Slavery in the American Constitution

In his book The Quartet, Joseph Ellis examines the debates leading up to the adoption of the current United States Constitution and the actions of four men in particular to drive the nation toward true nationhood and the adoption of the Constitution. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay all played crucial roles in advocating for a constitution that gave strong power to a centralized national government that could bring unity and cohesion among the former British Colonies. A central tension and challenge in uniting the colonies existed around slavery and today, as we look back at the founding of our nation and at our Constitution, we cannot help but think about the role that slavery played in the founding of our nation and about the meaning of its inclusion in our Constitution. Regarding slavery, Ellis writes, “Whether this was a failure of moral leadership or a realistic recognition of the politically possible can be debated until the end of time.” Our views of our nations founding and the role that slavery played is hard to think through and is something worth evaluating on a deeper level. Precisely why it was included in the Constitution and the role it played at the nation’s birth is challenging and the meaning attached to it changes as you shift the perspective through which you understand the Revolutionary War and America at the time of the Constitutional Convention.

 

The quartet in Ellis’ book wanted to bring together the North and the South in a single nation, but the economies of both were moving in different directions, with the South becoming increasingly reliant on slaves for economic production (as a side note: a recent comment to my blog suggested that the North enabled slavery by purchasing slave produced products from the South – something I don’t know about but certainly seems likely). To have truly put an end to slavery in the newly independent America would have required a monarch (or tyrant) who could have stamped out the practice by force (something the colonies had just revolted against). Manumission, the process for freeing slaves was also expensive, often requiring that freed slaves be provisioned with enough resources to sustain themselves once free. It is no wonder that the forces of economic self-interest and a fear of tyranny forced an impasse between abolitionists and those whose future and society relied on slavery. A compromise on the issue appears to be absolutely necessary in order to bring the former Colonies together under a single government.

 

At the time our constitution was written, many delegates to the Constitutional Convention recognized the abhorrent evils of slavery. Ellis includes a notebook entry from John Dickinson, a delegate from Delaware who wrote about the compromise written into the new Constitution, “Acting before the World, what will be said of this new principle of founding a Right to govern Freemen on a power derived from Slaves. … The omitting of the WORD will be regarded as an Endeavor to conceal a principle of which we are ashamed.” The fact that slavery cut against Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence was not lost on all of our founding fathers. Dickinson and others were aware of the contradiction between the words and principles of our revolution and the structure we built into the Constitution. The political dynamic that united our nation allowed for such evil to continue, but at the same time also provided a way for it to be dismantled. The unending debate in the United States will continue to grow as we debate the best way to interpret the inclusion of slavery in our constitution.

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