 1789), and Treasury (1 Stat. L. 65, September 2, 1789), to manage the affairs of the new nation, the judicial branch would soon emerge as perhaps the most significant federal entity to take on the issues posed by slavery and the slave trade. The Judiciary Act of 1789 (1 Stat. 73, September 24, 1789) established the court systems and jurisdictions and created a critical office— the attorney general.

The new Congress had not legislated all aspects of slavery and the international slave trade, and when new and complex issues and questions arose, they were referred to the attorney general, who provided legal direction and instruction based on the current laws. While Congress and the courts worked to create and interpret slave laws, the attorney general provided legal guidance for the government. Could one remain a slave if taken to a foreign country? Were naval officers entitled to a share of the forfeiture of condemned slavers? What became of slaves and Africans illegally introduced into the country after 1808? Were U.S. marshals entitled to compensation for expenses incurred while maintaining custody of Africans seized from slaving vessels? Could the military and military posts assist in the detention of persons violating fugitive slave laws? Could slave owners obtain patents for inventions developed by their slaves? Could the U.S. courts prosecute foreign vessels illegally flying the American flag while participating in the international slave trade?14

The attorney general and federal judiciary responded to new and multifarious issues surrounding slavery and the interstate and international slave trade. The federal court system placed the nation on the road to a commitment to government by federal law and promoted the concept of national judicial power. The courts soon had to wrestle with questions not specifically addressed by laws, such as the status and rights of blacks, once enslaved but now living as free people in the North, and free blacks wrongfully enslaved.15

The U.S. Congress played a critical role in shaping the legal structure concerning slavery and the slave trade. Three major areas emerged early: the international slave trade, in particular the January 1, 1808, mandate that prohibited U.S. participation in it; the extension of slavery into the territories; and the status of slavery in territories applying for admission to the Union.16 While these matters loomed, the return of fugitive slaves was a persistent and major question. Urged on by petitions and memorials from American citizens, Congress moved swiftly to speak to this issue.

Congress's failure to abolish slavery spurred the flight of slaves to free states. Defenders of slavery sought stronger enforcement of the fugitive slave clause of the Constitution (Article IV, sec. 2, par. 3). That clause had failed to give Congress the authority to pass statutes to enforce the provision, and the Virginia-Pennsylvania controversy of 1788–1791 surrounding the return of a fugitive slave showed that states would not always cooperate. On February 12, 1793, President George Washington signed into law a bill concerning extradition of fugitives from justice and the return of fugitive slaves. Fugitive slaves remained a persistent and hotly contested issue well into the Civil War.17 The congressional compromise of 1850 over new territories enlarged the power of slaveholders to recapture runaways with the enactment of a new fugitive act. The debates that preceded and followed the enactment of that new law revealed a Congress paralyzed over the issues of slavery, and while the law emboldened slaveholders, it inspired constant attacks between pro- and antislavery forces inside and outside of the government.18

While concerned with the creation of laws to regulate the nation, Congress became a labyrinth of rules and committees designed to address the pressing issues of the day. In the first quarter of its existence, Congress received roughly ten thousand petitions. Many of these petitions were thoughtful and delineated the problems and concerns of the American people that Congress should address. The issue of slavery and the slave trade received much attention. In 1799 Absalom Jones, an African American clergyman and leader of the black Masons in Philadelphia, signed and sent a petition with fifty signatures to Congress explaining that the 1793 law requiring the return of fugitive slaves had caused severe hardships for the free and slave populations. He argued that the Constitution applied to all citizens regardless of color and that the act was "found to be attended with circumstances peculiarly hard and distressing, for many of our afflicted Brethren in order to avoid the barbarities wantonly exercised upon them, or [thro] fear of being carried off by Man-stealers, have been forced to seek refuge by flight: they are haunted by armed Men, and under colour of this law cruelly treated, shot, or brought back in chains to those who have no just claim upon them."19

As Congress responded to petitions and memorials and established legislation for the domestic institution of slavery, the government faced a far more complex international slave trade. While on circuit in 1822, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story (1811–1845) wrote his opinion of the La Jeune Eugenie (26 Fed. Case 832 [C.C.D. Mass. 1822] [No. 15,15551]), an international slave trading case. He wrote that the trade was

a breach of all the moral duties, of all the maxims of justice, mercy and humanity, and of the admitted rights, which independent Christian nations now hold sacred in their intercourse with each other. . . . It begins in corruption, and plunder, and kidnapping. It creates and stimulates unholy wars for the purpose of making captives. It desolates villages and provinces for the purpose of seizing the young, the feeble, the defenseless, and the innocent. It breaks down all the ties of parent, and children, and family, and country. It shuts up all sympathy for human suffering and sorrows. It manacles the inoffensive females and the starving infants. It forces the brave to untimely death in defense of their humble homes and firesides, or drives them to despair and self-immolation. It stirs up the worst passions of the human soul, darkening the spirit of revenge, sharpening the greediness of avarice, brutalizing the selfish, envenoming the cruel, famishing the weak, and crushing to death the broken hearted. This is but the beginning of the evil.20

From 1789 to 1865, Presidents, Congress, and the courts negotiated, accommodated, and challenged other nations' willingness to participate in the trade. In the process, the U.S. Congress created a series of laws prohibiting American participation and the importation of Africans to the United States. The U.S. Constitution provided the legal framework under Article I, sec. 9, par. 1, which prohibited Congress from banning American participation in the trade before the year 1808 and made it illegal after that date. In addition to the Constitutional ban, Congress passed a series of legislative acts that prohibited any involvement of Americans in the international slave trade. Northern sentiments opposed to the trade in Congress pushed four major acts between 1794 and 1807 that restricted and penalized Americans participating in the trade.21 As a result, a series of court cases arose involving the U.S. Navy's capture and seizure of ships involved in the slave trade. The court rulings set precedents for handling future slave trade cases by placing restrictions and penalties on Americans participating in the trade. The U.S. government recognized that international law allowed other nations to participate in the African slave trade, and it determined to strictly enforce its own boundaries to attack and suppress the trade. The U.S. Navy, the Department of State, and the new Department of the Interior would play major roles in the suppression of the slave trade.22

Congressional acts made the U.S. Navy the enforcement arm of the federal government with respect to the international slave trade. A May 10, 1800, act gave the navy legal sanction to seize vessels under the American flag engaged in the trade. Acts of April 20, 1818, and March 3, 1819, allowed the navy still broader discretion. In particular, the 1819 act authorized the President "to employ any of the armed vessels of the United States in cruizing upon the coast of the United States, and of Africa, with the view of capturing any vessels employed by citizens or residents of the United States in the slave trade, and delivering over to the marshals, or other persons appointed to receive them, all negroes found on board, destined for slaves." This precedent-setting act led to financial support for the repatriation of captured Africans, greater appropriations for the navy and U.S. marshals office, and paved the way for the development of the African Squadron.23

The Navy Department also worked with the Department of the Treasury in regards to custom services at American ports. The Customs Service was established on July 31, 1789, and officially became a part of the Department of the Treasury on September 2, 1789 (1 Stat. L. 65). The Customs Service had broad powers and duties that pertained to the importation and entry of merchandise into and the exportation of merchandise from the United States. Customs collection districts were established in more than a hundred ports and were maintained by a collector, naval officer, surveyor, and other minor officials as needed. The naval officer had the responsibility of maintaining copies of all manifests and entries, estimating all custom duties, and countersigning certain accounts of the collector. The naval officer maintained manifests of both legal (before January 1, 1808) and illegal (after 1808) importation of Africans into the United States. Many of the ports stretched along the mid-Atlantic, south Atlantic, and Gulf port seaboard, where Americans routinely imported Africans to be sold into the domestic slave institution.24

The navy's role became greater with the signing of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of August 9, 1842, which established the African Squadron. For the first time, there would now be a small but permanent fleet assigned to the West Coast of Africa. The 1842 treaty settled the long-standing northeastern boundary dispute between the United States and Canada. As a part of the settlement, provisions were made (Article VIII) for what was believed to be "the final suppression of the African Slave Trade." Great Britain and the United States of America agreed to "prepare, equip, and 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 the each of the two countries, for the suppression of the slave trade."25 By 1843 the U.S. Navy established the squadron with specific assignments and operations on the west coast of Africa, and on March 1, 1843, Secretary of the Navy Abel P. Upshur appointed Matthew C. Perry as the first commodore of the African Squadron (March 10, 1843 - February 20, 1845). The secretary instructed Commodore Perry to proceed to the West Coast of Africa to protect U.S. commerce and suppress the slave trade insofar as it was carried on by United States citizens or foreign ships under the U.S. flag.26

As the government moved to suppress the international slave trade, it indirectly became involved in the repatriation of African captives. With the establishment of the American Colonization Society in 1817, and the creation of Liberia and Sierra Leone on the West Coast of Africa, there developed a movement in American society to finance free blacks desirous of returning to Africa. More important for the government, Liberia became a location to resettle Africans freed through the admiralty court processes. Provisions in a March 3, 1819, act (3 Stat. L. 532) authorized the President "to make regulations and arrangements as he may deem expedient for the safe keeping, support, and removal beyond the limits of the United States, of all such negroes, mulattoes, or persons of colour, as may be so delivered and brought within their jurisdiction: And to appoint a proper person or persons, residing upon the coast of Africa, as agent or agents for receiving the negroes, mulattoes, or persons of colour, delivered from aboard vessels, seized in the prosecution of the slave trade, by commanders of the United States' armed vessels." Congress appropriated $100,000 to carry out the law.27 The Lyons-Seward Treaty with Great Britain of April 7, 1862, implemented by a congressional act of July 11, 1862 (12 Stat. L. 531), allowed mutual search rights and established procedures to appoint judges and arbitrators in the United States, Sierra Leone, and the Cape of Good Hope.28

Through the leadership of the secretaries of state, the federal government negotiated with nations of the world regarding the suppression of the slave trade. As the federal government sought to establish its hegemony in the western hemisphere, the secretary of state had to tread carefully with Latin American nations and dexterously maneuver between France, Spain, and Great Britain concerning laws and rights regarding international commerce, including the African slave trade. With Great Britain, cooperation increased as anti-slave trade sentiment grew in the British Parliament.29

By the early nineteenth century, the exchange of information on the slave trade between the secretary of state and European and Latin American governments became routine. After 1819, Great Britain's growing opposition to the slave trade set in motion a series of despatches between the two governments. Both Great Britain and the United States had denounced the trade as piracy under their laws by 1820, and the Committee on the Suppression of the Slave Trade in the U.S. Congress requested the President "to consult and negotiate with all the governments where ministers of the United States are, or shall be, accredited, on the means of effecting an entire and immediate abolition of the African slave Trade." When the major European powers—Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, France, and Russia—came together to discuss suppression of the trade, despatches between these governments increased, in particular Great Britain, and a final agreement occurred with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842. Despatches from U.S. ministers to Portugal (a major slave-trading nation) and instructions to ministers from the State Department often discussed the trade on the African coast. As Brazil grew into the dominant slave-trading South American nation, communications regarding the trade increased with U.S. consulates in Bahia, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Salvador. U.S. ministers consistently reported slaving activities between Africa and Brazil carried on under the American flag and in U.S. vessels. The Department of State regularly transmitted instructions to its consulates in Africa, and the subject of slave trading routinely appeared in these communications. The suppression of the slave trade influenced international relationships among nations, and the department continued its activity until the trade's final demise in the late nineteenth century.30

One of Abraham Lincoln's first acts as President was a presidential order of May 2, 1861, charging the secretary of the interior with the responsibility for administering laws designed to suppress the slave trade.31 More important, the Department of the Interior was to direct the government's plans to settle recaptured Africans and free blacks in Liberia on the West Coast of Africa. The Lincoln administration initiated several colonization plans in conjunction with the American Colonization Society; however, they met with little support and received considerable criticism from governmental officials, the abolitionist community, and the black communities around the country.32

Lincoln made clear the official government position that slavery would be protected where it existed but refused to allow its expansion. The South felt that all of its institutions, in particular slavery, were threatened and challenged the government's position. With the onset of hostilities, Lincoln continued to hold firm his position, but the war unleashed unanticipated events. The war sounded the death knell of slavery, and the process of this destruction revealed a government that moved slowly but consistently from constitutional protection of slavery to outright abolition of the institution.33

Slavery sustained a severe blow in 1862, when on April 16 Congress emancipated the slaves residing in the District of Columbia (12 Stat. L. 376). The debate to get rid of the institution in the nation's capital had deep roots as abolitionists, antislavery politicians, and an active free black community had besieged Congress since the establishment of the city. In 1860 the free black population outnumbered the slave population by four to one. Federal mobilization around the city influenced many Maryland and Virginia slaves to seek refugee, and the city soon became a beacon of freedom. Abolitionists, black and white, struck quickly to seek a congressional mandate abolishing the institution. During debate, pro- and antislavery forces compromised, allowing compensation to District slaveholders. The act authorized the President to appoint a board of three commissioners from the District to examine petitions for compensation. A later act of July 12, 1862 (12 Stat. 538), provided slaves whose owners refused to participate with the opportunity to petition the board. The commission's work broke new ground in the debates around emancipation; the quiet transition from a slave-based society to a free-based one in the District established a model for the rest of the nation. That fall the President prepared for a national emancipation.34

The year 1863 became a turning point in relations between the federal government and the slave population. In January 1863 Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation moved the government to a moral position it had long avoided. It had little effect in the rebellious states and failed to apply to the slaveholding border states that had remained loyal to the Union. Even so, the issuance of the Proclamation encouraged slaves to seek the protection of the federal government. Since the onset of the war, slaves had sought the protection of the Union Army, and the Proclamation raised greater expectations for freedom. By the spring of 1863, the growing movement of slaves behind Union lines spurred the federal government to investigate the conditions and status of slaves. Faced with a surging population of escaped slaves, the government, under the guidance of the Treasury Department, had begun to resettle former slaves in contraband camps and assign them to abandoned plantations.35 In time, growing concerns about these short-term solutions and the postwar condition of former slaves led the government to create in March 1863 the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed three commissioners and instructed them to determine how the government could best support former slaves. The federal government had assumed the role of protector and recognized its obligation to establish an environment of freedom for the former slaves.36

Perhaps the most far-reaching federal initiative concerning slavery in the rebellious and border states was the War Department's General Order 143, which established the Bureau of Colored Troops on May 22, 1863. While Lincoln failed to call specifically upon slaves and free blacks to serve as combatant troops in the war, he inserted military service into the Emancipation Proclamation. He wrote, "And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable conditions, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service."37 This statement directly applied to slaves in the slave states, and many moved to free themselves. Despite the restriction of the Emancipation Proclamation in loyal border states, Tennessee, and portions of Union-occupied Louisiana, and Virginia, slaves found their way to the Union armies and U.S. recruitment stations while their families remained in slavery. From February to June 1863, the War Department established procedures for the selection, recruitment, and training of blacks, regardless of status, to serve in the U.S. Army, and for a selection process for white officers to lead the troops. From that moment forward, federal military policy assumed an aggressive march to destroy slavery, and one of its targets was the population of thousands of slaves waiting to serve. By the war's end, the U.S. Colored Troops Bureau had recruited over 230,000 black soldiers, more than two-thirds slaves, and some 25,000 as naval personnel. The federal government had made military service one of the vehicles to freedom.

Freedom and slavery evolved simultaneously during the formative years of the nation and the federal government. Their equal coexistence was the great enigma of the nation. How could democratic principles of freedom and equality of the Declaration of Independence be tied to the enslavement of Africans? Slavery and the slave trade became the single most divisive issue for the young government. It emerged as the most crucial and fundamental issue because it had the power to bring disunion. No other issue had such resonance in American politics, life, and culture and was such a disruptive force in conscience, thought, and behavior. From 1776 to 1865, the government swayed to the wishes and dictates of slavery, and the unholy alliance with slaveholders. As George Washington Williams stated, the government could only "purify itself" through the flames of the American Civil War between 1861 and 1865. It unleashed forces that Congress, the military command, the Confederate States of America, and President Lincoln were neither able to realize nor anticipate. The war changed the sentiment in Congress, which amended the Constitution in the fall of 1865 to abolish the institution. While Congress had created laws to suppress the slave trade, questions arose among many inside and outside government as to whether governmental commitment was genuine. This is a question for historical scholarship to pursue. Regardless of what answers are proposed, the government certainly left a record to investigate the relationship with slavery and the slave trade. From the establishment of the Continental Congresses in 1771 and the new government in 1789 to the cessation of armed conflict in 1865, the federal government created an extensive documentation of how it dealt with the "hydra." The records of the Civil War period, uncovered by the Freedom and Southern Society Project, further told the dramatic evolution of the war and the destruction of slavery by the United States Government. Few stories of American history are so dramatically told through the archival records of the federal government.


This article is dedicated to my friend and mentor, Ira Berlin, who corrupted my aspirations to become a professor of history when he brought me to the National Archives in 1978 to work on his new documentary editing project, The Freedmen and Southern Society. NARA became my career after this experience. The author would like to acknowledge Ken Heger, Milton Gustafson, Aloha South, Jeffery Hartley, and Mary Ilario for their timely assistance. Special recognition goes to Maryellen Trautman, who provided valuable assistance with the government publications. Special thanks to Ira Berlin, James O. Horton, and J. Michael McReynolds for providing comments on the article. For records that pertain to slavery, the author is preparing an extensive reference list.

1. John Hope Franklin, Williams's biographer, stated that the twenty-four-year-old graduate, with the help of his mentors, had transformed himself in four years from an uninformed, raw youth to a well-educated man "with a felicitous writing style and a refinement that reflected itself in his bearing and his manners." Franklin stated that it was a remarkable transformation. See George Washington Williams: A Biography (1985) pp. 9–11.

2. Although he had no formal historical training, he had long been interested in history, in particular that of the Negro. His preparation for an address on the services of the Negro to the United States for the centennial of American independence in Avondale, OH, influenced his decision to become the first major historian of the race in the postslavery Civil War era and to write the first full-length history of the Negro. See Franklin, ibid., chap. 9; Earl E. Thorpe, Black Historians: A Critique (1969) pp. 46–55.

3. William Lloyd Garrison was founder and president of the abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. John David Smith, Slavery, Race, and American History: Historical Conflict, Trends, and Method, 18661953 (1999). See chap. 8, "A Different View of Slavery: Black Historians Attack the New Pro-slavery Argument, 1890–1920." Smith presents an excellent analysis of who these people were, their views on the slavery experience, and the meaning and significance for African Americans and the nation. For discussions regarding blacks and the Garrisonian tradition, see Leonard I. Sweet, Black Images of America, 17841870 (1976).

4. George Washington Williams, History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880 (1883), pp. vii–viii.

5. Ibid., p. 412.

6. Ira Berlin, "Time, Space, and the Evolution of Afro-American Society on the British Mainland North America," American Historical Review 85 (February 1980). Berlin broke ground with this article. He treated the institution as a living organism transforming itself in time and in different regions and not as a static institution. He gave crucial and proper analysis to four different regional slave systems on the North American continent. Berlin later expanded on this discussion in Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America (1998).

7. For the historical analysis, see W. B. Hartgrove, "The Negro Soldier in the American Revolution," Journal of Negro History 1 (January 1916): 110–131; and Benjamin Quarles, The Negro in the American Revolution (1961). For the debates, one needs to refer to two sources: Index to the Journals of the Continental Congress, 17741789, comp. Kenneth E. Harris and Steven D. Tilley (1976); and Journals of the Continental Congress, 17741789, 34 vols., (1904 - 37). For black servicemen, the best compilation is Special List 36, List of Black Servicemen Complied from the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records (1974), compiled by Debra L. Newman. The list is based on documentation from three different records series in Record Group (RG) 93, War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records. See microfilm publications M847, Special Index to Numbered Records in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records, 17751783; M853, Numbered Records Book Concerning Military Operations and Service, Pay and Settlement of Accounts, and Supplies in the War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records; and M860, General Index to Complied Military Service Records of Revolutionary War Soldiers.

8. David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution, 17701823 (1975). Davis believed that the war in the North undermined slavery and helped the abolition cause, pp. 24, 76–78. Ira Berlin, "The Revolution in Black Life," in The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, ed. Alfred Young (1976), pp. 350–382; Benjamin Quarles, "The Revolutionary War as a Black Declaration of Independence," in Slavery and Freedom in the Age of the American Revolution, ed. Ira Berlin and Ronald Hoffman (1982), pp. 283– 301. See also Virginia Assembly to the Continental Congress, Papers of the Continental Congress (National Archives Microfilm Publication M247, roll 141, item 124, Vol. 2, pp. 85–87), Records of the Continental and Confederation Congresses and the Constitutional Convention, RG 360. The index to the Papers lists five distinct categories: Negroes, Slaves, Slave Trade, Slavery, and Slave Trade. The state categories will also have documents that pertain to these five subject areas.

9. For an early assessment of post-Revolutionary relations between the United States and England regarding the return of slaves, see Arnett G. Lindsay, "Diplomatic Relations between the United States and Great Britain bearing on the Return of Negro Slaves, 1788–1828," Journal of Negro History 4 (October 1920): 391–419. Lindsay, a student of Carter G. Woodson, contends that this issue must be examined in its entirety from the American Revolution to final resolution in 1828. He held that Article VII of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 failed, and that while the slave trade received serious discussion but was not stipulated in Jay's Treaty of 1794, it continued to simmer with the outbreak of the War of 1812. The issue finally received resolution under the Treaty of Ghent, December 24, 1814, with the establishment of the Claims Commissions. Lindsay takes the position that the ulterior motive of John Jay's negotiation had more to do with President Washington's desire to resolve the slave refugee issue.
     See American State Papers, Vol. 1, pp. 470–474. See also Frederick A. Ogg, "Jay's Treaty and the Slavery Interests of the United States." Annual Report of the American Historical Association for the Year 1901, Vol. 1, 1902. Ogg emphasized the slave interest in Jay's mission, and their desire to be compensated for loss property in slaves. He wrote, "It is in the very fact that slavery is not mentioned in the treaty that the point of interest lies. It should of course be understood that the part which the slavery interests played in the history of the Jay Treaty was significant, not so much because by it the immediate event was changed, as because it may be regarded as on this occasion that slavery made its earliest formal entrance into the diplomacy of the nation. Intermittent claims on its behalf had been made before, but now for the first time the force of public sentiment was brought definitely to bear upon the subject" (pp. 278–279).

10. For the historical assessment, see Frank A. Cassell, "Slaves of the Chesapeake Bay Area and the War of 1812," Journal of Negro History 67 (1972); Mary Bullard, Black Liberation on the Cumberland Island 1815 (1983); John McNish Weiss, "The Corps of Colonial Marines, 1814 - 1816: A Summary," published paper, 1996. I am indebted to Mr. Weiss for bringing to my attention the federal records that pertain to this history. He has studied and published on the history of slave and free black settlement in Trinidad. See his Free Black Settlers in Trinidad 18151816 (1995). His current project covers the slave population recruited by the British during the War of 1812 and called the Corps of Colonial Marines. For the relevant federal records, see RG 76, Records of Boundary and Claims Commissions and Arbitrations, National Archives at College Park, MD (NACP). The records series that are critical for this examination are: Records that Pertain to Great Britain, Treaty of 1794 (Art. 6), Miscellaneous Records, 1796 - 1800; Treaty of 1794 (Art. 7); Treaty of 1814 and Conventions of 1818, 1822, 1826. See also Records of the Mixed Claims Commission, and Records of the Domestic Claims Commission.

11. Max Farrand, The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, Vol. 1 (rev. ed. 1966), p. 486; William M. Wiecek, "'The Blessings of Liberty': Slavery in the American Constitutional Order." in Slavery and Its Consequences: The Constitution, Equality, and Race, ed. Robert A. Goldwin and Art Kaufman, AEI Constitution Studies (1988).

12. Farrand, Records of the Federal Convention, Vol. 2, pp. 9–10; Wiecek, "'The Blessings of Liberty'".

13. A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., Shades of Freedom: Racial Politics and Presumptions of the American Legal Process (1996); see chap. 6, "The Constitutional Language of Slavery." Higginbotham identified the five major clauses of the Constitution that protected slavery. Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson (1996); see chap. 1, "Making a Covenant with Death: Slavery and the Constitutional Convention." Finkelman identified and analyzed five major provisions that dealt directly with slavery and numerous others that indirectly protected the institution (see Slavery and the Founders and his article [p. 233] in this issue of Prologue). Both scholars cited William M. Wiecek, The Sources of Antislavery Constitutionalism in America, 17601848 (1977). Wiecek covers all the provisions that dealt with the institution and slave trade. In his "The Witch at the Christening: Slavery and the Constitution's Origins," The Framing and Ratification of the Constitution, ed. Leonard Levy and Dennis Mahoney (1987), he takes a strong stand by establishing the fact that the role of slavery at the Philadelphia Convention was central and not peripheral. Delegates wrote generous concessions to slavery into the Constitution that enhanced the political power of the slave states and protected slavery's future. Mary Frances Berry, Black Resistance—White Law: A History of Constitutional Racism in America (1971) certainly merits attention. Berry discusses the institutional racism embedded in law, and she analyzes what she believes to be constitutionally sanctioned violence against African American people.

14. Opinion Book, 1817–70, Registers of Letters Received, 1809 - 1863, Letters Received, 1808–70, General Records of the Department of Justice, RG 60, NARA. Between 1789 and 1817, no formal recordkeeping system existed in the office, and the new attorney general, William Wirt, had little precedent to address the legal issues confronting the government. When he took office in 1817, he immediately established a recordkeeping system to inform him of these matters. From that period until the end of the Civil War, the office maintained and recorded its dialogue with the chief executive, other governmental departments, and private citizens over the question of slavery. Maryellen Trautman, government document specialist, NARA library, brought to my attention two important publications: Official Opinions of the Attorneys General of the United States, J 1.5:1; and Digest of the Official Opinions of the Attorneys-General of the United States, J 1.6:881. These publications are in RG 287, Publications of the U.S. Government, under Department of Justice. There is a clear distinction between the Legal Opinions Book and the Official Opinions. The former represents the attorney general's legal views of questions posed to him, and he used his knowledge of the current laws. The Opinions Book is the register for the Letters Received. Official Opinions represents the recorded position of the government. Both publications specify the titles of the opinions and note the names and topics associated with slavery and the slave trade. The Supreme Court Case Papers, 1809–ca. 1870, are miscellaneous records that are a part of the Attorney General's Office records. They became a part of the Attorney General's Office because cases before the Supreme Court in which the U.S. Government was a party to or had an interest in became the oversight of this office.

15. Leon H. Higginbotham, Jr., "Civil Rights in the Federal Courts: A Racial Perspective," The Federal Courts: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (1990), p. 15; Russell R. Wheeler, "The Judiciary Act of 1789: Politics and Principles," ibid., pp. 3–10; Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders, pp. 80–81.
     For federal court records, see RG 21, Records of District Courts of the United States. Cases that pertain to slavery and the slave trade can be found among Admiralty and Prize Records; Bankruptcy Records; Equity Records; and Law and Appellate Records. For a listing of some of the major cases, see Paul Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders. He has also complied a list of the Supreme Court and lower court cases that pertain to slavery and the slave trade. This list is valuable for searching district and circuit courts cases because these records are arranged by name of case, case number, and geographical districts. Court cases will often have dockets, indexes, minutes, judgments and decrees, and case papers.
     For records of the Supreme Court, see Records of the Supreme Court of the United States, RG 267. An article that deserves special attention regarding the Supreme Court and slavery is William M, Wiecek, "Slavery and Abolition Before the United States Supreme Court, 1820–1860," Journal of American History 65 (1978): 34–59.

16. Finkelman, Slavery and the Founders, p. 81.

17. Ibid., pp. 82–86; Wiecek, "The Witch at the Christening: Slavery and the Constitution's Origin," pp. 167–184. For the debates and discussions regarding the law, see The Annals of the Congress, 1793–1795, House of Representatives, 3rd Cong., 1st sess.; for congressional debate and discussion of the law's impact, see index entry for "Kidnapping Negroes" in Annals of the Congress, 1795–1797, House of Representatives, 4th Cong., 2nd sess. Using the Sessional Indexes to the Annals of the United States Congress is perhaps to best and easiest way to use the annals through the congressional sessions.

18. See Records of the Committee on Territories for the 31st Congress (31A-H22), Records of the U.S. Senate, RG 46; also Records of the Committee on the Judiciary for the 30th, 31st, and 33rd Congresses (30A-H8.1, 31A-H8.3, 33A-H7.1); 33A-H1.18, Records of the House of Representatives, RG 233. While Congress acted on the protection and restriction of slavery in the District of Columbia in 1850, it had established some precedents in earlier laws. See also the law of March 3, 1801, which provided for the delivery of fugitives from any state to the District of Columbia (The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, Vol. 2). Congress also passed a series of private laws for Edmund Burke (June 30, 1834) and John Carter of Georgetown (March 2, 1841), allowing them to bring their slaves to the District of Columbia, The Private Statutes at Large of the United States of America, Vol. 6. For reaction to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, see Stanley W. Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 18501860 (1968), and James Oliver Horton and Lois Horton, In Hope of Liberty: Culture, Community, and Protest among Northern Free Blacks, 17001860 (1997).

19. Raymond W. Smock, "The Voice of the People: Untapped Social History in the Early Petitions to the House of Representatives, 1789–1817," presented at the Organization of American Historians, Washington, DC, Apr. 1, 1995. While historian of the House, Smock and his staff were in the process of examining petitions of the first fourteen Congresses for publication. There are two large series in the Records of the United States House of Representatives, RG 233, that contain documentation on slavery and the slave trade: Petitions and Memorials and Committee Papers and Reports. The records are arranged by congresses. Also see the General Records of the House of Representatives for Tabled Petitions and Memorials. The House tabled many slavery-related petitions and memorials through the 38th Congress (1863–1865). Consult the Guide to the Records of the United States House of Representatives at the National Archives, 17891989. See also chap. 13, "Public Health and Morality," Petition Histories and Nonlegislative Official Documents, Vol. 8 of Documentary History of the First Federal Congress, 17891791, ed. Kenneth R. Bowling, William C. DiGiacomantonio, Charlene B. Bickford (1998). Petitions would also come to the U.S. Presidents. Lincoln received several, including one from the Birmingham, England, Antislavery Society with 63,000 signatures on it. See Miscellaneous Petitions and Memorials, General Records of the Department of State, RG 59, NACP.

20. A. Leon Higginbotham, Jr., "Civil Rights in the Federal Courts: A Racial Perspective," paper read at the bicentennial of the federal courts, U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, Nov. 3, 1989, in The Federal Courts: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow.

21. See Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, vols. 1 and 2, for the acts cited. The statutes are arranged by individual congress, session, and year. The March 22, 1794, act prohibited carrying on the slave trade from the United States to any foreign place or country; the May 10, 1800, act strengthened the March 22, 1794, act; the February 28, 1803, act prevented the introduction of certain persons into certain states; the March 2, 1807, act prohibited the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States from and after the first of January 1808.

22. For an assessment on the rulings of various admiralty court cases for violation of these laws, see "An Act to prohibit the carrying on the Slave Trade from the United States to any foreign place or country," Statutes at Large, Vol. 1, chap. 11, pp. 347–349. These cases and their rulings reveal, through 1820, the restrictions and punishment for violation of the slave trading laws. The international slave trading cases that came before the Supreme Court are summarized in the Reports of Cases in the Supreme Court of the United States under the SuDoc number Ju6.8/1 and are a part of Publications of the United States Government, RG 287. Some of the cases are The Mary Ann, Vol. 8, p. 380; The Merino, Vol. 9, p. 391; The Emily and Caroline, Vol. 9, p. 381; The Antelope, Vol. 10, p. 66; The Josefa Segunda, Vol. 10, p. 312; The Plattsburgh, Vol. 10, p. 133.

23. Report of the Secretary of the Navy, 1830, pp. 211–218. See Navy Department, 1828 - 1947, SuDoc number N 1.1, RG 287, for the acts. The acts of March 3, 1819, and May 24, 1828, provided upward of $30,000, and some of the funds were targeted to assist the cost of housing and caring for recaptured Africans; Statutes at Large, Vol. 4. The American State Papers, Naval Affairs, vols. 1–4, provide detailed histories of the legislative and executive impact upon the U.S. Navy. Aloha South, Guide to Federal Archives Relating to Africa (1977), is the most comprehensive work that focuses on U.S. naval records and the navy's involvement with the African slave trade.

24. See Records of the United States Custom Services, 1745–1982, RG 36. The slave manifests are found in the series Records of Customhouses. Slave manifests for only four ports have been identified in these records: Philadelphia, Savannah, GA, Mobile, AL, and New Orleans. A systematic search of all manifests and other like records may identify some hidden slave manifests in the active and minor ports. Slave manifests were created when captured slavers came under the jurisdiction of the U.S. court districts.

25. For a description of the treaty, see Henry Steele Commager, Documents of American History, 9th ed., (1973), pp. 298–300. For a full discussion of the treaty, see Records of the Committee on Foreign Relations, 1816–1968, Treaty Files, 1789–1968, RG 46. Howard Jones, To the Webster-Ashburton Treaty: A Study in Anglo-American Relations, 17831843 (1977) provides an excellent examination of the complicated issues associated with the treaty including the two nations' agreements regarding the international slave trade. Warren S. Howard, American Slavers and the Federal Law, 18371862 (1963), argued that one of the real intents behind the treaty establishing the squadron was to place an American presence on the West Coast of Africa to search American vessels. British searches of American vessels had been a longstanding issue between the two nations. See Hugh G. Soulsby, The Right of Search and the Slave Trade in Anglo-American Relations, 18141862 (1933).

26. Most of the early scholarship (pre-1980) on the squadron viewed it as ineffectual. What is critical here is that the U.S. Navy captured slavers, and the cases that went through the courts were able to set restrictions on international slave trading and American citizens' participation in the trade. The most famous of such cases was the Amistad, but there were others. For a fine, critical assessment of the squadron, see Alan R. Booth, "The United States African Squadron, 1843–1861", Boston University Papers in African History 1 (1964). He viewed the squadron as ineffective because of domestic slavery politics and believed the squadron sought to build American commerce along the African coast. He made a salient point when he said, "America had the laws and the machinery to stop the slave trade; what it needed was the leaders who would use them," p. 109. In Booth's examination, the American secretaries of the navy were the responsible parties for the ineffectual performance of the African Squadron, p. 112. On the Amistad, see Appellate Case File No. 2161, United States v. The Amistad, 40 U.S. 518, Decided March 9, 1841, and Related Lower Court and Department of Justice Records (National Archives Microfilm Publication M2012, 1 roll). This is the most comprehensive collection of records that pertain to the capture of a slaving vessel. Also see Walter B. Hill, Jr. "Federal Historical Records on the Amistad Case," Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 18 (Winter 1997–1998). For Perry's letters, see Letter Books of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, 18431845 (National Archives Microfilm Publication 206, 1 roll); for letters of squadron leaders, see Letters Received by the Secretary of the Navy From Commanding Officers of Squadrons ("Squadron Letters"), 18411886 (National Archives Microfilm Publication 89, 300 rolls), both in Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, RG 45, NARA. The letters are arranged by squadron. W.E.B. DuBois, The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America, 16381870 (Harvard Historical Studies, No. 1: 1896) is perhaps the first full-length scholarly examination of the trade.

27. 3 Stat. L. 532, sec. 2 & 7.

28. 12 Stat. L. 531. For the Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862, see William L. Mathieson, Great Britain and the Slave Trade, 18391865 (1929); Milne A. Taylor, "The Lyons-Seward Treaty of 1862," American Historical Review 38 (1932): 511–525; Richard Van Alstyne, "The British Right of Search and the African Slave Trade," Journal of Modern History 2 (1930): 37–47. Both Taylor and Van Alstyne contended that the right-of-search question had been a long-standing issue in the international slave trade debates between Great Britain and the United States, and the matter was not fully resolved until 1862.

29. The main series of records for researching General Records of the Department of State, RG 59, are the Central Files, 1789–1906. All correspondence is arranged by series and by date, and is available on microfilm. Please refer to the microfilm catalog Diplomatic Records (1986; also at See the series Diplomatic Instructions of the Department of State, 18011906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M77, 175 rolls) and Notes to Foreign Legations in the United States from the Department of State (National Archives Microfilm Publication M99, 99 rolls); Consular Correspondence; and Domestic Letters of the Department of State (National Archives Microfilm Publication M40, 171 rolls) and Miscellaneous Letters of the Department of State, 17891906 (National Archives Microfilm Publication M179, 1,310 rolls). Records of the Foreign Service Posts of the Department of State, RG 84 complements RG 59. These are records created in the embassies around the world, and correspondence documents discussion about the slave trade with other nations. For a history of the secretaries, see the multivolume work The American Secretaries of State and Their Diplomacy, ed. Samuel Flagg Bemis (1958). David Brion David, The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Revolution 17701823, and Daniel P. Mannix, Black Cargoes (1962). An important article that provides valuable insight into the Department of State is Kinley J. Brauer, "The Slavery Problem in the Diplomacy of the American Civil War," Pacific Historical Review 46 (1977): 439–469. Brauer utilizes records from Secretary of State Seward to argue the government's position.

30. The congressional act of May 1820 (3 Stat. L. 600) declared the commerce piracy and requested the British government to concur. See Reports of the Cases in the Supreme Court of the United States, Vol. 10, pp. 1–5. See also Report of the Committee on the Suppression of the Slave Trade, 17A-C27.4, RG 233. In Aloha South, Guide to Federal Archives Relating to Africa, see index for "Slavery and Slave Trade." Its coverage and identification of federal sources is enormous and meticulously described. See Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior Relating to the Suppression of the African Slave Trade and Negro Colonization, 18541872 (National Archives Microfilm M160, rolls 1–10), Records of the Office of the Secretary of the Interior, RG 48.

31. Prior to 1861, the arrest and prosecution of person engaged in the importation of slaves had been the responsibility of U.S. marshals and district attorneys. See Records of U.S. Attorneys, Southern Judicial District of Alabama, 1824–1921, Records of U.S. Attorneys and Marshals, RG 118, National Archives and Records Administration–Southeast Region (Atlanta). The State, Navy, and War Departments had always been involved in the apprehension of slave traders, but the responsibilities of each had never been fully delineated; this act centralized these duties for the first time. The June 16, 1860, congressional act and this new policy, and a new secretary of the navy, had an immediate impact. Before the end of 1861, five slave vessels were seized and condemned, and four slave traders were convicted. See S. Exec. Doc., No. 1, 37th Cong., 2nd sess., serial 1117; for the June 16, 1860, law, see 12 Stat. L. 40–41.

32. On the government's efforts to establish a colonization plan under Lincoln, see April 16, 1862, 12 Stat. L. 378; July 16, 1862, 12 L. Stat. 582; and July 17, 1862, 12 Stat. L. 592–593. These laws provided appropriations to perform certain duties and gave the President authority to enter contracts with foreign governments for the resettlement of captured Africans. There is additional information regarding the suppression of the trade and colonization plans during this period in H. Exec. Doc. 28, 37th Cong., 3rd sess., serial 1161; H. Exec. Doc. 1, 38th Cong., 2nd sess., serial 1217; and S. Exec. Doc. 55, 39th Cong., 1st sess., serial 1238. For a view of Lincoln's interest in colonization, see Brauer, "The Slavery Problem in the Diplomacy of the Civil War," pp. 452–453, which contends that Lincoln's views of racial antagonism in postwar America fueled his desire to institute several colonization schemes.

33. By far the most detailed and comprehensive examination of federal records for the period 1861–1870 are the selected documents identified and published by the Freedmen and Southern Society Project based at the University of Maryland, College Park. Using federal records, the project documents the transition from slavery to freedom and the establishment of communities based on free labor. For federal documentation of the end of slavery, see Ira Berlin, et al., The Destruction of Slavery, series 1, Vol. 1 (1985). The literature on the cause of the war and the Lincoln administration is voluminous and reveals several historical revisions. For one of the best, most recent, and concise arguments, see James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988).

34. Records of the Board of Commissioners for the Emancipation of Slaves in the District of Columbia, 18621863 (National Archives Microfilm M520, 6 rolls), RG 217, NARA. See also Michael J. Kurtz, "Emancipation in the Federal City," Civil War History 24 (1978): 250– 267. Kurtz's examination broke ground in the history of emancipation in the District. Ira Berlin et al., The Destruction of Slavery, series 1, Vol. 1, chap. 3.

35. In Records of the Civil War Special Agencies of the Treasury Department, RG 366, see series that pertain to the nine special agencies established throughout the Confederate states. For an excellent treatment of the Treasury Department's involvement with the Davis Bend Experiment, see Steven Joseph Ross, "Freed Soil, Freed Labor, Freed Men: John Eaton and the Davis Bend Experiment," Journal of Southern History 44 (May 1978): 213–221. Willie Lee Rose, Rehearsal For Reconstruction: The Port Royal Experiment (1964), remains the standard for this particular land experiment with former slaves. See also James T. Currie, "Benjamin Montgomery and the Davis Bend Colony," Prologue: Journal of the National Archives 10 (Spring 1978): 5–21 (reprinted in Prologue 25th anniversary issue (1994): 73–85.

36. See War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies (1880–1901), series 1, Vol. 3, pp. 73–74, for Stanton's instructions to the commissioners. See also War of the Rebellion ser. 3, Vol. 3, pp. 430–454, for the preliminary report of June 1863, and ser. 3, Vol. 4, pp. 289–382, for the May 1864 final report. For testimonies of the commission, see file 328-0-1863, Letters Received, 1805–89, Records of the American Freedmen's Inquiry Commission, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, RG 94, NAB. The preliminary and final reports and other records are part of the series.

37. See John Hope Franklin, The Emancipation Proclamation (1963) for an in-depth analysis of Lincoln's focus and intent. Ira Berlin, The Destruction of Slavery series 1, Vol. 1, and The Black Military Experience, series 2 (1982) provide an excellent examination of further governmental response after January 1863.

Walter B. Hill, Jr., is an archivist and subject specialist with the Textual Reference Division, National Archives and Records Administration. He has been with NARA since 1978 and has written and worked on numerous projects relative to African American history and federal records.


Articles published in Prologue do not necessarily represent the views of NARA or of any other agency of the United States Government.