I have just read an article in the autumn edition of The Historian (British publication of the Historical Association) by Professor John Coffey of the University of Leicester on The secret diaries of William Wilberforce.

In it he refers to 1807, the year in which the work of William Wilberforce MP, and others in the movement for the abolition of slavery first bore fruit. The passage of the Slave Trade Act in the British Parliament of that year, outlawed the trade in slaves.

In the same year, 1807, during the presidency of slave-owner Thomas Jefferson, the US Congress outlawed the importation of slaves into the United States.

Is this date co-incidental - or was there a co-ordinated movement on both sides of the Atlantic, for the mutual passing of legislation through both institutions. Or did one impact on, and lead to the other?


1 Answer 1


Probably coincidental - the U.S. Constitution (Article 1, section 9) says:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

So Congress was prohibited by the Constitution from forbidding the importation of slaves prior to 1808, when the law you mentioned took effect (reference). While Wilberforce and others in Britain could easily have been aware of this, I doubt that it would have been a major influence on what happened in Britain.

I will also note that due to the Napoleonic Wars the US passed the Embargo Act of 1807, so political coordination between the two countries would not have been likely at the time.

Quoting Wikipedia:

The Embargo Act of 1807 was a general trade embargo on all foreign nations that was enacted by the United States Congress. As a successor or replacement law for the 1806 Non-importation Act and passed as the Napoleonic Wars continued, it represented an escalation of attempts to coerce Britain to stop any impressment of American sailors and to respect American sovereignty and neutrality but also attempted to pressure France and other nations in the pursuit of general diplomatic and economic leverage.

  • 1
    +1 Thank you. But presumably the law, effective from 1808, must also have been an attempt to stop the trade. In view of the doctrine of "states rights" I am also puzzled as to how such a federal law could have been effective as early as that in the 19th century.
    – WS2
    Nov 12, 2021 at 22:39
  • 2
    @WS2, it's right there in the Constitution (Article 1, section 8): "The Congress shall have Power To...regulate Commerce with foreign Nations".
    – Mark
    Nov 13, 2021 at 1:26
  • @Mark Ah! I see.
    – WS2
    Nov 13, 2021 at 12:04
  • Was there an error in the link to the US constitution?
    – xngtng
    Nov 14, 2021 at 15:43

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