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Prosecuting 1794 Slave Trade Act Violation, Washington’s First U.S. Attorney for New York Seeks Aid from Pennsylvania Counterpart
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“The principal witness is supposed to have been prevailed upon, by undue Methods, to quit this District…”

RICHARD HARISON. Document Signed as U.S. Attorney for the District of New York, December 3, 1796. 1p, 9.5” x 15.75”. To William Rawle, U.S. Attorney for Pennsylvania, requesting aid in securing a witness in cases pending in the District Court to prosecute violations of the Slave Trade Act of 1794.

Inventory #26786       Price: $1,500

“The principal witness is supposed to have been prevailed upon, by undue Methods, to quit this District is thought to be either in Philadelphia or Baltimore – Should he be in the former, I would esteem it a Favor if you will take every regular Method of procuring this Testimony, that it may be used upon Trials – If he should be gone to Baltimore, I will thank you to recommend the Business to the Attorney for the District of Maryland. The Public is in every Point of View interested in the Event…”

The Slave Trade Act of 1794, passed by the Third Congress and signed by President Washington, was the first American regulation of the international slave trade. It prohibited American citizens or residents from participating in trafficking slaves to any foreign country. Harrison brought several cases under the Act: The United States vs. The Brigantine Active, and two by George Geer, for himself and the USA vs. Elisha King.                                     

Richard Harison (1747-1829) was born in New York City and graduated from King’s College in 1764. He practiced law in New York City in partnership with Alexander Hamilton. Harison was a delegate to the New York Convention that ratified the U.S. Constitution in 1788 and served in the New York State Assembly in 1788-1789. President George Washington appointed Harison as the first United States Attorney for the District of New York; he served until 1801.

William Rawle (1759-1836) was born in Philadelphia and studied law in New York City and London. He was admitted to the bar in 1783 and founded a law firm in Philadelphia, which is currently the oldest law firm in continuous practice in the United States. In 1791, President George Washington appointed Rawle as U.S. District Attorney for Pennsylvania, and he prosecuted the leaders of the Whiskey Rebellion. Rawle was a founder and first president of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, and for 40 years, a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania.

Historical Background
By 1794, every American state except Georgia had prohibited the importation of slaves (though South Carolina would reopen slave importation in 1803). Abolitionists focused their efforts on the foreign slave trade. Therefore, any federal legislation aimed at the slave trade would likely only generate opposition in Georgia and the slave-trading states of Rhode Island and New York.

In 1794, Congress passed, with virtually no opposition, the Slave Trade Act, which prohibited American ships from engaging in the international slave trade by preparing a ship for that purpose or transporting slaves to any foreign country. It also prohibited foreign ships from exporting slaves from American ports. If any ship was outfitted for such purposes, the ship and its “tackle, furniture, apparel and other appurtenances” would be forfeited to the United States and could be seized and condemned in any federal circuit or district court where the ship was found and seized. It also permitted a $2,000 fine. President George Washington signed the act into law on March 22, 1794. It was a striking victory for American abolitionists.

The first successful prosecution under the law was that of John Brown, a merchant from Providence, Rhode Island, who outfitted the ship Hope to be used in the slave trade. Brown was indicted in federal court in 1796 for violating the statute, lost his case in October 1797, and forfeited his ship.

Twenty-two cases against suspected slave ships were pursued in Rhode Island, but few were successful. Merchants, ship owners, and slave traders were often successful in evading conviction, and there was a 71 percent increase in the overall slave trade from 1794 to 1800, compared to the prior six years. In May 1800, Congress passed a revised law that closed several loopholes exploited by shipowners in an attempt to annihilate the trade. The revised law forbade American citizens from any financial involvement in any slave voyage to a foreign territory.

Only when Congress passed an “Act to prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States” in March 1807, to take effect at the earliest date allowed by the Constitution, did the United States have a truly national system that became more effective in ending American involvement in the international slave trade, though some still participated for the extensive profits that were available.

Condition: Flattened folds with a tiny hole at an intersection; expert repair to split; scattered foxing and toning; otherwise, very good.

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