Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
There is a story that goes with these beautiful words and the
song from whence they came. It starts with slavery.
Most are unaware that the Founding Fathers dealt with the issue of the
importation of slaves to the United States in the Constitution. Article I, section 9,
stated in effect that the government could not ban the importation of slaves for at
least twenty years.
Why such was placed in the original Constitution is not certain. I suspect that
the Founding Fathers, most of whom were slave owners, were of the opinion that
twenty years would give them enough time to propagate additional slaves. Since
slaves had a significant monetary value and one’s worth was often measured by
slaves owned, it made sense that there had to be a time when no more would be
permitted entry to the United States. An over abundance of slaves could
conceivably diminish the value of each slave.
Twenty years passed. The Congress could not wait to pass a law banning
further importation of slaves to the United States. They did it one year early in
1807. Thomas Jefferson was President at the time. He also is considered the
Father of the Constitution. He supported the proposed law and did not hesitate in
signing it. The law went into effect January 1, 1808.
From that day forward, the United States Navy was on the lookout for any
ships that were attempting to bring new slaves to American shores. The Navy was
kept busy. Slavery was a big business. It took till 1862 for the Navy to finally
eradicate the problem.
Although the final three slave ships were captured in 1862 when the Civil
War was already two years old, their capture had nothing to do with the Civil
War. It was the result of the continued enforcement of the 1808 law.
The last three ships captured were the William, Bogota and Wildfire.
The demand for new slaves was overwhelming in the 1700s and first half of
the 1800s. They were needed for work in North and South America. It is
estimated some twelve million were imported during those years.
Cuba was in need of great numbers of slaves. The sugar fields needed
workers. It is estimated at least 100,000 slaves were delivered from West Africa
Slaves had to be replenished. Most of the slaves delivered were young.
Teenagers. They did not live long. They were literally worked to death. The need
to replenish drove the slave industry.
John Newton was a slave trader. A bad guy in his early years. Very bad.
Mean. He was known by people acquainted with him as a despicable person.
On one of the trips across the ocean, Newton and his ship engaged a violent
storm. Newton thought he was going to die. He learned to pray. He asked God to
save him. God did.
Newton continued as a slave trader for a few years. However, his conscience
was now bothering him. He quit his chosen profession and went to theology
school. Newton became a minister.
In 1779 Newton wrote Amazing Grace. Not as a musical piece. Not as a song.
But rather a poem. His congregation would recite, not sing, the words at services.
The poem continued to 1835. At that time someone put it to music. There was
an English tune New Britain. It became the melody for Amazing Grace.
Prior to the 1960s, Amazing Grace had no particular popularity. Except in the
black churches. It became a song of hope and redemption. An African American
Then came the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The marches, the
boycotts, the assassinations. Amazing Grace gained national prominence and
popularity during that era.
It also became a top selling recording.
Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley and Tennessee Ernie Ford all recorded it. So did
Althea Franklin and Judy Collins. And most recently, Susan Boyle.
Amazing Grace’s history began with the United States Constitution, the law
of 1808, John Newton finding God, someone putting the words to music and
finally the civil rights movement.
Today the hymn is sung everywhere. Both for the living and dead. Warm and