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The Constitution’s Quiet Propagation Of Slavery

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‘Where Slavery is there Liberty cannot be; and where Liberty is there Slavery cannot be.’ (Charles Sumner) It’s curious how Americans unquestioningly accept that the words of the Constitution are so unwaveringly just and ethical. If one takes a closer look and puts themselves into the context of the late eighteenth century, the US Constitution in many places leaves itself up to interpretation. One could even conclude that the document had a hand in allowing for the propagation of slavery in our new country. This paper will examine the Constitution taking a closer look at its articles and sections to determine if it is anti-slavery or pro-slavery or somewhere in between. The Constitution, as it was drafted in 1787, was remarkably contradictory as its purpose was to provide this new nation with a means to ensure justice and liberty for its people, yet its words (or lack thereof) quietly protected slavery.

If one looks just a little deeper, past the beautiful words of Thomas Jefferson, they begin to see an exceptionally complex document that isn’t so easy to decipher. The Preamble of the Constitution begins “We the People” and speaks of promoting general welfare, establishing justice, and securing liberty for these “People”. Yet in a time where it was of the utmost importance to define who the “People” were, there is nothing in the entire document that does this. Not doing so in an age where the country was beginning to draw strong distinctions based on the color of a person’s skin made it that much easier for slavery, to at that time grow, and later to flourish.

During the Constitutional Convention, at a time when it was the most hotly debated topic in the US, slavery was not once mentioned in the Constitution. The fact that the word “slavery” was completely omitted from the Constitution has huge implications. Southerners wanted the Constitution to include a system of laws that would protect slavery, making it a nationally recognized institution. This was due to slave labor being so extremely lucrative for these wealthy southern plantation owners. The southerners figured that If slavery was going to be admitted in the US (and it was based on state laws), it made sense for them to make federal laws concerning it. The anti-slavery northerners couldn’t imagine the thought of the barbaric institution of slavery tarnishing our enlightened new nation. The people of the rest of the world, where slavery was mostly outlawed, were waiting to see how America would deal with this sensitive topic. Our founding fathers wanted to save face as the rest of the world watched. They decided the best way to make this happen was to ensure that the word” slavery” would not touch the pages of the Constitution even once. Some say that the fact that the framers didn’t specifically recognize “property in humans” was a win for abolition. The rest of this paper will show that just because the word slavery was omitted from the Constitution doesn’t mean they didn’t make legislation concerning it.

From the first Africans to arrive in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, to the gathering of our forefathers to write the Constitution in 1787, the issue of slavery couldn’t be agreed upon. Most of the delegates at the Constitutional Convention were slaveowners, and though many were in favor of slavery, many were against it. Unfortunately, slave labor was providing the means for the US economy to flourish. The north would be hard-pressed to get southern delegates whose people depended on slave labor, to ratify the Constitution unless slavery was left alone. Concerning the issue of slavery, the men of the convention decided upon a compromise that fatefully kicked the can down the road. Article I, Section. 9 of the Constitution denied Congress the right to prohibit “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit…prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight…” (US Constitution) These words would allow slavery to operate protected by the US government for the next twenty years.

There were several delegates who believed that Article I, Section. 9 would begin to phase out slavery over the next twenty years, eventually abolishing it in 1808. The subtle wording of the Constitution proved to let the people believe one thing, while government was implying another. Unfortunately, as time moved on and America industrialized, the goods from the south were processed by the industry of the north and the machine was making America rich. The “international” slave trade ended up being abolished in 1808, but slavery inside and throughout the United States was not. When the time came, the Section of the Constitution that could have abolished slavery, ended up doing nothing much at all.

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The Constitution, in many places takes a middle of the road approach (a politician’s approach) when dealing with the question of slavery. Rather than being for or against human property, the framers decide to ambiguously word Sections of the Constitution and quietly allow the institution of slavery. In Article IV, Section. 2 of the Constitution it says, “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.” US Constitution) In the year 1787 one might see a fairness in returning a person who is held to “Service of Labour”. If the escapee were indebted to someone and “owed” them labor (as was the case with many indentured servants of the time) they should arguably be brought back to the party to whom labor was due. This wasn’t the case though. The Clause was written explicitly to ensure the return of runaway slaves to their masters. People who their “masters” believed owed them a lifetime of service. People that were condemned to a life of slavery, simply for being born to a female slave. This is clear evidence of the framers using soft words to understate what they were doing.

To some, the Constitution must have served as a betrayal of the Declaration of Independence’s promise of liberty to “all men”. In Article I, Section. 2, just past the eloquently written Preamble, sits the Three-Fifths Clause which detailed how each state’s enslaved population would be added to its total population count as three-fifths a person for the purposes of taxation and representation. The article did little in the case of taxation as southerners were able to get around paying a head tax by setting up a tariff-based tax system. The true power gained in Article I Section. 2 comes from the additional seats southerners would gain in Congress. These extra seats would allow southern democrats to gain legislative control of the country. “The slave power”, as it was called in those days, disproportionately allowed the south to pass laws that were viewed as pro-slavery and helped get plantation masters Jefferson and Polk elected.

On December 15, 1791, just a few years after the Constitution went into effect, we see The Bill of Rights come into play. The Bill of Rights was a set of changes made to the Constitution in the form of 10 amendments. These amendments were meant to protect the people of our nation’s most important and fundamental freedoms. Though its aim was to protect freedom, the southern dominated government’s inclusion of The Tenth Amendment had horrible implications for slaves. It reads, “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.” (Articles of Confederation) This gives state legislatures the reins when dealing with matters not stated in the Constitution. Since our government did nothing to outline the slave trade in the Constitution, or anywhere else for that matter, this amendment would ultimately give the power to make legislation concerning slavery up to the states.

Many of the southern state legislatures in turn passed “slave codes”. These slave codes were designed to keep the slave labor force in line. They accomplished this through oppression, humiliation, and cruelty. These codes prohibited slaves from reading and writing. If a slave was killed while resisting his master, no charge could be brought to bear. Slaves could not meet and gather unless they were attending church. These codes and many more caused a great hardship for slaves. If the Constitution had only made laws surrounding slavery, some of this inhumane persecution could have been avoided.

The Constitution did little to curtail slavery. Rather, it constitutionalized slavery through the inclusion of the Three-Fifths Clause, the Fugitive Slave Clause and other articles that quietly allowed for the propagation of slavery. The sad thing is that it was all about money. As the wealth that flowed the southern United States grew, the chance for the abolition of slavery diminished. It would take time and both the courage and words of men like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass before things would truly begin to change.

Fortunately, the Constitution was designed in a way that allows it to evolve with the times. Through differing interpretations and amendments, it has the ability to protect the freedoms of people that weren’t included in the original document. It’s a sad thing that it took the United States the many years and a bloody Civil War to right the grievous wrong of slavery, but it was finally done with the passage of the 13th Amendment on December 18, 1865. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (13th Amendment, Section 1) Free at last. Learning from past errors, Section 2 was included in the 13th Amendment and reads, “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” (13th Amendment, Section 2) This addition marked slavery as federal matter where Congress would have power over its legislation. As it was ambiguously written in 1787, the Constitution quietly allowed slavery to gain a foothold in the United States.

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