a. speech on the extension of slavery, 23 march 1798

    [With the Senate’s approval of Pinckney’s Treaty (the Treaty of San Lorenzo) on 7 March 1796, the federal government assumed jurisdiction over a large section of the “Old Southwest,” which had been disputed territory since the Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War thirteen years earlier. Georgia claimed that the newly annexed territory was simply a restoration of its own longstanding claims to the same area. The Mississippi Territory Bill established a provisional government until Georgia’s claims could be resolved.

    Article III of the bill directed that the new territorial government should be modeled after the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—omitting only the latter’s famous exclusion of slavery. On 23 March 1798, Thatcher announced his intention to propose an amendment “touching the rights of man, by moving to strike out the excepting clause.” The ensuing debate was remarkable for the many ingenious arguments posed by some of the greatest minds in Congress that day, including Robert Goodloe Harper (S.C.), Albert Gallatin (Penn.), and William Branch Giles (Va.).

    Predictably, many southerners urged Thatcher to withdraw the motion. But one of the most startling attacks came from Boston’s own Harrison Gray Otis, who hoped the motion would stand and that Thatcher’s amendment would be debated—if only to manifest his fellow northerners’ resolve not to meddle with slavery. Virginia’s John Nicholas conceded slavery to be a curse but remarkably, for that very reason, opposed preventing its spread to the new territory since “it was not for them to attempt to make a particular spot of country more happy than all the rest.”]

    Mr. Thatcher was of opinion directly opposite to the gentleman just sat down. Indeed they seldom did agree in sentiment: today they differed very widely. He believed the true interest and happiness of the United States would be promoted by agreeing to this amendment; because its tendency was to prevent the increase of an evil which was acknowledged by the very gentlemen themselves who are owners of slaves. Indeed the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Nicholas) had frequently declared in that House, that slavery was an evil of great magnitude. In this respect they agreed in opinion; for he considered the existence of slavery in the United States, as the greatest of evils—and evil in direct hostility to the principles of our government; and he believed the government had a right to take all due measures to diminish and destroy the evil, although, in doing it, they might injure the property of some individuals; for he never could be brought to believe that an individual can have a right in any thing which goes to the destruction of our government, viz. that he can have a right in a wrong. A property in slaves is founded in wrong, and never can be right. He believed government must of necessity put a stop to this evil, and the sooner they entered upon the business, the better.

    Mr. T. said, he honestly confessed, he did not like to hear much said in that House about the rights of man; because, of late, there had been much quackery as to these rights. But because these rights have been abused, it did not follow that man has no rights. Where legislators are freely chosen by the people, and frequently renewed; where a law cannot be passed without affecting the interests of the persons who pass it, these rights cannot greatly be abused; but, when we take upon us to legislate for men against their will, it is proper enough to say something about the rights of man, and to remind others, who are frequently heard speaking of these rights, that by nature these enslaved men are entitled to rights; and on that account it was, when he made this motion, that he said he would make a motion touching the rights of man.

    The reasons offered against the amendments by the gentleman from Virginia [Giles], were a little singular. He contended that certain states were overflowing with slaves, and if not colonized, by opening this wide tract of country to them, they would not be able to keep or manage them. He himself always thought that colonizing these people tended to increase the race, far beyond what it would be when penned closely together.

    Mr. Giles explained, by saying, that he had said nothing about decreasing the number of blacks, but of spreading them over a larger surface of country.

    Mr. T. said, he understood the gentleman’s argument perfectly, though he did not seem to understand it himself. The gentleman wished to take the blacks away from places where they are huddled up together, and spread them over this territory; they wished to get rid of them, and to plague others with them. But they had them, and if they determined to keep them, he wished only they should be plagued with them.

    We are, said Mr. T. about to establish a government for a new country. Ours originated from, and was founded on the rights of man, upon which ground we mean to protect it, and could there be any propriety in emanating a government from ours, in which slavery is not only tolerated, but sanctioned by law? Certainly not.

    It was used as an argument against this amendment, that this territory would be peopled by emigrants from the southern states, who cannot work for themselves; and on that account they must have slaves to work for them. If this be true, it makes the people of the southern states only fit to superintend slaves. The language of this is, that these people cannot subsist, except they have slaves to work for them.

    For the reasons he had stated, he hoped the amendment would be agreed to; but if gentlemen thought those who at present hold slaves in the Territory should be protected in them, he should not be opposed to their holding them for a limited period.

    [The motion was immediately put and negatived, with only eleven other members joining Thatcher, and the Mississippi Territory Act was approved two weeks later.]

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    CADA, 27 March 1798. For full coverage of the debate, see Annals of Congress, 5th Cong., 2nd sess., pp. 1306-12. In 1802 Georgia surrendered its claim and ceded the rest of its western territory, which was annexed to the Mississippi Territory in 1804. Including the addition of the coastal counties south of 31°N, annexed in 1812 but not formally purchased from Spain until 1819, the Territory formed the present-day states of Mississippi and Alabama in 1817 and 1819 respectively.