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Fourth International, Summer 1955


George Lavan

DuBois’s Early Study of the Slave Trade


From Fourth International, Vol. 16 No. 3, Summer 1955, pp. 105–106.
Transcribed by Daniel Gaido.
Marked up Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


The Suppression of the African Slave Trade to the United States of America
by W.E.B. DuBois
Social Science Press, New York. 339 pp. Reprinted 1954. $6.

Students of American history owe the Social Science Press a vote of thanks for reprinting DuBois’s study of the slave trade to this country. This book is one of the classic works on the role of slavery in American economics and politics. It was written by Dr. DuBois 60 years ago as his doctorate thesis at Harvard. Its great historical merit was immediately recognized and it became volume one of the Harvard Historical Series. It has unfortunately been out of print for decades and though it was a standard entry in serious bibliographies dealing with colonial, antebellum US history and Negro history, students had difficulty finding a copy even in libraries.

In looking back over the writing of American history in tie past half century, two names stand out: Charles A. Beard and W.E.B. DuBois. Certainly it is a unique and rewarding experience for the latter to witness the republishing of a work he wrote as a young man sixty years ago.

The author, in this case, however, has done more. He has re-read this first labor of his life and written a critical appraisal of it. He notes, as have all subsequent critics, that the extensive and intensive research into source materials, on which the work is based, was well and scrupulously done. He criticizes the monographic method for the academic limitations it imposes. However, the main point of his “Apologia” is his “ignorance in the waning 19th Century of the significance of the work of Freud and Marx.”

The fact that despite this ignorance, which was the fault not of the author but of the universities of the time, this book is still a precious mine for the student is high tribute indeed to the aspiring young Ph.D.’s scholarship and honesty.

Back in 1896 DuBois, in common with all other inheritors of the Abolitionist tradition, regarded the anti-slavery conflict as a clear example of a moral struggle. Moral enlightenment and progressive religion and democracy, according to this view, had been arrayed against the darker forces of cruelty, avarice and ethical benightedness.

While in the course of his book, DuBois faithfully brings in the ethical aspects of the movements against the slave trade and notes here and there that greater moral awareness or courage at this or that point might have had happier results, this does not seriously interfere with the study. He had chosen a subject for investigation that by itself largely nullified all attempts at an idealist interpretation.

His idealist points are forced into negative formulations for the most part: there was a lack of sufficient ethical force here, moral enlightenment had not spread sufficiently there, etc.

For the transatlantic slave trade, outlawed in 1808 by Congress, continued without serious hindrance until the Civil War. In tracing the various debates, legislation, violations, defiances and court actions, the author furnishes a mass of economic and political material that enforces an impression on the reader more materialist than idealist.

The study is extremely comprehensive. It begins with Great Britain securing the Asiento, the treaty monopoly with Spain for furnishing slaves to the New World. Then it traces the divergent interests of the colonists who, from fear of insurrections not moral principles, tried to limit the import of shaves, and the pressure of the British merchants and their government to continue the trade unabated.

A masterful account of the conflict of interests among the colonies over the slave trade during the Revolution then follows. In his account of the compromise reached on this question in the drawing up of the US Constitution, DuBois briefly anticipates the treatment Beard was to give 16 years later in his landmark work An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States.

The constitutional compromise was Article I, Section 9 which allowed the federal government to place a maximum duty of $10 on each slave imported but which forbade any prohibition of the trade for 21 years (1808).

The effect of the successful revolution of the slaves in Haiti on American slavery, receives one of its best treatments in American history in this book. The panic-stricken stopping of the slave trade by various state enactments, the combined fear and prohibition of importation of West Indian slaves after the trade with Africa had been restored is all chronicled in the state laws, debates, etc.

The representatives of the slave-importing states at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 had, of course, no way of foreseeing the industrial revolution that brought mass production of textiles in England and called forth in America the invention of the cotton gin and ever greater demands for raw cotton. If they had, they would not have agreed to the date of 1808 for federal outlawing of the slave trade.

The rise of the cotton kingdom and Southern control of the federal government meant that the nominal banning of the slave trade was never seriously enforced. DuBois carefully traces all the moves, dodges, hamstringing of enforcement by inadequate appropriations of money and naval patrol vessels. He also traces the flare up of sectional antagonisms over the issue.

Finally, as the South moved toward the idea of secession and the Sounding of a greater slave empire in the Western Hemisphere its extreme wing dropped all pretenses and began agitating for the repeal of legislation prohibiting the transatlantic shave trade.

The installation of Lincoln and a Republican administration marked the first determined effort by the federal government to suppress the slave trade. After six months of coordinated work in 1863 it was evident the job was not the insuperable task previous administrations had made it out to be. Five slavers were captured and condemned; four slave traders were convicted and punished. Arrangements were made with Great Britain for effective patrol of the African coast. The slave trade to the United States was finally suppressed.

In addition to a lengthy bibliography, the book has a chronological conspectus of colonial and state legislation on the slave trade for the period 1641-1787; a similar conspectus of state, national and international legislation for 1788-1871; and a record of typical cases of vessels engaged in the trade to America in the years 1619-1864.

This book is an invaluable tool for the student of Negro history or US history in general.

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