The Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) fueled fears among southern slave owners that anti-slavery campaigns would spread to the United States. Congress responded by passing a bill in 1803 which prohibited bringing to the country “Negro and mulatto” immigrants. The objection was to black freemen, not to black slaves, even as world opinion was turning against slavery. In 1808, Congress outlawed the international slave trade; however, the illegal importation of enslaved Africans continued through the 1850s. This immigration ban was not actively enforced.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That from and after the first day of April next, no master or captain of any ship or vessel, or any other person, shall import or bring, or cause to be imported or brought, any negro, mulatto, or other person of colour, not being a native, a citizen, or registered seaman of the United States . . . and if any captain or master aforesaid, or any other person, shall import or bring, or cause to be imported or brought into any of the ports or places aforesaid, any of the persons whose admission or importation is prohibited, as aforesaid, he shall forfeit and pay the sum of one thousand dollars for each and every negro, mulatto, or other person of colour aforesaid, brought or imported as aforesaid, to be sued for and recovered by action of debt, in any court of the United States . . .
SEC. 2. And he it farther enacted, That no ship or vessel arriving in any of the said ports or places of the United States, and having on board any negro, mulatto, or other person of colour, 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. And if any such negro, mulatto, or other person of colour, shall be landed from on board any ship or vessel, in any of the ports or places aforesaid . . . the said ship or vessel, together with her tackle, apparel, and furniture, shall be forfeited to the United States . . .
SEC. 3. And be it further enacted, That it shall be the duty of the collectors and other officers of the customs, and all other officers of the revenue of the United States, in the several ports or places situated as aforesaid, to notice and be governed by the provisions of the laws now existing, of the several states prohibiting the admission or importation of any negro, mulatto, or other person of colour, as aforesaid . . .
APPROVED, February 28, 1803.
“During the antebellum period, states in the U.S. South and northern states such as Illinois banned the migration of free blacks. The targets of these prohibitions were primarily blacks living in other states, but in some cases included the immigration of blacks from abroad. White plantations owners were especially afraid of blacks from Haiti, where slaves revolted in 1791 and established a black republic. The states with bans on black admission enlisted federal support to enforce their immigration laws, resulting in an 1803 act prohibiting the importation into those states of ‘any negro, mulatto, or other person of colour, not being a native, a citizen, or a registered seaman, of the United States, or seamen, natives of countries beyond the Cape of Good Hope” (p. 89).
Excerpt from: Fitzgerald, D. S., & Cook-Martin, D. (2014). Culling the masses: The democratic origins of racist immigration policy in the Americas. Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.