United States Constitutional Convention: Slavery


Figure 1.--

The word 'slave' does not appear in the document crafted by the delegates in Philadelphia. The delegates consciously avoided the word. They understood that it would sully a document ensrining human dignity and the rights of man. Norhern delegates were from states which were in the process of abolioshing slavert realized that efforts at abolition would make agreement on a final document impossible. And there were compromises made. The three-fifths clause is often called infamous. In fact it limited the power of the southern slave aristiocracy. This affected the results of votes in Congress and some presidebntial elections, includung the Jefferson;s election in 1800. The framers did secure the commitment to end the slave trade in 20 years, a major concession from the slave states. We note author after author cricizing the founders for not abolishing slavery. After the convention approved the great compromise, Madison wrote: "It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination." One author writes, "... by sidestepping the slavery issue, the framers left the seeds for future conflict." Supreme Court Justuce Thurgood Marshall insisted that the Constitution was 'defective from the start'. He objected that the term 'We the People' left out a najority of the poopulation. He complained that while some Delegates voiced 'eloquent objections' to slavery, they 'consented to a document which laid a foundation for the tragic events which were to follow.' What these crituics fail to address is what would have happened if the the deklegates had not compromised. It is certain that there woukd have been no Constitution and mo United States. Mosr likely there woukd have been two Ameruican republics, ome slave and one free. That would have meant that there would have been no Civil War, sparuing the nation that terrible ordeal, but it also woukld have meant that there woukld have been no Emancioation Proclamation and Grand Army of the Republic to free the slaves in the separate southern republic. And what would have happened in World War II if not only America had not been unuited, but Hitler would have had a southern racist American republic to ally with.

Terminology

The word 'slave' does not appear in the document crafted by the delegates in Philadelphia. The delegates consciously avoided the word. They understood that it would sully a document ensrining human dignity and the rights of man.

Practicality

Norhern delegates were from states which were in the process of abolioshing slavery, realized that efforts at abolition would make agreement on a final document impossible. And there were thus compromises made. This compromise was possible by simoly leaving the issue up to the states. Stale laws etablishing slavery were not challenged and the states were allowed to determine who could vote.

Slavery Provisions

While slavery was not mentioned by name in the Constitution, there were provisions relating to slavery which included oblique references. Both the 3/5's representation clause, the fugative slave clause, and the authority to end the slave trade referred to slaves without mentioning them by name. The 3/5's clause is often labeled as infamous. In fact it actually was an important way of limiting the power of the southern slave aristiocracy. It affected the results of votes in Congress and some presidential elections, includung the Jefferson's election in 1800. The wording in the Constitution is, "Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons." [Article I, Sectiion 2.] Interesting this was also an issue during the drafting of the Articles of Confederation. And the views of the northern and southern delegates flip-flopped as the emphasis shifted from taxation to represenentation. The Constitution included a fugative slave clause. It followed a fugative criminal clause and read, "No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due." [Article IV, Section 2.] This was a concession to the southern delegates. Fugative slaves were not such an issue as they would become later with the growth of the Abolitionist Movement in the north. The framers did secure the authorirty end the slave trade after 20 years, a major concession from the slave states. The Federal Government was not given the authority to end slavery itself, but it was given authority to regulate foreign trade. Jefferson used that authority to embargo trade with the Napoleonic War comatants. Thus the Congress could use that authority to abolish the slave trade. The only limitation was that Congress had to wait 20 years. The Constitution reads, "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person." [Article I, Section 9.] President Jeffereson moved to pass a law abolishing the slave trade as soon as the 20-year period had passed. It was passed with little opposition from southern legislators. Many at the time assumed that this would after some time mean the end of slavery itself.

Critics

We note author after author cricizing the founders for not abolishing slavery. After the convention approved the great compromise, Madison wrote: "It seems now to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests lies not between the large and small but between the northern and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences form the line of discrimination." One author writes, "... by sidestepping the slavery issue, the framers left the seeds for future conflict." Supreme Court Justuce Thurgood Marshall insisted that the Constitution was 'defective from the start'. He objected that the term 'We the People' left out a najority of the poopulation. He complained that while some Delegates voiced 'eloquent objections' to slavery, they 'consented to a document which laid a foundation for the tragic events which were to follow.' A reader writes, "The argument some revisionists bring up, that the 3/5 Compromise is offensive, counting a slave as only 3/5 of a citizen, is an example of the deconstructive thinking that sometimes runs wild in academic circles. The compromise was a deal struck among practical-minded delegates at the convention. Some calculation regarding to value of a slave compared to that of a full man, I doubt, ever entered their thinking. The free state delegates feared a permanent ascendancy of slave state representatives in the House; the slave state delegates wanted to protect their economic interests. This compromise satisfied both sides and allowed the convention to proceed to finish its work. I'd add that this 'revisionist' argument also accompanies legitimate claims of discrimination made by aggrieved groups. I still think it's an invention made by some creative minds to stir passions or to sell literature. Academics need fresh points of attack for their publications and career advancements. I have a disdain for most of these revisionist theories because they hijack and sidetrack serious academic research." [Bridges]

Assessment

What the critics of the compromises on sklavery fail to address is what would have happened if the the deklegates had not compromised. It is certain that there woukd have been no Constitution and mo United States. Mosr likely there would have been two Ameruican republics, ome slave and one free. That would have meant that there would have been no Civil War, sparuing the nation that terrible ordeal, but it also woukld have meant that there woukld have been no Emancipation Proclamation and Grand Army of the Republic to free the slaves in the separate southern republic. And what would have happened in World War II if not only America had not been unuited, but Hitler would have had a southern racist American republic to ally with.

Sources

Bridges, John. E-mail message, January 21, 2014.








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Created: 5:07 PM 1/22/2014
Last updated: 5:07 PM 1/22/2014