While the mobility of free blacks was generally restricted before the Civil War, the Negro Seaman Acts were laws uniquely aimed at a specific occupational group. During the antebellum era they proliferated along the southern coastal states. South Carolina was the first to pass such a law and did so in the fearful months following discovery of the Denmark Vesey slave conspiracy in 1822 when Vesey, a free man, sought assistance from foreign free blacks. The goal of the legislation was to forestall potentially dangerous contact between nonresident free blacks and slaves. By its provisions, free black sailors on board ships from outside South Carolina were incarcerated in local jails for the duration of the vessel’s visit. Ship captains were responsible for paying the costs incurred. If a captain refused or left without him, the jailed black sailor could be sold as a slave.
The laws contributed to rising antebellum sectional tensions. When challenged by northern ship captains, South Carolina courts upheld the law’s constitutionality. However, in 1823 the U.S. Circuit Court ruled the laws unconstitutional and the U.S. attorney general concurred. When Congressman John Quincy Adams had operation of the acts investigated in 1842, South Carolina representatives denounced the inquiry as threatening states’ rights and imperiling the Union. In 1844 a Massachusetts agent, dispatched to gather information for further litigation, was denounced by the state legislature, and the threat of Charleston mobs forced him to flee the state. Diplomatic incidents were provoked by these laws and British consuls frequently protested incarceration of black British sailors. Nevertheless, American secretaries of state were impotent in the face of South Carolina’s determination to exercise what it considered legitimate police power over its domestic population.
Hamer, Philip M. “Great Britain, the United States, and the Negro Seamen Acts, 1822–1848.” Journal of Southern History 1 (February 1935): 3–28.
Starobin, Robert S., ed. Denmark Vesey: The Slave Conspiracy of 1822. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1970.
Wilson, Carol. Freedom at Risk: The Kidnapping of Free Blacks in America, 1780–1865. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1994.