Congressional debate over slavery, 1790

On Feb. 11, 1790, a delegation of Quakers from Philadelphia, including Benjamin Franklin, submitted to Congress a petition to end the importation of slaves.  On Feb. 12 a second Franklin-led delegation, from The Pennsylvania Society for Abolition, presented a more radical petition calling for abolition.  The petitions were referred to a committee, which drafted a report noting constitutional limitations on congressional power to address the issue. In reaction, members of the House spoke on both sides of the issue, rehearsing many of the rhetorical positions that became the basis of the slavery debate throughout the pre-Civil War period.

Far from being a non-issue, or one that developed only gradually due to abolitionist pressures, this illustrates the fact that positions and strong feelings on the slavery issue, and its linkage with the nature of the Union, states' rights, racial theories, historical and biblical justifications, and world opinion, among other things, were already widely perceived from the beginning of the union.

Overview, from The National Archive

Debate in House of Representatives: see relevant volumes of the Annals of Congress using the following instructions.

  • "pages" 1224-1233 (the petition and initial debate) (Note: each column gets a separate "page" number.)
    • 2nd Session -- January 4, 1790 to February 16, 1790; in box labelled "Turn to Image," enter "1224"
    • You can read the petition of the Quakers at pp. 1224-1225.
    • You can read the petition of the Pennsylvania Society at pp.1239-40, or find a more easily readable copy here (, with ads).
    • Each is followed by a discussion of referring the petition to a committee, which was the usual practice. Members from the deep South argued strongly against even referring it. 
  • pages 1465-1467 (the committee's report)
    • 2nd Session -- February 16, 1790 to August 12, 1790; in box labelled "Turn to Image," enter "1465", where the report itself first appears, followed by a brief argument on when to take up discussion of it.  Discussion veers off at top of 1467 into other topics.
  • pages 1500-1514; 1516-1522; 1523-1525 (debate and amendment of the report)
    • 2nd Session -- February 16, 1790 to August 12, 1790
    • in box labelled "Turn to Image," enter "1499" (the relevant physical page consists of columns 1499 and 1500; entering "1500" gets you the physical page after that.  Feature or bug?  Bug.)
    • See especially the reports of remarks of Messrs. Brown and Burke (p 1502) and the extensive elaboration on the same themes in the report on the speech of Mr. Smith of South Carolina, pp. 1503-1514. Note these features:
      • Protests the "calumny" of the Quakers against the South and their "intolerant spirit of persecution" (1503).
      • Characterizes the petition as advocating the freeing of all slaves.  The Quaker petition asked only the ending of the slave trade; Smith is focusing on the other petition, that from the Pennsylvania Society for Abolition, and on Franklin personally.  Most of the speech, then, is devoted to opposing abolition (from 1504).  
      • Warns that southerners would never submit to such an attempt without a struggle (1504-05).
      • Blacks are "indolent, improvident, averse to labor; when emancipated, they would either starve or plunder" (1505); they are "an inferior race even to the Indians" (1509).
      • Slaves would be worse off if freed (1505).
      • Warns of the dangers of miscegenation and extinction of the white race (1506).
      • Slavery has been accepted through the ages, including Biblically (1506, 1512), usually in harsher form than in the South (1512-13).
      • Whereas Quakers warn that slavery weakens the country against foreign attack (since slaves would fight for enemy), Smith warns that the pacifist Quakers weaken the country (1506-07, 1508).
      • Slavery is a matter of internal concern to states, of states' rights (1507).
      • Both North and South knew what they were getting in each other when they agreed to the Constitution (1508).
      • Southern economy depends on slavery, hence Northern one does too (1510). Only blacks will do the labor needed (1510).
    • Mr Boudinot of New Jersey offers an extensive reply, pp. 1517-1522.



Dramatis personae (in order of appearance): U.S. Representatives


  • Thomas Fitzsimmons (Pro-administration-Pennsylvania)
  • "Mr. Lawrence," actually John Laurance (P-N.Y.)
  • Thomas Hartley (P-Penn.)
  • Alexander White (P-Va.)
  • William L. Smith (P-S.C.)
  • James Jackson (Anti-administration-Georgia)
  • Roger Sherman (P-Conn.)
  • Josiah Parker (A-Va.)
  • James Madison (A-Va.)
  • Michael J. Stone (A-Md.)
  • Aedanus Burke (A-S.C.)
  • Theodore Sedgwick (P-Mass.)
  • Elias Boudinot (P-N.J.)
  • Elbridge Gerry (A-Mass.)
  • John Page (A-Va.)
  • Abraham Baldwin (A-Ga.)
  • Benjamin Huntington (P-Conn.)
  • Thomas Tudor Tucker (A-S.C.)
  • George Clymer (P-Penn.)
  • John Vining (P-Del.)
  • John Brown (A-Va.)
  • Thomas Scott (P-Penn.)
  • Theodorick Bland (A-Va.)