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Slavery and the Constitution

Abraham Lincoln’s contention that the American Founding and its Constitution put slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction” runs contrary to much of the contemporary criticism of the U.S. Constitution’s stance on slavery.  Does Lincoln’s contention hold up under scrutiny?  Let us first examine the facts. Slaves were imported into and held as property all of the American colonies for more than a century. Slavery persisted despite the Revolutionary War and ratification of the Constitution, with most of the signers of the Declaration and the Constitution owning slaves, and the number of slaves steadily grew through natural increase and slave imports from abroad. Westward expansion caused sectionalism—disputes between the northern and southern sections of the new nation—to rise over slavery, and Congress continued to put off the controversy through a series of compromises name them until it could no longer be ignored.

The Founders knew that slavery violated the “self-evident truth” of the Declaration and the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence. They were aware of the immorality of slavery and the need for action, yet were—sometime by their own admission—not active enough. Despite this fact, some scholars portray the Founders as racists who on the principle of racial superiority theories sought to protect slavery and its expansion. In fact, it was later generations of statesmen before the Civil War who took this view. They were morally relative about slavery or believed it was a “positive good.” They did not think that slavery violated natural law and believed that slavery was good for the inferior slave and the larger society.

The Founders knew that slavery violated the “self-evident truth” of the Declaration and the promise of equality in the Declaration of Independence. They were aware of the immorality of slavery and the need for action, yet were—sometime by their own admission—not active enough. 

Despite this fact, some scholars portray the Founders as racists who on the principle of racial superiority theories sought to protect slavery and its expansion. In fact, it was later generations of statesmen before the Civil War who took this view. They were morally relative about slavery or believed it was a “positive good.” They did not think that slavery violated natural law and believed that slavery was good for the inferior slave and the larger society.

Several important nineteenth century politicians embraced this “positive good” view of slavery and contradicted the Founders that slavery was morally wrong. In 1848, Senator John Calhoun argued that the natural rights language in the Declaration of Independence was “dangerous” and “erroneous,” and doubted that men were created equal.

Previously, Calhoun had asserted that, “The relation now existing in the slaveholding States between the two [races], is, instead of an evil, a good—a positive good” (John C. Calhoun, “Slavery A Positive Good,” February 6, 1837).

Calhoun’s vision of consensual republican government, which was fundamentally at odds with the universal principles of the Founders, was one for white men only.

Another statesman, Stephen Douglas, did not take a stance on whether slavery was good or bad.

Instead, he wanted to let the people decide whether or not to own slaves. Douglas was challenging Abraham Lincoln in 1858 for a Senate seat from Illinois when he argued, “Our government can endure forever, divided into free and slave States as our fathers made it” (Stephen Douglas, Seventh Joint Debate at Alton, “Mr. Douglas’ Opening Speech,” October 15, 1858).

He believed that the great constitutional principle of popular sovereignty (the idea that all authority ultimately resides in the people) gave the whites in states the right to decide for themselves whether they wanted to own other humans. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney agreed with Douglas in the Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) decision. The prevailing idea at the time of the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, he wrote, was that the African- Americans “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Alexander Stephens, the Vice-President of the Confederacy, presented a different understanding of the Founders and the most significant challenge to the idea that African- Americans were meant to be included in the Declaration of Independence.

In his “Corner Stone” speech of 1861, Stephens argued that most of the Founding Fathers believed that slavery was a “violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.”  However, it was an “evil they knew not well how to deal with.” They believed that it would “be evanescent and pass away” in time. Those ideas were fundamentally wrong, Stephens argued, because they “rested upon the assumption of the equality of the races” (Alexander Stephens, “Corner Stone Speech,” March 21, 1861).

The “cornerstone” of the Confederacy, not the Union, rested upon the “great truth” that blacks are not equal to whites. Stephens, unlike many scholars today, admitted that Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders included African-Americans in the universal understanding of the promise of liberty and equality for all humans, he just believed Jefferson was wrong.

Contrary to the ideas of the statesmen and scholars who doubted that all men were created free and equal, the Framers of the Constitution and other American statesmen believed slavery contradicted the natural rights all had and denied the idea of consent in a republic. They consistently worked to build a constitutional republic of liberty that equally protected the rights of all Americans. Far from being proponents of slavery, the Founding Fathers criticized the institution severely.

The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, attacked slavery early in the Convention, stating, “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man” (James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, 1787).

Another Virginian, George Mason, feared that slavery brought down “the judgment of heaven on a country.” At the Constitutional Convention, Gouverneur Morris called slavery a “nefarious institution” and the “curse of heaven” (James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, 1787). John Adams wrote, “Every measure of prudence, therefore, ought to be assumed for the eventual total extirpation of slavery from the United States…I have, through my whole life, held the practice of slavery in …abhorrence.” (James Madison to Robert J. Evans, June 8, 1819)

The author of the Declaration of Independence wrote a withering attack on slavery when he stated, “The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.” (Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” 1785).

Several Founders launched critiques of the slave trade for violating natural rights.  In a draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson attacked the slave trade in harsh language, calling it a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people.” At the Convention, Morris echoed these sentiments and said that the slave trade continued “in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity” (James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, 1787).

 No delegates to the Constitutional Convention defended the morality of slavery. The best argument that they could muster on behalf of slavery was protecting their own economic interest.  

John Rutledge of South Carolina admitted: “Religion and humanity had nothing to do with this question.  Interest alone is the governing principle with nations” (James Madison, Notes on the Federal Convention, 1787).

The Framers made a prudential compromise with slavery because they sought to achieve their highest goal of a stronger Union of republican self-government. Since some slaveholding delegations threatened to walk out of the Constitution if slavery was threatened, there was a real possibility that there would have been separate free and slave confederacies instead of the United States. The free states would have lost all leverage over the slave states to end slavery if they had separated. The Framers had to create the Union with the institution of slavery but built a regime of liberty that they hoped would lead to slavery’s ultimate extinction.

The specific clauses of the Constitution related to slavery were the Three-Fifths Clause, the ban on Congress ending the slave trade for twenty years, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave insurrections. However, the Constitution only very obliquely referred to slavery and never used the words slave or slavery because the Framers were embarrassed by the institution. They believed that slavery was morally wrong and would die out, and they did not want that permanent moral stain on the document. Interestingly, they avoided the word slave and referred to slaves as persons.

The Constitution itself had four clauses that indirectly addressed slavery and the slave trade though it did not actually use those terms.

The former-slave Frederick Douglass noted that that the framers purposefully avoided the mention of slavery in the Constitution. “It so happens that no such words as ‘African slave trade,’ no such words as ‘slave representation,’ no such words as ‘fugitive slaves,” no such words as ‘slave insurrections,’ are anywhere used in that instrument. These are…not the words of the Constitution of the United States” (Fredrick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is it Pro-Slavery or Antislavery?” March 26, 1860).

In the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, Abraham Lincoln argued that the Framers avoided any specific mention of slavery because the enduring Constitution would not have “on the face of the great charter of liberty suggesting that such a thing as negro slavery had ever existed among us” (Abraham Lincoln, Seventh Joint Debate at Alton, “Mr. Lincoln’s Reply,” October 15, 1858).

Four clauses have been used to indict the Constitution and show it to be a pro-slavery document. The Three-Fifths Clause in Article I, Section 2 purportedly meant that slaves were considered less than fully human.  However, it was little more than a compromise when creating the Congress and determining how slaves were counted for purposes of representation and taxation. Some have argued that it gave greater power to the southern states but Frederick Douglass believed that it encouraged freedom because it gave “an increase of ‘two-fifths’ of political power to free over slave States…taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not to slavery” (Fredrick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is it Pro-Slavery or Antislavery?” March 26, 1860).

The second clause, known as the Importation Clause, dealing with slavery was Article I, Section 9, in which the Congress could not ban the slave trade for 20 years. The Framers were not protecting the slave trade (and thus slavery) with this clause but rather were seeking to end the infernal trade in humans. And, indeed, on January 1, 1808, that is exactly what happened when the 1807 bill that President Thomas Jefferson signed, went into effect.

Frederick Douglass argued that the Clause “looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity,” and that the Founders’ intentions “were good, not bad” (Fredrick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is it Pro-Slavery or Antislavery?” March 26, 1860).

The third clause is the Slave Insurrection Clause in Article I, Section 8. While it might include slave insurrections, Douglass argued that it is also a general statement that the chief executive has the power and duty to suppress all “riots or insurrections” in the interests of maintaining law and order.

Finally, Article IV, Section 9, of the Constitution provided for the return of fugitive slaves from the North back to the South.

Douglass noted that the Fugitive Slave Clause only made sense in a country where half the states either banned slavery or were moving quickly in that direction.   Indeed, the northern states abided by Revolutionary principles and either banned slavery outright or introduced schemes of gradual emancipation.

In sum, the Constitution was a document that sought, as Abraham Lincoln contended, to put “slavery in the course of ultimate extinction.” As Frederick Douglass noted, importantly, the Constitution’s “language is ‘we the people;’ not we the white people’” (Fredrick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is it Pro-Slavery or Antislavery?” March 26, 1860).

By contrast, the Constitution of the Confederate States of America was deeply rooted in inequality and freedom for whites only. The Confederates rejected universal principles in favor of power and domination in which only whites had any rights that the government was bound to respect. Although the Confederate Constitution appealed to justice, the blessings of liberty, and divine guidance, it made property in human beings an essential right when it stated, “No law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves shall be passed.” The Confederate Constitution of 1861, not the U.S. Constitution of 1787, was the Founding document that violated liberty and equality of African-Americans.

The first decades after the ratification of the Constitution saw the rise of freedom in the new nation. In the wake of the American Revolution, the northern states banned slavery outright or with gradual emancipation schemes in which African-Americans were born free.  In 1787, while the Constitution was being framed, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery in new western territory and eventually advanced liberty and equality in five states. In 1820, the Missouri Compromise banned slavery in the northern part of the Louisiana Territory, again contributing greatly to the spread of liberty and equality over a large swath of America. The new nation was mostly bent on expanding liberty and equality.

During and after the Civil War, Americans would end slavery constitutionally. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation as a war measure, and the Thirteenth Amendment ended slavery in the United States forever. Slavery could not survive in a nation half-slave and half-free, but it could also not endure in a nation founded upon the natural right ideals of liberty and equality in the constitutional republic provided by the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.