January 24th, 1804
Virginia Bans Slave Meetings
On January 24, 1804, the Virginia General Assembly banned the congregation of slaves, prohibiting “all meetings of slaves at any meeting house or any other place in the night.” Violation of the law resulted in corporal punishment of no more than twenty whip lashes. The interpretation and application of the law greatly varied by local counties.
The enactment of the law followed Gabriel’s Rebellion, a major slave revolt in Richmond, Virginia, planned by a slave named Gabriel Prosser during the summer of 1800. The rebellion was quickly repressed when information about his plan was exposed. The Act attempted to limit the congregation of slaves to prevent further rebellions in the state.
Following another failed slave rebellion led by Nat Turner of Southampton County, Virginia in 1831, the state legislature enacted a series of laws to further curtail the right to assembly for slaves and free blacks. That same year, a new law specified the different venues of meeting areas, prohibiting “all meetings of free Negroes or mulattoes at any school house, church, meeting house or other place for teaching them reading or writing.” It additionally enforced the fining and imprisonment of any white person instructing blacks, free or enslaved, to read and write.
February 15th, 1804
"Gradual Emancipation" in New Jersey
New Jersey passed a law providing for the gradual emancipation of slaves on February 15, 1804, and in doing so became the last Northern state to begin the emancipation process. The 1804 act provided that children of slaves born after July 4, 1804, would be freed when they reached age twenty-one for women and age twenty-five for men.
To address the protests of slaveholders concerned they would be forced to support slave children who eventually would become free, the statute provided that slave children more than twelve months old could be abandoned to the state. These children were then bound out to work as "apprentices" - often to the same master who abandoned them - while the state paid for the maintenance of the child.
Despite the purported benefits of this gradual emancipation scheme, the United States Supreme Court held as late as 1827 that New Jersey's law continued to permit the sale of slave children and so-called "apprentices." In Ogden v. Price, the Court upheld the sale of a thirteen-year-old girl despite language in the 1804 law providing that an apprentice was not subject to sale but only to assignment.
March 2nd, 1807
Congress Bans International Slave Trade
On March 2, 1807, Congress approved a bill to ban the importation of slaves into the United States. The act took effect on January 1, 1808, and provided that violators were to be fined up to $2000 or imprisoned. The act was poorly enforced; the government often refused to allow the British Royal Navy to search and seize American slave ships and rarely imposed serious punishments against captains, officers, and owners of slave ships participating in illegal slave trading. Consequently, Africans continued to be smuggled into the country, but in smaller numbers. In the two decades following the ban, approximately 10,000 enslaved Africans were brought to the Gulf region, compared to the 73,000 enslaved Africans who arrived in the United States between 1801 and 1808. Mobile, Alabama, holds the distinction of being the port of entry for the last cargo of African slaves kidnapped and brought into the United States in 1859.
The act did not hinder the domestic sale of slaves within the United States and it failed to provide a remedy for illegally trafficked Africans. It freed them from the control of the smuggler but left their fates to the mercy of the state where the ship docked which, in most cases, condemned them to slavery. Slavery would not be legally abolished until the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution on December 6, 1865.