Publication Date


Type of Culminating Activity


Degree Title

Master of Arts in History



Major Advisor

David Walker, Ph.D.


Joanne Klein, Ph.D.


Peter Buhler, Ph.D.


This thesis examines the relationship between the United States and Great Britain during the era of slave trade suppression in the nineteenth century. Two ideals of international relations came into conflict when Great Britain’s humanitarian drive to rid the world of the international slave trade ran headlong into the United States’ claims to sovereignty under the Law of Nations. Under international maritime law a ship is the sovereign territory of the nation under whose flag it sails; the forcible boarding of a ship is tantamount to an invasion of the country itself. Britain sought to circumvent this rule in the pursuit of their humanitarian cause by negotiating bilateral treaties with all maritime powers, allowing the reciprocal right to search the vessels of every signatory, therefore nullifying that tenant of international maritime law. The United States remained a “persistent objector,” refusing to go along with the plan, despite its humanitarian purpose. British government sources and those of many historians charge that American intransigence was mainly driven by American slave interests, but records drawn from Congressional sources, the United States Department of State and the United States Navy show that the U.S. was more interested in protecting the sovereignty of ships that flew the American flag from the aggressive actions of the British Navy. The British finally gave up trying to force the Americans to adopt the right to visit and search in 1858. Four years later the United States negotiated a right to search agreement with Great Britain. When the Civil War ended the African slave trade, for the most part, came to end. American sovereignty was never compromised, but the price of that sovereignty was the hundreds of thousands of slaves who crossed the Atlantic, under the Stars and Stripes, to a life of forced labor.