Select Committee on Illegal Traffic in Slaves in D.C. Appointment of House Select Committee



Mr. Randolph then rose and said that it was his purpose to move for instructions to the Committee of the said District upon a subject of infinitely more importance in every point of view than those to which Mr. Goldsborough had adverted. He expressed a wish that some other gentleman had undertaken the business; but as no one had thought proper to awaken the House to a sense of their concern in it, or to point the finger of scorn at it, he would take upon him the office to do it, and to call upon the House to put a stop to proceedings at that moment carried on under their very noses; proceedings that were a crying sin before God and man; a practice which, he said, was not surpassed for abomination in any part of the earth; for in no part of it, not even excepting the rivers on the coast of Africa, was there so great and so infamous a slave market as in the metropolis, in the very Seat of Government of this nation, which prided itself on freedom. Before he proceeded further, he fenced himself in against all suspicion of unduly interfering in the very delicate subject of the relation between the slave and his owner, and to that end he reminded the House that where a bill was brought in some years before to prevent the prosecution of the African slave trade, he had voted against it, because it professed a principle against which it was the duty of every man of the southern or slaveholding States to set his face; for it assumed a prerogative to interfere in the right of property between the master and his slave. On account of that opposition he had been calumniously and falsely held up, as one of the advocates of the most nefarious, the most disgraceful, and most infernal traffic that has ever stained the annals of the human race. Upon another occasion, too, when a member of that House had taken upon him the lien between slave and master, he had raised his voice against him. He had never directly or indirectly acquiesced in the weak and wailing plans of those who, by way of relieving the unfortunate African, would throw the States into danger; he would never weaken the form of the contract between the owner and his slave, and he would never deny that the citizens of other States coming into the slaveholding States might exercise the right of ownership over the slaves they might purchase; but it was not necessary to that exercise that this city should be made a depot of slaves, who were bought either from cruel masters or kidnapped; and of those who were kidnapped, he said there were two kinds—slaves stolen from their masters, and free persons stolen, as he might say, from themselves. It was not necessary that we should have, here in the very streets of our new metropolis, a depot for this nefarious traffic—in comparison with which the traffic from Africa to Charleston or Jamaica was mercy, was virtue. Indeed there could be no comparison rationally instituted between taking those savages from their native wilds and tearing the civilized informed negro, habituated to cultivated life, from his master, his friends, his wife, his children, or his parents. As to the right of passing through the place, as ordinary occasions might require, it was unquestionable; but there was a great difference between that and making the District a depot for a systematic slave market—an assemblage of prisons where the unfortunate beings, reluctant, no doubt, to be torn from their connexions, and the affections of their lives, were incarcerated and chained down, and thence driven in fetters like beasts, to be paid for like cattle. Mr. R. therefore moved that the Committee of the District of Columbia should be instructed to inquire into the inhuman and illegal traffic in slaves carried on in the District, and to devise some speedy means to put a stop to it.

Mr. Tucker (chairman of that committee) suggested that it would be better to have it referred to the committee some time since appointed to form a system of laws for the District.

Mr. Randolph expressed his regret that the honorable gentleman seemed disposed to decline the task, and offered himself to take his share in the enterprise. The object of the resolution, he said, was a more coercive police. He knew that the demands for cotton, tobacco, and latterly of sugar, created a demand for slaves, and we had a description of people here like those described by Mungo Park, (only that they are not so humane or so honest,) white traders, who make this their depot, and sell human beings; and to verify this charge, and show the audacious villainy of their proceedings, he dwelt upon these words of   an advertisement of a sale of negroes—"No objection to traders bidding." The increase in the price was the temptation for which their base, hard-hearted masters sold out of their families the negroes who had been raised among them. That very day he had heard a horrible fact from a respectable gentleman as he came to the House, which he would relate. A poor negro, by hard work and saving of his allowances, had laid by money enough to buy the freedom of his wife and child, and had paid it from time to time into the hands of his master, but the poor fellow died. The transaction was an affair of honor with the master, and the day after the poor fellow's death, the woman and child were sold. One fact like this spoke volumes. He repeated, that if the honorable chairman of the Committee of the District of Columbia refused to take upon him the inquiry into this rank offence, he (Mr. R.) would himself be among these people. He declared that he was lately mortified at being told by a foreigner of high rank, "You call this the land of liberty, and every day that passes things are done in it at which the despotisms of Europe would be horrorstruck and disgusted."

Mr. Wright said the laws were sufficient to take cognizance of this business, and said that there was worse slavery practised in Europe, [Alluding to pressing in the navy of England.]

Mr. Goldsborough expressed his satisfaction at this affair being brought before the House. He had himself more than once met more than a dozen of those unhappy wretches marching in droves through the street. He met them even in the avenue, and it was a notorious fact that this was the channel of transmission for them. Speaking of laws was useless. When the evils were seen to exist, and were not prevented, it was a proof that the laws were of no value, or were not executed.

Mr. Hopkinson had no idea of Congress taking such care about matters of inferior consideration, while such flagitious, and, to the nation, disgraceful deeds of guilt were suffered to be perpetrated under its very eye and with its knowledge. He suggested that as Mr. Randolph had, to his own great honor, offered his co-operation, it would be best to appoint a select committee for the purpose, and moved for one accordingly.

Mr. Tucker declared that the honorable gentleman (Mr. R.) had misunderstood him, and that he was no less willing than himself to cooperate in the measure, and concurred in Mr. Hopkinson's opinion, that a select committee would be best.

The resolution passed is as follows:

Resolved, That a committee be appointed to inquire into the existence of an inhuman and illegal traffic in slaves carried on in and through the District of Columbia, and to report whether any, and what, measures are necessary for putting a stop to the same.

Messrs. Randolph, Hopkinson, Goldsborough, Mayrant, and Kerr, were appointed the said committee.