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  • Print publication year: 2019
  • Online publication date: January 2019

4 - Confronting a Pandemic, 1834–1842


With British emancipation, white Southerners increasingly believed that black British sailors personified British abolitionism, leading to a renewed emphasis on border controls aimed at curbing “moral contagion." Southern state lawmakers strengthened existing Seamen Acts and created news ones, embraced state police powers as a limit on federal action, and openly refuted the possibility of black citizenship. By 1842, the Seamen Acts stretched across the South, and the federal government showed little interest in interfering. In 1837, the US Supreme Court’s decision in New York v. Milne outlined and protected state police powers, explicitly those geared towards limiting the spread of “moral infections.” That same year, when Cuban authorities barred the entrance of all people of color, including free African-American sailors, the State Department conceded that white and black Americans could be treated differently in Cuban ports. When the Whig-dominated Congress failed to adopt resolutions against the Seamen Acts in 1843, it revealed that all three branches of the federal government – whether run by Whigs or Jacksonians – wanted nothing to do with race-based “quarantines.”

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