Date of Award

Spring 2013

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Elrga Gould


This dissertation examines the U.S. suppression of the slave trade from the ratification of the Constitution in 1789 to the onset of the Civil War in 1861. Instead of studying the slave trade in isolation, this dissertation evaluates U.S. slave trade policy within the context of the development of federal power during the early republic and antebellum period. This work assesses the disconnect between the harsh laws against the slave trade and the United States' ineffectiveness at suppressing the trade, especially since, at its founding, U.S. involvement in the African slave trade seemed to have a looming expiration date.

By separating the importation of slaves into the United States from the U.S. participation in the foreign slave trade, this study evaluates why the federal government was much more effective at suppressing the former, rather than the latter. U.S. slave trade suppression always remained subordinate to higher federal priorities, namely preserving the union through the protection of U.S. commerce, its own borders, and slavery itself. In fact, this dissertation argues that anti-slave trade laws were enforced generally only as a tool through which the U.S. could assert its federal authority against other national powers. Disputes with Great Britain rendered the foreign slave trade suppression increasingly ineffective for all nations as slave trading under the American flag increased exponentially after 1830. This dissertation addresses the many barriers that affected U.S. anti-slave trade policy and examine how the shifting national priorities directly impacted the trajectory of American participation in the slave trade and in its extirpation. Only the abolition of slavery would effectively end the slave trade to the Americas, a full seventy years after the first U.S. law against the "inhuman traffic.".