Shortly after the turn of the 19th century, the importation of slaves into the U.S. was made illegal. On paper. In 1820, Congress even deemed such behavior a form of piracy, a capital crime. But this was a law that wasn’t often enforced, and those who were found breaking it expected fines and brief incarcerations and not much else.
The importation of slaves into the U.S. did decrease markedly in the first half of the 19th century, but not because of the porous American law. Other destinations – Brazil, Cuba – had demand for servile labor, and many of the still-active slave traders focused on those markets more than American ones.
Also, despite British attempts to shut down the African trade, the U.S. refused to allow the Royal Navy to stop and board American-flagged vessels on the high seas for inspection, even if the American ship might be engaged in mutually-recognized illegal activity. Embarrassingly and predictably, Old Glory soon became the preferred flag-of-protection for slave traders in international waters.
Piracy? Capital crime? No slave runner had ever gone to the gallows in the United States when caught.
Until Nathaniel Gordon.
Gordon’s ship was stopped by the U.S.S. Mohican on 8 August 1860 approx 50 miles off the Congolese coast, bound for Havana. On boarding, his ship was found to have 897 naked and starving Africans in the hold. The stench, it was said, was overpowering when the hatches were opened.
Gordon was arrested, and according to records enjoyed a rather loose incarceration at The Tombs, enjoying furloughs to visit his family while awaiting trial, at which time he knew he’d be given the customary slap-on-the-wrist.
It’s too bad for Gordon that Lincoln was elected twelve weeks later.
Those dusty piracy laws were resurrected. Gordon was convicted and sentenced to hang in November 1861.
“For more than forty years the statute under which he has been convicted has been a dead letter, because the moral sense of the community revolted at the penalty of death imposed on an act when done between Africa and Cuba which the law sanctioned between Maryland and Carolina,” argued Gordon’s counsel on appeal. To no avail.
Lincoln, despite petitions for clemency, and though usually one to consider a humanitarian commutation, was in no mood for mercy. Our Civil War – a conflict enflamed by the very issue of Gordon before the court – was raging throughout the country at that moment.
Gordon was executed on 20 February 1862. He was the only slaver in the United States to ever meet this juridical fate.
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