The Constitution and Slavery

The Constitution, as originally written, addresses the issue of slavery, though it doesn’t call it that. It refers to slaves as “other persons”. The idea was that the use of the word slavery would taint the entire document.

There are those who believe that the inclusion of slavery, by any name, makes the Constitution tainted and a flawed document. They are right in that it is a flawed document but I would argue that it isn’t tainted. While it is flawed, it was much stronger, and much better then its predecessor, the Articles of Confederation.

Fortunately, the Framers did not set the Constitution in stone. They provided a means of amending it, but also made sure to make it difficult, so there was a pretty good reason to change it.

The abolition of slavery was a pretty good reason.

Slavery is mentioned in three different places in the Constitution; the 3/5ths Compromise (Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 3), the Fugitive Slave Clause (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3), and the prohibition on any law prohibiting the importation of slaves for twenty years (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1).

Patrick Henry, portrait by George Bagby Matthe...

Patrick Henry, portrait by George Bagby Matthews c. 1891 after an original by Thomas Sully (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For many of the Founders (such as John Adams and Richard Henry Lee), slavery did not reconcile with the idea that “all men are created equal”. It did not square with the ideas of Patrick Henry, who was a great orator, but obviously had no grasp of irony:

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death! (Henry’s speech to the House of Burgesses in Virginia, March 23, 1775)

He later said, during the debates in Virginia to ratify the Constitution:

Will the oppressor let go the oppressed? Was there ever an instance? Can the annals of mankind exhibit one single example where rulers overcharged with power willingly let go the oppressed, though solicited and requested most earnestly? (Virginia ratifying debates, 1788)

We’ve been taught that these clauses were included to appease the south into ratifying the new Constitution.

Let’s take a look at a brief timeline of slavery in the colonies, when it was abolished and  how it was banned:

  • Delaware: 1776: banned importation of slaves; ended with ratification of 13th amendment December, 1865
  • Vermont: abolished in 1777; became a state in 1791.
  • Pennsylvania: 1780: an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, freeing future children of slaves. Those born prior to the Act remain enslaved for life. The Act becomes a model for other Northern states. Last slaves freed 1847.
  • New Hampshire: 1783: begins gradual abolition of slavery
  • Massachusetts: 1783: Supreme Judicial Court rules slavery illegal based on 1780 state constitution. All slaves are immediately freed.
  • Connecticut: 1784: begins a gradual abolition of slavery, freeing future children of slaves, and later all slaves.
  • Rhode Island: 1784: begins a gradual abolition of slavery.
  •  New York: 1799: passes gradual emancipation act freeing future children of slaves, and all slaves in 1827. (Professor Carl Bogus, in one of the notes in his thesis states that New York banned the importation of slaves into the state in the year 1785 (see note #97), this speech claims that it was in 1788 that slaves were prohibited from being imported.
  • New Jersey: 1804: begins a gradual abolition of slavery, freeing future children of slaves. Those born prior to the Act remain enslaved for life
  • Maryland: Ended November 1, 1864 after a new state Constitution was drafted and ratified.
  • Virginia: ended with ratification of 13th amendment December, 1865
  • North Carolina: ended with ratification of 13th amendment December, 1865
  • South Carolina: ended with ratification of 13th amendment December, 1865
  • Georgia: ended with ratification of 13th amendment December, 1865

At the time the Constitution was drafted and ratified,  Massachusetts was the only state that had no slaves. Vermont also had no slaves, but Vermont did not become a state until 1791, just in time to ratify the Bill of Rights. New Jersey had done nothing about stopping slavery when they ratified the Constitution in 1788. New York enacted gradual emancipation the same year they ratified the Constitution. New York and New Jersey did not ban the importation of slaves, like many northern states did.

Still, the idea that slavery was immoral was taking hold in the north. Many were taking steps to end it, albeit slowly. There were also a great many in the south who felt the institution was an abomination, Richard Henry Lee, great grandfather of Confederate General Robert E. Lee among them. For the record, lest there be any confusion, Richard Henry Lee owned no slaves, unlike George Mason and George Washington who felt slavery was wrong, but still held onto their slaves. 

What were the Framers intending? Were they attempting to keep slavery as an institution forever, or had they set it up to slowly kill the institution?

When we are in school, there is only a limited amount of information that we can be taught, due to time constraints. We are taught the Constitution based on what it says, and even then, we are taught the basics; this is how the government is set up, and here is how a bill becomes law, so on and so forth.

I only have so much space and time, but the great thing is that I can publish this, then continue to add and edit at a later date, and that is my goal.

We can’t look at the Constitution in a vacuum, however. Fortunately, James Madison, Father of the Constitution, was a copious note keeper. Thomas Jefferson kept notes, also. Looking at their notes, we can start to discern what was going on in Independence Hall (known as the Pennsylvania State House then).

We will take a look at each of these items separately:

The 3/5ths compromise

The Fugitive Slave Clause

The prohibition on banning the importation of slaves until 1808

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