[Note: Historical research is not always cut and dried. For example, in investigating Georgia politics after the War of 1812, I came upon a movement mounted in Middle Georgia against certain aspects of the legal domestic slave trade, targeting traders who brought slaves into the state for the purpose of speculating on their sale. This campaign was so influential that the state’s penal code was changed, not once but twice, and yet. . . . Things are not always what they seem, or at least not for as long as one might think. But I digress.
Newspaper coverage of this legal aspect of the slave trade, moving slaves from one part of the South to another for domestic use, and the speculative prices slave traders charged, kept those unlovely aspects of the South’s peculiar institution before the people of Georgia. Yet, this effort, while initially successful, did not exist in isolation from events outside the state, which, in the end, made it problematic.]
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In the fall of 1816, Georgia was embroiled in the controversy over congressional passage of the Compensation Act, which many Georgians viewed as a congressional “salary grab,” but grand jurors in Putnam County, just north of the state capital of Milledgeville, had other things on their minds. They presented as a grievance “the repeated infractions of the act intended to prevent the introduction of slaves into this state by Negro traders,” terming the practice both demoralizing and dangerous: Blacks brought into Georgia by slave traders supposedly corrupted slaves already in the state and were “ready at all times for insurrection and crime.” The Putnam panel urged revision of state law so Georgia would not have to witness “bloody scenes” like those in the black republic of “St. Domingo.”
The editors of the Milledgeville Georgia Journal began publishing a series of essays by “Philanthropist” supporting the Putnam presentment and urging stronger laws against Negro traders. Those same editors also discussed a recent South Carolina law barring introduction into that state of all slaves except those belonging to immigrants. At least a few white Georgians even demanded an end to the further introduction of all Blacks and urged passage of a law that would free any imported slaves after a term of years.
The Putnam grand jurors must have struck a nerve, for the legislature promptly revised the penal code to prohibit the introduction into Georgia of slaves by traders for purposes of speculation, setting the punishment at a $1000 fine and a prison term of up to five years. The revision did not, however, affect immigrants bringing slave property into Georgia, or legal residents of the state who imported slaves for their own use. Yet, by the following summer, the Georgia Journal reported that Negro traders were already evading the law, terming themselves “emigrants” [from other states and, thus, “immigrants” into Georgia] and claiming that they had “hired” the Negroes in their possession for periods ranging from 50 to 100 years!
An Augusta newspaper reported in the autumn of 1817 that a group of slaves had recently arrived, organized as a sort of military unit, with sticks, drums and other instruments, and had offered to sell themselves to local residents. Several persons reportedly purchased some of the slaves. The trader accompanying the group, when accused of illegally importing slaves into Georgia for speculative purposes, denied that he had violated the law, claiming that “the negroes [sic] are my property, but they are not for sale.” The Augusta editors saw this incident as proof that the legislature needed to amend the recently-passed law.
Reacting to these reports, the Putnam Grand Jury at its September 1817 session called upon the legislature to revise sections of the penal code covering the introduction of slaves into the state yet again, in order to close loopholes. The grand jurors recommended that officers be appointed to enforce the law and empowered to require slave importers to prove they had been brought into the state legally; that purchasing slaves that had been introduced illegally into Georgia be made a crime; and that the ban on that crime be extended for five years.
A committee in the state house introduced “an act to more effectually prohibit the introduction of slaves into the state of Georgia,” while the senate adopted several amendments to the state’s penal code requiring “all officers civil and military” to enforce the ban against traders who imported slaves into the state for sale. An irate contributor to the Augusta Chronicle even proposed that slaves illegally imported into the state be freed after a specified time. (But it is important to distinguish between the legal, domestic slave trade, the target of the Putnam movement, and American participation in the illegal, international slave trade, of which the Chronicle’s contributor complained.)
By early 1818, William Turner, a member of the Putnam grand jury that two years earlier had raised the issue of slaves imported legally into Georgia, but for speculative purposes, had joined five like-minded men to form the Putnam Associates. In a letter to the Milledgeville Reflector, the Associates called for stronger measures against the practice, promising to enforce the law themselves if state officials refused to do so, and inviting residents of other counties to join them.
The views of the Putnam Associates received broad exposure in the Jeffersonian Republicans’ Washington organ, the National Intelligencer. The Savannah Republican chimed in with a long piece on the slave trade, arguing that the recent American seizure of Amelia Island in Florida was worthwhile, if only because it put a stop to the island’s use as a port of entry for slaves from Africa. The writer also asserted that “a regular chain of posts” from St. Marys through Creek territory to the upper country allowed illegally imported slaves to be carried “to every part of the country.” (But, again, the reference here was to the illegal participation of Americans in the international slave trade in smuggled Africans.)
A letter from “a distinguished gentleman in Washington” praised the new law prohibiting the legal importation of domestic slaves for speculative purposes as “of the first consequence to our state.” He hoped that both the people of Georgia and their legislature would oppose a “traffic no less odious to justice and humanity, than pernicious to the true and substantial welfare of the state,” until the practice was “completely extinguished.” This correspondent, perhaps Treasury Secretary–and longtime Georgia political leader–William Harris Crawford (also a vice-president of the newly-formed American Colonization Society), claimed to have heard the pledge of the Putnam Associates praised in several states outside the South.
That this issue was part of a broader trend in the state was suggested by two other items in the same issue of the Georgia Journal. First, the paper announced the formation of “The Auxiliary Society of Milledgeville for colonizing the free people of color of the United States,” with none other than General—and future Governor—John Clark, a long-time political opponent of Secretary Crawford and his party in Georgia, as president. Moreover, a writer signing himself “Aristides” commented on a law, passed by the most recent session of the legislature, prohibiting the immigration of free blacks into Georgia.
In the late summer and early fall of 1818, the Georgia Journal published additional letters from “Philanthropist,” who argued that, in view of the picture of slave smuggling included in the Savannah Republican, it also was difficult to keep such horrors out of the domestic (i.e., legal) slave trade. Implicitly supporting the Putnam Associates’ demand that the penal code be strengthened to close loopholes, “Philanthropist” pleaded that readers not abandon opposition to the legal introduction of slaves into Georgia. The number of Blacks was reaching a “formidable” level, he asserted, and the legislature must prohibit the practice; allowing it to continue would “deteriorate the morals of our citizens.”
The Journal also featured installments from a series in Niles’ Register in Baltimore seemingly intended to convince southern slaveholders that only colonizing their slaves in Africa would prevent an explosion from pressures building on the “peculiar institution.”
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The campaign against both the legal and illegal introduction of slaves into Georgia kept those accusations before the public, as did initial public support in Georgia for the work of the American Colonization Society (ACS), which hoped to transport slaves voluntarily freed by their masters to their “homes” in Africa. However, both would become casualties of the angry, divisive debate in Congress over the status of slavery in the territory of Missouri.
The first shot attempting to link a proposed ban on slavery in Missouri to the work of the ACS was fired in the Georgia Journal in January 1820, when a writer implied that the real goal of the Colonization Society was abolition. He claimed that the ACS was part of “an organized conspiracy against the [slave] property of the southern country” and that, if the current debate over Missouri were any indication, Congress was about to join the conspirators. This letter induced another writer to defend the ACS and, later in the year, to support at length the merits of a colonization policy.
In May 1820, the ACS’s Putnam County auxiliary, against the background of the Missouri controversy, published a long piece promising that its members would “proceed with the Parent Society, no longer than [the Colonization Society’s] proceedings are prudent and justifiable.” “Aristides” joined the debate in a letter on “Free Persons of Color.” Though his main purpose was to criticize recent legislation, including strict penalties to force registration of free blacks in Georgia, he closed with vaguely worded support for colonization.
In 1823, the Georgia Journal published a report from the managers of the Putnam Auxiliary Society for colonizing free blacks, who tacitly admitted that the Missouri crisis, and the financial embarrassments accompanying the Panic of 1819, had led to a drop in support for their activities. They also mentioned that, if the state won custody of “certain Africans [illegally imported into Georgia by former Creek Agent–and Crawford ally–David Mitchell and his associate William Bowen, but apprehended by the state],” in a case still wending its way through the courts, the ACS would transport them back to their homeland, after reimbursing Georgia for any expenses.
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Most people learn American–and Georgia–history from textbooks, which are of course colorless and dull, as a rule. Only a few such amateur historians take the opportunity to examine textbook generalizations in detail. And, if they do, they realize that the controversy over slavery in Missouri was indeed a turning point in both Georgia’s and the nation’s history before the Civil War, just as the textbooks had always insisted.
No longer was it considered wise, or safe, to debate the institution of slavery in the southern press; to do so might give aid and comfort to the “peculiar institution’s” enemies. So, what some historians refer to as an “intellectual iron curtain” began to descend across the South. To criticize the region’s “party line” on slavery and Abolition became increasingly unhealthy.
Likewise, the African colonization movement, which certainly drew some white Georgians into its orbit in the early nineteenth-century, gradually became unpopular, then positively dangerous, in an era when the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery was coming under constant attack from forces outside the region, especially the Abolitionists.
Finally, in 1826, the Georgia legislature returned the remaining “Africans” smuggled into Georgia, by David Mitchell and William Bowen, to Bowen. As the case crept through the state judicial system, legislators, stung by hostile popular reaction to the Missouri Compromise and by growing attacks on the colonization movement, had begun to look at Bowen in a different light.
William Bowen was magically transformed by successive sessions of the Georgia legislature from a heartless importer of smuggled African slaves into a beleaguered owner of the South’s “peculiar” form of “property.” To deprive Bowen of his “right” to his “property” would set an unfortunate precedent for other southern slaveholders. So, the only possible answer was to validate Bowen’s ownership of the smuggled Africans, and that’s what the legislature did in 1826.
For those interested in reading more about Georgia History, here are links to my books on the subject:
Politics on the Periphery: Factions and Parties in Georgia, 1783-1806 (University of Delaware Press, 1986)