[Excerpted and Reprinted]

by Thomas C. Battle, Ph.D.
Manuscript Division,
Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, 1974



     According to Article I, Section VIII, Clause 17 of the United States Constitution, the Congress shall have power "to exercise exclusive legislation, in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles squares) as may, by cession of particular States, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of the government of the United States...." This power "to exercise exclusive legislation" became a key argument in the case for abolition in the District of Columbia. When the Constitution was drafted, it specifically indicated that the foreign slave trade could not be abolished before 1808 (Article I, Section IX, Clause 1). However, there was no similar mention about the continuance of the domestic trade.

     After publication of materials, such as Jesse Torrey's Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, describing conditions of slavery and the slave trade in and around the national capital, many individuals began to decry the existence of this "peculiar institution" in the District of Columbia -if not in the nation as a whole. Torrey addressed the conscience of the Nation after watching a coffle of manacled slaves passing the recently burned U. S. Capitol: " Would it be superstitious to presume, that the Sovereign Father of all Nations, permitted the perpetration [ital.] of this apparently execrable transaction, as a fiery [ital.], though salutary signal of his displeasure at the conduct of his Columbian children, in erecting and idolizing this splendid fabric as the temple of freedom, and at the same time oppressing with the yoke of captivity and toilsome bondage, twelve or fifteen hundred thousand of their African brethren [ital.] (by logical induction), making merchandise of their blood [ital.], and dragging their bodies with iron chains [ital.], even under its towering walls? Yet is it a fact, that slaves [ital.] are employed in rebuilding this sanctuary of liberty [ital.]."1


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August 2000