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of the United States, and having on board any negro, mulatto, or other person of color, not being a native, a citizen, or registered seaman of the United States, or seamen natives of countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope, as aforesaid, shall be admitted to an entry.”
The act proceeds to prescribe penalties for the violation of these provisions, and to make it the duty of the officers of the revenue of the United States to notice, and be governed by, the provisions of the laws, then existing, of the several States, prohibiting the admission or importation of any negro, mulatto, or other person of color, as aforesaid.
A very brief examination of this act will be sufficient, in the judgment of the committee, to show that it has little, if any, bearing upon the grievances complained of by the memorialists or upon the State laws which are the subject of this report. Indeed, the committee would hardly have thought it necessary to allude to the act, had it not been relied on to some extent by a late Attorney-General of the United States, (Mr. Berrien,) whose opinion is annexed to the report of the minority, to justify the operation of the law of South Carolina in the case of Daniel Fraser, a British sailor, born in the British West Indies.
The act of 1803 was evidently passed in reference to that provision of the Constitution of the United States which declares, “ that the migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year 1808.” This provision of the Constitution, it is well understood, had immediate relation to the slave trade, and was designed to secure to the several States of the Union, until the year 1808, the right to admit within their limits, or to exclude altogether, at their own discretion, the unfortunate subjects of this infamous traffic. The act of 1803 was obviously intended to aid those States, which might prohibit the admission of such persons, in the enforcement of such prohibitions. Congress, however, having taken this whole subject into its own hands at the earliest moment at which the Constitution empowered it to do so, and having enacted laws, coextensive with the whole country, in relation to the introduction of such persons into the United
States, the reasons of the act of 1803 would seem to have wholly ceased; and it may well be questioned whether the act itself, though never formally repealed, has not ceased also. The committee incline to the opinion that it is a mere dead letter upon the statute book.
If, however, it is supposed to have any thing of vitality left, it must be observed that it relates exclusively to vessels arriving from foreign lands. This is evident, both from the general phraseology of the act, and from the particular penalty prescribed for its violation. The vessel, it is declared, shall not be admitted to "entry.” But vessels bound to or from one State cannot constitutionally be required to “enter” in another. The act, moreover, expressly excepts from the operation of its provisions all colored persons who are “natives, citizens, or registered seamen of the United States, or seamen natives of countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope.” In relation to all colored persons thus excepted, therefore, the act of 1803 contains no prohibition on the part of the general government, and authorizes none on the part of any State; nor are any of its provisions applicable to vessels of the United States passing from port to port. The direct implication of the act, on the contrary, clearly is, that all colored persons included in the terms of the exception, shall have free and unmolested ingress into all the ports of this Union, and that our own vessels shall pass along from port to port with such crews, so far as color is concerned, as their masters and owners may see fit to employ. If, then, the act of 1803 be still in force, and if this be its just construction, no other evidence can be required, that the laws of the Southern States complained of by the memorialists, are in direct collision with a law of the United States.
There is one view in which the law of 1803 is certainly not without importance. There is one point on which, even if dead, it still speaks. The distinct recognition which it contains, of the idea that a negro, mulatto, or other colored person, may be a “ citizen” of the United States, is sufficient to prove the opinion which was entertained by the Congress of 1803, upon a doctrine which of late years has so often been denied.
The Committee do not deem it necessary to dwell longer on
the constitutional character of the proceedings which the memorial sets forth, or of the State laws by which they are sanctioned. They content themselves with appending, as a part of their report, an opinion on the subject, officially communicated to the Secretary of State, by the late William Wirt, while AttorneyGeneral of the United States, in the year 1824; and also an opinion of the late Mr. Justice Johnson, of the Supreme Court of the United States, delivered in a case arising under these laws in Charleston, South Carolina, in the year 1823. This latter opinion, for which a call upon the Executive was made by this House at the last session of Congress, contains a comprehensive and conclusive view of the whole subject, and, as the production of a native South Carolinian, can hardly be subject to the imputation of local prejudice.
That the operation of these laws is oppressive upon the memorialists, and greatly injurious to the general interests of commerce, the committee can see no reason and no room to doubt. For some of the stations on board both of our sailing vessels and steamboats, colored mariners are thought to possess peculiar qualifications. They are very generally employed as firemen, laborers, stewards, and cooks. The memorialists state that it is frequently necessary to employ them. The abduction of persons so employed immediately on the arrival of a vessel in port, and their detention at a heavy expense until the very moment of its departure, cannot be less an injury to their employers than it is an outrage on themselves. The opinion of Mr. Justice Johnson will be found to make mention of a case, in which, under the operation of these laws, “not a single man was left on board the vessel to guard her in the captain's absence!”
The committee are of opinion, that the memorialists are entitled to the relief for which they pray, and that important commercial interests, as well as the highest constitutional principles, call for the repeal of the laws in question. Congress, however, seems to have no means of affording such relief, or of effecting such a repeal. The Judiciary alone can give relief from the oppression of these laws while they exist, and the States which enacted them are alone competent to strike
them from their statute books. The committee cannot conclude this report, however, without putting the opinions at which they have arrived into a shape, in which they may receive the ratification and adoption of the House; trusting that such an expression of them may not be without influence in procuring for the memorialists, and still more for the oppressed and injured seamen in their employ, the redress which they rightfully demand.
They accordingly submit the following Resolutions :
Resolved, That the seizure and imprisonment, in any port of this Union, of free colored seamen, citizens of any of the States, and against whom there is no charge but that of entering said port in the prosecution of their rightful business, is a violation of the privileges of citizenship guaranteed by the second section of the fourth article of the Constitution of the United States.
Resolved, That the seizure and imprisonment, in any port of this Union, of free colored seamen, on board of foreign vessels, against whom there is no charge but that of entering said port in the course of their lawful business, is a breach of the comity of nations, is incompatible with the rights of all nations in amity with the United States, and, in relation to nations with whom the United States have formed commercial conventions, is a violation of the sixth article of the Federal Constitution, which declares that treaties are a part of the supreme law of the land.
Resolved, That any State laws, by which certain classes of seamen are prohibited from entering certain ports of this Union, in the prosecution of their rightful business, are in contravention of the paramount and exclusive power of the general government to regulate commerce.
Resolved, That the police power of the States can justify no enactments or regulations, which are in direct, positive, and permanent conflict with express provisions or fundamental principles of the national compact.
TO THE HONORABLE THE SENATE AND HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF
THE UNITED STATES, IN CONGRESS ASSEMBLED:
Your petitioners, citizens of the United States, and some of them owners and masters of vessels, RESPECTFULLY REPRESENT,
That on board of that large number of vessels accustomed to touch at the ports of Charleston, Savannah, Mobile, and New Orleans, it is frequently necessary to employ free persons of color:
And whereas it frequently happens that such crews are taken from the vessels, thrown into prison, and there detained at their own expense, greatly to the prejudice and detriment of their interest, and of the commerce of these States :
They pray your honorable body to grant them relief, and render effectual in their behalf the privileges of citizenship secured by the Constitution of the United States.
And, as in duty bound, will ever pray.
Samuel T. Armstrong
Henry J. Nazro
Henry J. Oliver
Bramhall & Howe
C. Wilkins & Co.
George Thatcher & Co.
Charles C. Bowman
John J. Eaton
Henderson Inches, Jr.
T. M. J. Dehon
Joseph Ballister & Co.
Josiah Bradlee & Co.