James Madison Papers

Slave Trade Petitions, [12 February] 1790

Slave Trade Petitions

[12 February 1790]

A memorial from the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, signed by Benjamin Franklin and calling upon Congress to give its “serious attention to the subject of slavery” and to “step to the very verge” of its powers to discourage the slave trade, was read. Debate resumed on a motion to commit the Quaker petition that had been presented the previous day and read a second time on this day. Representatives from South Carolina and Georgia denounced the petition as containing an unconstitutional request.

Mr. Madison. The debate has taken a serious turn, and it will be owing to this alone if an alarm is created; for had the memorial been treated in the usual way, it would have been considered as a matter of course, and a report might have been made, so as to have given general satisfaction.

If there was the slightest tendency by the commitment to break in upon the constitution, he would object to it; but he did not see upon what ground such an event was to be apprehended. The petition prayed, in general terms, for the interference of congress, so far as they were constitutionally authorised; but even if its prayer was, in some degree, unconstitutional, it might be committed, as was the case on Mr. Churchman’s petition,1 one part of which was supposed to apply for an unconstitutional interference by the general government.

He admitted, that congress were restricted by the constitution from taking measures to abolish the slave-trade; yet there were a variety of ways by which they could countenance the abolition, and they might make some regulations, respecting the introduction of them into the new states, to be formed out of the Western Territory, different from what they could in the old settled states. He thought the object well worthy of consideration.2

Cong. Register description begins Thomas Lloyd, comp., The Congressional Register; or, History of the Proceedings and Debates of the First House of Representatives … (4 vols.; New York, 1789–90; Evans 22203–4, 22973–4). description ends , III, 337. The report of this speech in the Gazette of the U.S., 17 Feb. 1790, reads: “Mr. Madison observed, that it was his opinion yesterday, that the best way to proceed in the business was to commit the memorial without any debate on the subject, from what has taken place he was more convinced of the propriety of the idea—but as the business has engaged the attention of many members, and much has been said by gentlemen, he would offer a few observations for the consideration of the House—he then entered into a critical review of the circumstances respecting the adoption of the constitution, the ideas upon the limitation of the powers of Congress to interfere in the regulation of the commerce in slaves—and shewed that they undoubtedly were not precluded from interposing in their importation—and generally to regulate the mode in which every species of business shall be transacted—He adverted to the western country—and the cession of Georgia in which Congress have certainly the power to regulate the subject of slavery, which shews that the gentlemen are mistaken in supposing that Congress cannot constitutionally interfere in the business in any degree whatever—He was in favor of committing the petition, and justified the measure by repeated precedents in the proceedings of the House.”

1See PJM description begins William T. Hutchinson et al., eds., The Papers of James Madison (vols. 1–10, Chicago, 1962–77; vols. 11—, Charlottesville, Va., 1977—). description ends , XII, 30 and n. 2, 91–92.

2By a vote of 43 to 11 the various petitions relating to the slave trade were referred to a committee of seven.

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