The Slave Trade Compromise: Definition & Commerce

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  • 0:03 Slavery and the USA
  • 0:52 Debates in the…
  • 2:32 The Slave Trade Compromise
  • 3:30 Impact of the Compromise
  • 4:44 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Slavery has had dramatic impacts on American history. In this lesson, we'll look at one of the first attempts to resolve the debate on slavery through compromise.

Slavery and the USA

Growing up, we are often taught compromise. There's a good reason for this: compromise is a positive thing. Usually. But sometimes it creates more of a problem since the actual issue isn't fully resolved. A good example of this is one of the most divisive issues in American history: slavery. The nation actually fought a civil war partly over this institution. While slavery was in debate since the founding of this nation, politicians from 1776 to 1860 resolved it through compromise. Why? Because slavery was never simply about slaves. It was deeply intertwined with other issues concerning the government, the economy, democracy, and the American republic itself. Let's take a look at what happened.

Debates in the Constitutional Convention

The first years of America's existence weren't easy. After the Revolutionary War, the new states realized that they had very different ideas about government. Most wanted a weak central government with strong state governments, and after the war, that's what they had. However, it wasn't working. The federal government had practically no power to tax or enforce laws, and the nation was falling apart. This was evident when a former soldier named Daniel Shays led a rebellion against the federal government in 1786 and the government didn't actually have the power to stop him. Shays' Rebellion had to be suppressed by a private militia. So, in 1787, delegates from each state met at a Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia to write out a new constitution, and thereby create a new government.

The Constitutional Convention, attended by a group of lively debaters, was immediately beset by differing ideas. Northern states tended to favor a stronger central government, while Southern states still wanted a weaker federal government. Eventually, this debate started to circulate around the idea of slavery. The Northern states were largely urbanized, relying on trade and industrial production. Some had already outlawed slavery in their state constitutions. The Southern states were almost entirely agricultural, and agriculture was the most profitable industry in the new nation. In fact, Southern agriculture was sustaining the struggling American economy, and the use of enslaved people was sustaining Southern agriculture. All of these issues warped together into a substantial political debate over the future of the nation.

The Slave Trade Compromise

So, where did the compromises begin? Actually, they began with commerce. Northern states wanted to give the federal government the authority to regulate commerce. This was a big change from before and gave a lot of power to the government. Southern states didn't like this. After all, the slave trade was technically a matter of interstate commerce, so if the government regulated commerce they could prohibit the buying and selling of people to use as slaves.

To resolve the issue, a compromise was proposed. The federal government was given some authority over commerce, with the agreement that Congress would not prohibit the slave trade until 1808. However, it was agreed that the federal government could tax the importation of people to be used as slaves from other nations. Since most of the world's slave trade operated through the Caribbean, this did give Congress at least the ability to economically benefit from the slave trade. This was called the Slave Trade Compromise.

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