Date of Award
M.A. in History
John R. Neff
University of Mississippi
In 1790 1804 and 1819 the U.S. House of Representatives debated measures intended to restrict slavery and the transatlantic slave trade. During these three debates slaveholding representatives primarily from the Lower South attempted to call into question the general government’s right to discuss and legislate on slavery contending that except for in a few specific instances outlined in the Constitution slavery was purely a state matter not a national one. Their opponents employed a variety of tactics to counter this idea. One particularly effective approach was an expression of concern for the impact of slavery and the slave trade on the national character—the nation’s honor or reputation among other nations of the Atlantic world. Those who invoked concern for the national character did so as a way to keep slavery and the transatlantic slave trade in the national dialogue and legitimize these issues as national matters over which the general government possessed authority. In 1790 in response to three antislavery memorials sent to Congress a few representatives used national character and national interest to combat the contention that the slave trade and slavery were not national issues. In 1804 following South Carolina’s decision to reopen the transatlantic slave trade members of the House invoked anxiety for the national character to censure the state’s actions using national character to discuss imposing a tax on the transatlantic slave trade. In 1819 and 1820 as the House debated a proposal to restrict slavery in the new state of Missouri representatives who favored restriction used concern for the impact of the spread of slavery on the national character to promote the general government’s authority to impose the restriction. During all three debates members of the House of Representatives used concern over what other nations would think of the United States to validate discussion of antislavery measures in Congress. Examining these debates about slavery and the slave trade through the lens of national character provides valuable insight to the ambiguous relationship between slavery and the general government as well as the relationship between slavery and the founding principles of the United States.
Johnson, Jessica, "To sink our national character: slavery and national character in the U.S. house of representatives, 1789-1820" (2019). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 1768.