Reconfiguring the Old South: Solving the Problem of Slavery, 1787–1838

Teaching the Article
Exercise 2

South Carolina Reopens the International Slave Trade

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The cotton boom began to flourish in the south Atlantic interior around 1793, as soon as Eli Whitney and others discovered how to clean large quantities of the short-staple cotton craved by the British textile industry. By 1800 planters in the South Carolina interior produced huge cotton crops and earned enormous profits. This “cotton revolution” intensified demand for the slaves who grew the crop, both in South Carolina and in newly settled regions of Mississippi and Louisiana. At first, a wary South Carolina legislature turned a deaf ear to the interior’s plea for more slaves, rejecting an 1802 bill to reopen the African slave trade by an overwhelming margin.

But in 1803, when a coincidence of diplomatic luck and Jeffersonian vision brought the Louisiana territory into American possession, the political calculations in South Carolina changed. In late November 1803, the South Carolina legislature suddenly reconsidered its previous position and approved a bill reopening the foreign slave trade by a margin of 55 to 47 in the state house of representatives, by a voice vote.

Over the next three years, proponents of the foreign slave trade prevented the legislature from again closing the trade, but by the narrowest of margins. Between 1803 and 1807, nearly fifty thousand enslaved Africans were imported through South Carolina, and many were then reexported to Louisiana. Only in 1807, when Congress approved legislation ending United States participation in the international slave trade (effective in 1808), did South Carolina stop importing Africans as slaves.


  1. According to the petition from the residents of Abbeville to the state legislature, why did they and others from the interior think that the inability to import slaves hurt their area?
    1. Inhabitants of Abbeville District, “Petition Asking the Repeal of Acts Barring the Importation of Negroes Into the State As Detrimental to the Settlement and Development of the Middle and Upper Districts of the State,” 10/23/1802, Item 129, Legislative Petitions (S165015), Records of the South Carolina General Assembly, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.
  2. According to the newspaper and eyewitness accounts (given below), what arguments did South Carolina opponents of reopening the African slave trade use to plead their case?
    1. Reports on December 6 debate in S.C. Senate over “Bill for Permitting the Importation of Negroes,” Charleston Courier, Dec. 29, 1803.
    2. Gov. Paul Hamilton’s message to legislature, submitted on Nov. 26, 1806, Charleston Courier, Dec.1, 1806.
  3. What does the description of the S.C. Senate vote in 1805 that the northern visitor Edward Hooker wrote tell you about the issue?
    1. Diary of Edward Hooker, Friday, Dec. 13, 1805, in American Historical Association Annual Report, 1 (1896), 878–80.

Further Reading