Let us imagine that the African slave trade had continued in a legal and open manner well into the 19th century. It is plausible to assume that hundreds of thousands if not millions of Africans would have been brought into the country.
This most likely would have resulted in the “democratization” of slavery as prices fell and more and more whites could afford to purchase slaves, along with a further increase in Southern political power thanks to the Constitution’s three-fifths clause. These were the very reasons advanced by South Carolina’s political leaders when they tried, unsuccessfully, to reopen the African slave trade in the 1850s.
More slaves would also have meant heightened fear of revolt and ever more stringent controls on the slave population. It would have reinforced Southerners’ demands to annex to the United States areas suitable for plantation slavery in the Caribbean and Central America. Had the importation of slaves continued unchecked, the United States could well have become the hemispheric slave-based empire of which many Southerners dreamed.
Jan. 1, 1808, is worth commemorating not only for what it directly accomplished, but for helping to save the United States from a history even more terrible than the Civil War that eventually rid our country of slavery.
Professor Jack Balkin adds some thoughts about the constitutional bases upon which Congress acted.