Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1

Document 8

Luther Martin, Genuine Information

1788Storing 2.4.63--71

By the ninth section of this article, the importation of such persons as any of the States now existing, shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a duty may be imposed on such importation not exceeding ten dollars for each person.

The design of this clause is to prevent the general government from prohibiting the importation of slaves, but the same reasons which caused them to strike out the word "national," and not admit the word "stamps," influenced them here to guard against the word "slaves." They anxiously sought to avoid the admission of expressions which might be odious in the ears of Americans, although they were willing to admit into their system those things which the expressions signified: And hence it is, that the clause is so worded, as really to authorise the general government to impose a duty of ten dollars on every foreigner who comes into a State to become a citizen, whether he comes absolutely free, or qualifiedly so as a servant; although this is contrary to the design of the framers, and the duty was only meant to extend to the importation of slaves.

This clause was the subject of a great diversity of sentiment in the convention;--as the system was reported by the committee of detail, the provision was general, that such importation should not be prohibited, without confining it to any particular period. This was rejected by eight States--Georgia, South-Carolina, and I think North-Carolina voting for it.

We were then told by the delegates of the two first of those States, that their States would never agree to a system which put it in the power of the general government to prevent the importation of slaves, and that they, as delegates from those States, must withhold their assent from such a system.

A committee of one member from each State was chosen by ballot, to take this part of the system under their consideration, and to endeavour to agree upon some report, which should reconcile those States; to this committee also was referred the following proposition, which had been reported by the committee of detail, to wit, "No navigation act shall be passed without the assent of two thirds of the members present in each house;" a proposition which the staple and commercial States were solicitous to retain, lest their commerce should be placed too much under the power of the eastern States, but which these last States were as anxious to reject.--This committee, of which also I had the honour to be a member, met and took under their consideration the subjects committed to them; I found the eastern States, notwithstanding their aversion to slavery, were very willing to indulge the southern States, at least with a temporary liberty to prosecute the slave trade, provided the southern States would in their turn gratify them, by laying no restriction on navigation acts; and after a very little time, the committee by a great majority, agreed on a report, by which the general government was to be prohibited from preventing the importation of slaves for a limited time, and the restrictive clause relative to navigation acts was to be omitted.

This report was adopted by a majority of the convention, but not without considerable opposition.--It was said, that we had but just assumed a place among independent nations, in consequence of our opposition to the attempts of Great-Britain to enslave us; that this opposition was grounded upon the preservation of those rights, to which God and Nature had entitled us, not in particular, but in common with all the rest of mankind--That we had appealed to the Supreme being for his assistance, as the God of freedom, who could not but approve our efforts to preserve the rights which he had thus imparted to his creatures; that now, when we scarcely had risen from our knees, from supplicating his aid and protection--in forming our government over a free people, a government formed pretendedly on the principles of liberty and for its preservation,--in that government to have a provision, not only putting it out of its power to restrain and prevent the slave trade, but even encouraging that most infamous traffic, by giving the States power and influence in the union, in proportion as they cruelly and wantonly sport with the rights of their fellow creatures, ought to be considered as a solemn mockery of, and insult to, that God whose protection we had then implored, and could not fail to hold us up in detestation, and render us contemptible to every true friend of liberty in the world. It was said, it ought to be considered that national crimes can only be, and frequently are, punished in this world by national punishments, and that the continuance of the slave trade, and thus giving it a national sanction and encouragement, ought to be considered as justly exposing us to the displeasure and vengeance of Him, who is equal Lord of all, and who views with equal eye, the poor African slave and his American master!

It was urged, that by this system, we were giving the general government full and absolute power to regulate commerce, under which general power it would have a right to restrain, or totally prohibit the slave trade: it must therefore, appear to the world absurd and disgraceful to the last degree, that we should except from the exercise of that power, the only branch of commerce which is unjustifiable in its nature, and contrary to the rights of mankind--That on the contrary, we ought rather to prohibit expressly in our constitution, the further importation of slaves; and to authorise the general government from time to time, to make such regulations as should be thought most advantageous for the gradual abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of the slaves which are already in the States.

That slavery is inconsistent with the genius of republicanism, and has a tendency to destroy those principles on which it is supported, as it lessens the sense of the equal rights of mankind, and habituates us to tyranny and oppression. It was further urged, that by this system of government, every State is to be protected both from foreign invasion and from domestic insurrections; that from this consideration, it was of the utmost importance it should have a power to restrain the importation of slaves, since in proportion as the number of slaves were increased in any State, in the same proportion the State is weakened and exposed to foreign invasion, or domestic insurrection, and by so much the less will it be able to protect itself against either; and therefore will by so much the more, want aid from, and be a burthen to, the union. It was further said, that as in this system we were giving the general government a power under the idea of national character, or national interest, to regulate even our weights and measures, and have prohibited all possibility of emitting paper money, and passing instalment laws, &c. It must appear still more extraordinary, that we should prohibit the government from interfering with the slave trade, than which nothing could so materially affect both our national honour and interest.--These reasons influenced me both on the committee and in convention, most decidedly to oppose and vote against the clause, as it now makes a part of the system.

You will perceive, Sir, not only that the general government is prohibited from interfering in the slave trade before the year eighteen hundred and eight, but that there is no provision in the constitution that it shall afterwards be prohibited, nor any security that such prohibition will ever take place; and I think there is great reason to believe, that if the importation of slaves is permitted until the year eighteen hundred and eight, it will not be prohibited afterwards: At this time we do not generally hold this commerce in so great abhorrence as we have done--When our liberties were at stake, we warmly felt for the common rights of men--The danger being thought to be past, which threatened ourselves, we are daily growing more insensible to those rights--In those States who have restrained or prohibited the importation of slaves, it is only done by legislative acts which may be repealed--When those States find that they must in their national character and connexion suffer in the disgrace, and share in the inconveniencies attendant upon that detestable and iniquitous traffic, they may be desirous also to share in the benefits arising from it, and the odium attending it will be greatly effaced by the sanction which is given to it in the general government.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 3, Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1, Document 8
The University of Chicago Press

Storing, Herbert J., ed. The Complete Anti-Federalist. 7 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981.

Easy to print version.