The Constitution and Slavery

This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series The Roots of the Civil War

Am I not a man and a brother-The Constitution and SlaveryDespite all of the state laws that regulated slavery when it came to creating a national governing document, a constitution, the Constitutional Convention almost came to a complete impasse over the issue of slavery.

The use of slaves in the new United States was pervasive. The 1790 census counted slaves in every state except the state of Massachusetts and the “districts” of  Vermont and Maine. (Vermont became the 14th state in 1791 and Maine became the 23rd in 1820.)

In the entire country 3.8 million people were counted, 700,000 of them, or 18 percent, were slaves. In South Carolina, 43 percent of the population was slave. In Maryland 32 percent, and in North Carolina 26 percent. Virginia, with the largest slave population of almost 300,000, had 39 percent of its population made up of slaves.

The previous national governing document, the Articles of Confederation, made no mention of slavery. The main reason was that representation rather than by population was by state with each state having a single vote. There was only a single house of representatives rather than a bicameral legislature.

In the 1780s there was no movement to abolish slavery. Abolitionists did not appear in the United States until the 1830s when the American Anti-Slavery Society was founded with William Lloyd Garrison writing the organization’s nascent statement of principles.

However, a number of framers expressed opinions on slavery. John Jay of New York, an author of The Federalist wrote in 1786, “It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished. The honour of the States, as well as justice and humanity, in my opinion, loudly call upon them to emancipate these unhappy people. To contend for our own liberty, and to deny that blessing to others, involves an inconsistency not to be excused.”

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, one of the signers of the Constitution wrote, a few months after the Convention adjourned, “All good men wish the entire abolition of slavery, as soon as it can take place with safety to the public, and for the lasting good of the present wretched race of slaves.”

Virginian Patrick Henry who declined to attend the convention was opposed to slavery and wrote in 1773: “I believe a time will come when an opportunity will be offered to abolish this lamentable evil. Everything we do is to improve it, if it happens in our day; if not, let us transmit to our descendants, together with our slaves, a pity for their unhappy lot and an abhorrence of slavery.” 

Thomas Jefferson who was the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence and wrote that “all men are created equal” wrote about slavery: “There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us. 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. Our children see this, and learn to imitate it; for man is an imitative animal. This quality is the germ of all education in him.”

Even George Washington who held as many as 300 slaves wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette: “[Y]our late purchase of an estate in the colony of Cayenne, with a view to emancipating the slaves on it, is a generous and noble proof of your humanity. Would to God a like spirit would diffuse itself generally into the minds of the people of this country; but I despair of seeing it.”

At the time of the Constitutional Convention it was a given that agriculture in the South could not be conducted without the use of slave labor. The unremitting labor of farming tobacco, rice, cotton and peanuts could only be carried out by African slaves due to the heat and humidity in the South. Accepted belief was that white men and women could not work under such conditions. Hanging over the deliberations was the threat that the Southern states might form their own country.

One of the major roadblocks in framing the Constitution was the issue of counting the slaves for the purposes of representation in the House of Representatives. The Southern states wanted a full enumeration of their slaves which would increase their representation in the House. The Northern states wanted no slaves to be counted.

During the writing of the Articles of Confederation there had been a proposal to count slaves as 3/5th of a person but it had failed to be adopted. However, when the issue came up again during the Constitutional Convention’s deliberations it was a ready-made compromise for the sticky problem of counting slaves.

The 3/5th Compromise  would have an impact in antebellum political affairs due to the disproportionate representation of slaveholding states relative to voters. In 1793 southern slave states would have been apportioned 33 seats in the House of Representatives had the seats been assigned based on the free population; instead they were apportioned 47. In 1812, slaveholding states had 76 instead of the 59; in 1833, 98 instead of 73. As a result, southerners dominated the Presidency, the Speakership of the House, and the Supreme Court in the period prior to the Civil War.

The 3/5th Compromise was formalized in the Constitution as the Enumeration Clause. It would later be amended by the 13th Amendment which was adopted on December 6, 1865 and formally abolished slavery. Here is the text of the amendment:

Slavery is mentioned in two other places in the Constitution. Article 1, Section 9, limits Congress expressly from prohibiting the “Importation” of slaves before 1808. The 1808 date, a compromise of 20 years, allowed the slave trade to continue, but placed a date-certain on its survival. Congress eventually passed a law outlawing the slave trade that became effective on January 1, 1808.

The final mention is the Fugitive Slave Clause. In it, a problem that slave states had with extradition of escaped slaves was resolved. The laws of one state, the clause says, cannot excuse a person from “Service or Labour” in another state.” The clause expressly requires that the state in which an escapee is found deliver the slave to the state he escaped from “on Claim of the Party.”

It is said that the seeds of the Civil War were sown by the Constitution of the United States. Despite the belief that the Civil War was caused by economic issues, these issues were created at their root by slavery.


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