Slavery and the Constitution: Misinterpretations and Original Intent

One of the most perplexing allegations against the concept of American exceptionalism is that at its base within the tenants of its philosophy (properly modeled by the text of the Constitution), lies a stain of reason that espoused and justified the atrocities of slavery.  This allegation would then make the Constitution passed by the Constitutional Convention in 1789 a contradiction in and of itself.  How could a document, which is primarily geared towards the protection of individual liberties, advocate on behalf of one of the foremost examples of tyranny and oppression?  If such allegations are true, then the American idea of liberty is “dead in the water” in the sphere of logic.  But for all the banter that has now pervaded modern debate in academia and politics, these allegations do not find any solid footing in the historical record.

Frederick Douglass, one of the most memorable icons of the mid-19th century civil rights movement, disagreed wholeheartedly with the perception that the Constitution was in itself a pro-slavery document.  In fact, Douglass was keen to realize that a distinction needed to be made between the Constitution and the government that was charged with acting upon it.  In an 1860 speech given to the Scottish Anti-Slavery Society in Glasgow, Scotland, Douglass stated in support of his thesis, “The American Government and the American Constitution are spoken of in a manner which would naturally lead the hearer to believe that one is identical with the other; when the truth is, they are distinct in character as is a ship and a compass.  The one may point right and the other steer wrong.  A chart is one thing, the course of the vessel is another.  The Constitution may be right, the Government is wrong.”

Here Douglass is clearly emphasizing the lack of a distinction that should exist when critiquing the Constitution and the government charged with the responsibility of acting upon its precepts.  It is this confusion and that gives way to the misleading malfeasances by today’s progressive politicians that argue that whatever government does [as it did in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)] is directly in line with what the Constitution has stipulated.  This is a fallacious way of reasoning, because it serves only to propagate the notion that any philosophy may be judged by its abuse.  The Constitution itself was not a product of the Framers’ personal views on slavery (whether for or against), but rather a product of the will of the people who sent the delegates to the convention to ratify it.  The “American people”, in the eyes of the Framers, represented a multiplicity of competing interests and opinions not exclusive to pro-slavery sentiments.

James Madison himself railed against the idea that the Constitution should give a direct endorsement of slavery as a matter of property.  According to Madison, during the convention debates on August 25, 1787, it was “…wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.  The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not like merchandize, consumed.”  The reality of sentiments such as these present within the ratification debates strengthened Frederick Douglass’ arguments that the Constitution, in its unamended form, was not a pro-slavery document.  The Constitution itself should not be condemned on the basis that some delegates advocated on behalf of a pro-slavery Constitution, nor should it be judged based on the actions of corrupt officials in government who twisted it.  As Douglass argued, “Shall we condemn the righteous law because wicked men twist it to the support of wickedness?  Is that the way to deal with good and evil?  Shall we blot out all distinction between them, and hand over to slavery all that slavery may claim on the score of long practice?

The concept of property within the Constitutional text (specifically the Fugitives From Labor Clause in Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3) was exploited by pro-slavery delegates like John C. Calhoun to posit the idea that the Constitution did indeed give recognition of slaves being property and of slavery as being a national institution.  However, as Princeton University Professor Sean Wilentz argued, “The  Constitutional Convention not only deliberately excluded the word ‘slavery’, but it also quashed the proslavery effort to make slavery a national institution, and so prevented the racism that enshrined slavery.”  The founding document that then came out from the debate in 1789 not only excluded any mention of slavery but was a direct repudiation of any concept of human beings being considered as property.

Even considering the Constitution’s “notorious” three-fifths clause, which served only to placate the tensions between the South and the North over the matter of representation in the national legislature, it wasn’t in itself the endorsement of slavery that many in the media and academic elites argue it to be.  Frederick Douglass even recognized this, calling the controversial provision a “downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States”, because it essentially denied them their objective to exploit their slave population’s personhoods to substantially boost their population numbers to control the majority representation in the national government.  If anything, the three-fifths clause stifled the Southern slave state’s ambitions.  As Douglass concluded, “So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”

But despite what the Constitution itself may stipulate, this holds no bearings on what the government may try to do or initiate on behalf of its text, such as the infamous Dred Scott decision by the Roger Taney Court in 1857, which essentially denied African-Americans the right to be considered as citizens of the United States based on twisted interpretations of the Constitution’s historical context.  For President Abraham Lincoln, “…the Dred Scott decision was, in part, based on assumed historical facts which were really not true.”

That twist of historical context to justify slavery continued on for over 150 years after Douglass and Lincoln to virtually condemn the Constitution as a perpetually outdated, pro-slavery relic.  Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the United States Supreme Court, called the Constitution “defective from the start” on the premise that the Framers left out a major portion of the American population (black minorities) when they drafted it.  Twenty-first century journalists like Galanty Miller of the left-wing news site Huffington Post, used the ongoing twisting of historical context to advocate for the 1789 Constitution’s complete annulment.  For Miller, he reasoned that, “The Constitution is a political blueprint for a time when white people owned black people.”  Such a lack of knowledge of the original intent of the Constitution has led to routine propositions in the academic and political arenas today for the entire text’s discrediting on account of assumed historical “facts” which bear no truth.

The Constitution wasn’t an endorsement of slavery but was America’s earliest rebuke of it.  Concerning the Atlantic slave trade, for example, the Constitution stipulated that the practice would only be able to continue for 20 years from the Constitution’s ratification, thereby setting a time limit on its existence in the United States instead of establishing it as a permanent institution.  By the time that Frederick Douglass gave his speech in 1860, the Atlantic slave trade had already been voided over fifty years earlier in 1808 via the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves, which went into effect immediately on the earliest year permitted by the Constitution.  The Constitution may not have abolished slavery, but it provided every means for Congress to prevent it from becoming a national institution.

If confusions and conflations about America’s founding legal document aren’t dealt with quickly within the public sphere, there is a good chance that the Constitution’s influence will dwindle into obscurity as generations pass, with the recollection of it being that it was only a pro slavery document, when in fact it was an anti-slavery document that clever government officials had twisted over time to serve their own political agendas on behalf of slavery.  The perceptions of the pro-slavery factions then and the anti-Constitutional forces now, are not based on fact but on false preponderated narratives that have carried over from Frederick Douglass’ lifetime to the present day.  Frederick Douglass was correct in emphasizing this “twisting of the historical record” early on, and we will do well to take care that we heed his wisdom in forming our own separate individual opinions about the American Constitution and the exact purpose for which it stood for then and now.  It is this perception that continues to drive the Constitution into obscurity in our nation today, which makes correcting its errors all the more pertinent by proving the Constitution’s anti-slavery foundation.  As Douglass eloquently concluded on the matter, “…the constitutionality of slavery can be made out only by disregarding the plain and common-sense reading of the Constitution itself; by discrediting and casting away as worthless the most beneficent rules of legal interpretation; by ruling the Negro outside of these beneficent rules; by claiming that the Constitution does not mean what it says, and that it says what it does not mean; by disregarding the written Constitution, and interpreting it in the light of a secret understanding.  It is in this mean, contemptible, and underhand method that the American Constitution is pressed into the service of slavery.”


2 thoughts on “Slavery and the Constitution: Misinterpretations and Original Intent”

  1. I am thrilled to see this website put together by young Americans. I am not young, but know very well that without you, there will soon be no America. Thank you and please be encouraged.

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