Constitution Post: On the Issue of Slavery

Greetings Everyone!

It’s time for yet another Constitution post!  I’m excited to share with you Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1, of our Constitution.  It 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, (1808) but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person.”

The persons spoken of in this clause are slaves.  This clause prevented Congress from outlawing the slave trade before the year 1808, and Congress put a tax on imported slaves that could never exceed ten dollars.  As the year 1808 rolled around, Congress blocked the importation of slaves into the United States; slavery itself however continued for almost sixty years, at which time it was completely banned by the Thirteenth Amendment.

Slavery and the equality between Caucasian and African-American people in our country has inarguably been, and continues to be, one of the most debated subjects of our history.  Many do not understand the facts regarding this issue and are quick to assume that the founding fathers were advocates of slavery, and that our Constitution itself is pro-slavery.  This is simply not the case, however, and anyone who is quick to assume this has not been fully acquainted with the facts.

Most, if not all, of our country’s Founders abhorred the idea and practice of slavery and spoke out against it.  George Mason said;

“The augmentation of slaves weakens the states; and such a trade is diabolical in itself, and disgraceful to mankind.”

George Washington was the only founding father to actually free his slaves upon his death according to his will.  While many think Washington was harsh to his slaves and was an advocate for slavery, all evidence is to the contrary.  Washington said this in regards too slavery;

Not only do I pray for it, on the score of human dignity, but I can clearly foresee that nothing but the rooting out of slavery can perpetuate the existence of our union, by consolidating it in a common bond of principle.”

John Jay, himself a slave holder, wrote in a letter to R. Lushington;

“It is much to be wished that slavery may be abolished.  The honor 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.”

Now, you’re probably thinking that this quote seems contradictory since John Jay himself owned slaves.  Jay however had this explanation;

“I purchase slaves and manumit [set free] them at proper ages and when their faithful services shall have afforded a reasonable retribution.”

John Jay was the second governor of New York and the first Chief Justice of the United States.  Jay’s father was one of the largest slave owners in New York, and his son inherited those owned by his father.  After we gained our independence in 1777, Jay attempted to abolish slavery in his home state of New York while drafting the state’s constitution, but was overruled.  Horace Greeley in 1854 said this about Jay;

“To Chief Justice Jay may be attributed, more than to any other man, the abolition of Negro bondage in this state.”       

Prior to the era of the founding fathers, there had been few efforts to abolish the act of slavery.  John Jay realized the turning point in this attitude when he said;

“Prior to the great Revolution, the great majority…of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.”

The American War for Independence was, in fact, the turning point in the prevalent attitude toward slavery.  Many of the founders complained against slavery, as they saw that Great Britain had forcefully imposed upon the Colonies this act of evil.  It was only after we gained our independence from Britain in 1777, that our country was able to start seeing real change in this area.  Thomas Jefferson criticized Great Britain’s policy when he said;

He (King George III) has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him…determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.”  In other words, King George III had opposed the efforts on the part of the Colonies to abolish slavery.  Benjamin Franklin in a letter to Dean Woodward confirmed this when he wrote the following;

“…a disposition to abolish slavery prevails in North America, that many of Pennsylvanians have set their slaves at liberty, and that even the Virginia Assembly have petitioned the King for permission to make a law for preventing the importation of more into that colony.  This request, however, will probably not be granted as their former laws of that kind have always been repealed.”

Let’s talk for a moment on what the Constitution says regarding this.  Many people bring up what is known as the three-fifths clause to help defend their position on how they deem the Constitution to be pro-slavery, saying that slaves are only considered to be three-fifths human.  This simply is not the case.  The three-fifths clause actually regards the representation the states had in Congress.  For every 30,000 people in a state you get one representative.  The pro-slavery states wanted to count their slaves in order to have more representation in Congress.  Now, the south at the time viewed blacks as property, so the north, in order to be consistent with this view, said they would elect one representative for every 30,000 pieces of their property; tables, chairs, horses, etc.  The point was taken, and a compromise was made.  Instead of one representative for every 30,000 blacks, it became one representative for every 50,000 blacks, in order to limit the number of pro-slavery representatives in Congress.  Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave, orator, writer, and anti-slavery activist, said this about the Constitution;

Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it.  On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”

I hope you’ve enjoyed today’s post!  Let’s remember to always be acquainted with all the facts of a situation before coming to a conclusion!


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