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Slavery in the Early Republic
Digital History ID 234

Author:   William Few


Georgia, as we have seen, was the only colony that ever attempted to outlaw slavery. As early as 1750, however, the colony's settlers had acquired slaves despite the efforts of Georgia's trustees and the British government to stop them. Because of Georgia's late start in establishing a plantation economy, there were only 3,500 slaves (out of a total population of 9,600) in 1760.

Demand for slaves soared during the 1760s and 1770s. Delegates from Georgia vehemently opposed the First Continental Congress's prohibition on slave imports and by the early and mid-1790s, Georgia was the only state still legally importing slaves.

In 1793, however, in response to the Haitian Revolution, Georgia excluded slave imports from the West Indies and Spanish Florida; and in 1798, prohibited all further slave imports, partly out of a fear of slave revolts.

In 1803, the neighboring state of South Carolina reopened the African slave trade and legally imported some 40,000 African slaves between 1803 and 1808. The state law barred slaves from the West Indies (for fear that they might lead slave revolts) and required slaves imported from other states to be of "good character; and have not been concerned in any insurrection." The decision to reopen the Atlantic slave trade, motivated by the growing demand for cotton after the invention of the cotton gin and the opening of fresh lands for slavery in Louisiana, shocked the nation and produced a move in Congress to abolish the Three-Fifths Compromise.

The following letter describes the mounting controversy over slavery. The letter's author, William Few (1748-1828), was a signer of the Constitution from Georgia who moved to New York in 1799. This letter's recipient, Edward Telfair (1735-1807), served several terms as Georgia's governor.


...Is there one person of understanding & reflection among you who will not admit that every consideration of justice, humanity, and safety, forbids that any more Negroes should be brought into your state, and yet it is well known that the avarice of your citizens, and the rage for acquiring that property has broke through all legal restrictions, and in violation of law and every principle of policy and expediency they are carrying on that diabolical and injurious traffic, and hastening those evils in their nature most dreadful, which seems to demand every exertion to retard or prevent it. Trust not on your Eastern friends for aid, if you do not enforce righteous measures for your own safety; they will laugh at your calamity and seek for profit by your misfortunes. Already they begin to resist that principle in the Constitution which admits the Negroes of the Southern States to increase the number of Representatives in the Congress of the United States. A motion has been brought forward in the Legislature of Massachusetts to instruct their Members of the move for an as to apportion the number of Representatives according to the number of free men in the United States.…

Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute

Additional information: William Few to Edward Telfair

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