The 13th Amendment to the Constitution made slavery illegal in the United States. Period, full stop. Note that by the time the Civil War began, the process to end slavery in the U.S. was well underway.
Unfortunately, the country took a step backward when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793. It gave slave owners the right to recover slaves that had fled to another state. However, this was the last act that favored the slave industry.
However, in 1794, 71 years before the 13th Amendment was passed, with the Slave Trade Act of 1794, the U.S. Congress took the first steps to eliminate slavery in the U.S. The law, passed by the Second U.S. Congress, was signed by President Washington on March 22nd, 1794.
This act made it illegal for U.S. shipyards to build, outfit, or modify any ship to be used in the slave trade. It also made it illegal for American merchants to transport slaves or own ships that did. Penalties were severe, i.e., the ship would be seized and hefty fines levied.
This was significant because Washington and his Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, and many Senators and Representatives from Georgia, North and South Carolina, and Virginia were slave owners.
This legislation was, admittedly, a compromise. Fast forward six years. John Adams was now the President, and Thomas Jefferson was his Vice President. Ending slavery was one of the few issues the two men agreed upon, and Congress passed the Anti-Slavery Act of 1800 on May 10th, 1800.
In the Anti-Slavery Act of 1800, the law went further. First, it made it illegal to import slaves into the United States. It also made it a crime for a U.S. citizen or a resident of the U.S. to be involved either as an investor or owner in a business that imported slaves.
The act raised fines that could be levied and prohibited U.S. citizens from serving on ships under any flag that carried slaves. It also authorized the Federal government to seize ships carrying slaves. Those captured ships would be sold, and the money would be given to the government unless an informant was involved. If the information provided by an informant led to the seizure of a ship in the slave trade, the informant would receive whatever proceeds were generated by the sale of the ship.
In 1807, in a law that took effect on January 1st, 1808, and signed by President Jefferson, Congress again increased the penalties mandated in earlier laws and restated that U.S. citizens were forbidden to import or export slaves. Unfortunately, Congress did not restrict the sale of slaves between residents in different states, which the Interstate Commerce Clause (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3) in the Constitution, gave it the power to do.
On March 3rd, 1819, the U.S. Congress enacted an “Act to protect the commerce of the United States and punish the crime of piracy.” Its provisions stated that any U.S. citizen who brought someone on board his vessel involuntarily was to be considered involved in the slave trade and, by doing so, had committed an act of piracy. Piracy convictions have long been punishable by death.
Nathaniel Gordon was the only American slave trader to be tried, convicted, and executed “for being engaged in the Slave Trade” under this law. He was hanged in New York on February 21st, 1862.
Yes, it took an ugly civil war to end slavery in the U.S., but the point of this post is that the end of slavery began with our Founding Fathers. Even though many were slave owners and knew it was wrong, they started working on compromises that would abolish slavery. Proof of the pudding is that many, upon their death, freed their slaves.
Image is a leg irons used by a Dutch slave trader