Guest Opinion: Lincoln’s firm stance on Capt. Nathaniel Gordan helped destroy the slave trade


Dr. Larry Koch is a retired educator who lives in Magnolia. He will share a presentation, “If the South Won the Civil War,” at 6 p.m. March 20 at The Greene Turtle Sports Bar & Grille in Dover. Your meal is the only expense.

Sometimes, you can get a more historically accurate picture if you study one often-forgotten incident under the microscope.

In 1861, 34-year-old Maine Capt. Nathaniel Gordon was imprisoned in the “tombs,” a famous New York jail. He had violated 33 USC 381 — a law prohibiting the slave trade.

On Aug. 7, Nathaniel Gordon loaded 897 Africans on the slave ship “Erie.” As the Africans boarded the ship, Gordon cut their clothes off, as naked people were less likely to resist. To further lessen resistance, half of the captives loaded were children, though they were also less likely to survive the journey.

The Erie was captured the next day by the USS Mohican. Lt. Henry D. Todd reported some of the prisoners had running sores and disease, and were crowded face to jowl with other captives and that the stench was horrifying. Amazingly, 29 of the captives died on that one day on the ship. Imagine the death rate if the Erie had crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

No slaver had ever before been executed in the U.S. Even though that was the prescribed punishment by law, many Americans did not see the logic of punishing a seaman for something which, in many states, was perfectly legal. Nathaniel Gordon’s father was a tried and convicted slaver, after which he was quietly released.

A career as a slaver certainly paid well. Captives cost $40 and could be sold for $400-$1,200 — 800 slaves then could garner $320,000-$960,000. Scholars estimated that 17.5% of Africans died in transit — 175 people out of every 1,000 captives — but, in a previous voyage, only 25 of Gordon’s captives survived!

Gordon was as cautious as he was cruel. After arrival, he would destroy all evidence, burning the ships used. He was also a wily escape artist. In one voyage, Gordon abandoned his captured crew, disguised himself as a woman and escaped.

The biggest danger to the slavers was the “West Africa Squadron,” which fought the international slave trade. The backbone of the squadron was the British, who had captured 1,500 slave ships. After 1840, the American Navy, perhaps reluctantly, joined the squadron’s efforts to intercede slavers.

The squadron’s record was mixed. Only 6% of the slavers were captured. There were other problems, some of which directly affected the Gordon case. For one thing, it was not uniformly enforced. The Portuguese were a British ally, and its slavers were exempt from capture.

Another flaw in the blockade, dating back to 1812, was American refusal to allow the British to board U.S. ships. After the Portuguese exemption expired, that nation switched to using American ships. Only American squadron ships (like the Mohican) could board American slaver ships.

New York City became the headquarters of the trade. The harbor police were corrupt, and greedy New York businessmen and Tammany politicians also got their cut. Up to four slavers sailed monthly from New York.

Then-President James Buchanan had pledged never to hang a slaver. Many demanded at least some punishment for Capt. Gordon. Buchanan directed the U.S. attorney, James I. Roosevelt, to offer a plea deal. If Gordon pleaded guilty and told all he knew about his financial backers, he would receive — at most — a two-year sentence and a fine for $2,000.

Nathaniel Gordon turned it down and thought he could do better. The offer would not be repeated. Within a few months, Roosevelt would be out of office. (Historical note: In the future, James I. Roosevelt would father a son, Franklin Roosevelt, who would become the 32nd president of the United States.)

The new U.S. attorney, E. Delafield Smith, appointed by incoming President Abraham Lincoln, offered no concessions. The first trial ended up with a hung jury, as some of the jurors were bribed. The second jury was sequestered, and witnesses from the crew and others from Africa testified. In the end, Nathaniel Gordon was convicted and sentenced to hang.

Gordon’s only hope was a presidential pardon. The Portuguese cartel conducted a campaign to achieve that end. The legal defense team was headed by a judge, who claimed that they never invoked slave law and that it was, in effect, a dead letter. Former senators were hired to lobby congressmen, and petitions signed by 25,000 were delivered to put pressure on Lincoln. Gordon’s wife met with Mary Lincoln. The president refused to see her.

Lincoln later granted hundreds of pardons, but, to him, Gordon’s crime was too much. Lincoln wrote that Gordon had committed “almost the worst crime that the mind can conceive, … (robbing) Africa of her children to sell into interminable bondage. I never will pardon.” Gordon never believed he would be executed; Lincoln gave him two weeks to put his affairs in order.

Capt. Gordon died a coward’s death. After trying to commit suicide and complaining until the end that he was not supposed to die, he got very drunk. Gordon was hung in the courtyard of the tombs. Nathaniel Gordon, the only slaver executed by the United States, died before 400 guests on Feb. 21, 1862.

This, for Lincoln, was a moral, not a political decision. A reprieve would have been welcomed by New York business interests and slave-owning unionists. Abolitionists would be upset, but that would come at no political cost because, politically, they had nowhere else to go. Lincoln then quietly allowed the British to board American slavers.

Lincoln destroyed the slave-trading network, and that dealt an ultimately fatal blow to slavery in Brazil and Cuba. Lincoln saved countless captives from the middle voyage. He not only ended American slavery; he also destroyed it in other lands in the Western Hemisphere.

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