While the current trade war between Donald Trump and China keeps making the news. There’s another trade war guided by Thomas Jefferson we never heard about. That one led to protectionist pricing and massive exportation of what became Virginia’s greatest export, not tobacco but slaves.
Jefferson is considered by some the “Father of the Constitution,” though he didn’t write a word of it. He was serving as the Minister to France at the time and wasn’t present at the Constitutional Convention. It was James Madison who drafted the Constitution including the Bill of Rights. Jefferson was still a great influencer having mostly written the Declaration of Independence and drafts for the Virginia Constitution. His drafts didn’t arrive in time to be considered in the actual document but became part of the foundation for the Bill of Rights when Madison composed them. His views on gun rights made their way into the Constitution. A close reading suggests his views on guns might be tied to slavery and the need for owners to maintain order.
“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms within his own lands and tenements.”
The Constitution contained a clause that Jefferson made full use of to enrich not only himself but also fellow Virginia slaveowners. The clause was a compromise with South Carolina which allowed them to continue importing African slaves for no less than twenty years. By the time of the American Revolution, a combination of burned-out fields due to poor crop rotation and a loss of their best customer (Britain) meant that Virginia, in particular, had too many slaves while South Carolina and other Southern states more reliant on rice and sugar, barely had enough. Charleston had become the largest port for receiving African slaves which they were getting relatively cheaply. This reduced the value of Virginia slaves which farmers were breeding (I’ll come back to that) and selling to states with greater needs.
If Jefferson and other Virginians and some New Englanders had their way. The International slave trade would have stopped right along with the adoption of the Constitution. The clause that gave Southern states a twenty-year-pass was to entice the Southern states, especially South Carolina, to join the union. Keep in mind, none of those illustrious founding father wanted to get rid of slavery. They just wanted to limit it to the home-grown kind and keep the prices up. Thomas Jefferson who owned over 600 slaves in his lifetime was chief among them.
“The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
Constitution of the United States; Article One; Section Nine
For the next twenty years, Virginia and South Carolina (with Maryland a distant third) competed to provide the rest of the nation with slaves. Virginia and Maryland selling off their excess, South Carolina reselling the Africans fresh off the boat. South Carolina knew they had a short window to work with.
Nobody knew at the time that some unruly slaves in Saint Domingue (later Haiti) led by Toussant L’Ouverture would take over the place and give Napoleon such a bad taste in his mouth he soured on America with all its black people and arranged to sell off France’s holdings there with The Louisiana Purchase in 1803. White folks had already been encroaching on land north of New Orleans and west into Tennessee, Kentucky, and elsewhere. Fertile land was begging to be farmed, with the help of slaves of course. Who had slaves? Virginia, Maryland, and South Carolina.
Back to that trade war. Though the stage had been set with the finalization of the Constitution in 1787. It only provided that the international slave trade could not be ended prior to 1808. Somebody still had to actually make that happen which is where Thomas Jefferson steps in. In 1800, Jefferson was elected President, assuming office in 1801. He was still President in 1808 when that Constitutional prohibition against ending the international slave trade expired. He didn’t wait that long, getting all the paperwork and legislation out of the way a year early in 1807. In his address to Congress, he denounced the violations of human rights imposed on the Africans, surely giving no thought as to how much richer he and his fellow slaveholding Virginians would be once those pesky South Carolinians were eliminated as rivals.
“I congratulate you, fellow-citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.
I don’t mean to suggest Jefferson was insincere, well actually I do. While he claimed to be so concerned about human rights, morality, and reputation. He was fathering several children with one of his slaves. Family members, despite DNA evidence, held all the children weren’t his, some might have been his brother’s children because loaning out one’s property was in vogue back in the day. Finally, in 2017, an organization representing the Jefferson family acknowledged he fathered six children with Sally Hemings who he started raping when she was 14. Getting rid of the international slave trade, instantly made domestic slave traders like Jefferson much richer.
Jefferson banned shipment of slaves to America from Portugal, Spain, France, Britain, and the Dutch so that America would get a better price for its homegrown slaves, eliminating a major source of competition. Because the demand for slaves was still high due to the nations rapid expansion. America’s dirty secret was that they forcibly bred slaves (I said I’d come back to this) to supply the Southern and those more Western states that had adopted slavery. It was no different than banning all foreign cars to improve the market for domestic vehicles. except that cars weren’t a product of forcible rape in many cases to keep the production line going.
There are those who are devoted to propping up the image of Thomas Jefferson. They say his ending the international slave trade was the first step toward ending slavery itself. The fact it greatly increased his wealth was simply a byproduct. They cite his writings and speeches about the evils of slavery. Of the over six-hundred slaves he owned in his lifetime, he freed only seven, two while he was living, one of whom paid $200 for his release. They say Jefferson would never be involved in something as heinous as slave breeding. Even though he enacted the law that greatly expanded the practice. I’ll let Jefferson have the last word and you decide.