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.

Slavery in the Constitution

The United States Constitution directly addresses slavery by apportioning slaves as counting as three fifths of a person for census counting purposes. The clauses containing slavery are some of the most disappointing aspects of our democracy, and are often viewed as a black eye on an otherwise shining document. People often say that slavery was misunderstood at the time of our nation’s founding and often try to justify slavery’s inclusion in the constitution by saying that it was commonplace at the time and not something we should judge our founding fathers against.

 

The reality is much more complicated. Many people, including many of our founding fathers understood that slavery was abhorrent and against the principles upon which the nation was founded. For example the Wikipedia page for Gouverneur Morris, the man who actually penned the constitution includes this quote from 1787, “Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included? … The admission of slaves into the Representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and S. C. who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa. or N. Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.”

 

At the time of the American Revolution, the economy of the Southern Colonies was dependent on slavery, and throughout history we have seen mankind fail to live up to ideals and moral principles in the face of economic threat. I believe it is fair to argue that ending slavery would have taken a king or absolute ruler given the economic incentives of the South. Joseph Ellis addresses this in his book The Quartet by writing about the decisions made around slavery during our nation’s founding. The following quote from Ellis describes a failed draft of a constitution drafted after the revolutionary war, before the adoption of the Articles of Confederation:

 

“Slavery was too volatile a subject to be addressed directly;  indeed, there was an unspoken policy of silence surrounding the topic based on the broadly shared sense that it, more than any other issue, possessed the potential to destroy the political consensus that had formed around independence.”

 

To tie the nation together and lay the ground for a United States that could grow and govern itself through democratic means, the founding fathers could not abolish slavery. A professor of mine once described slavery as a scaffolding built around the principles of the Constitution for construction purposes. After completion, slavery could be removed without damaging the foundation and simultaneously enhancing the beauty of the finished project. I think it is important to accept that slavery was understood to be evil and that South allowed economic interests to trump human morality. I think it is ok to address our founding fathers and be critical of the inclusion of slavery in the Constitution while at the same time understanding that it was in many ways necessary for building the nation we live in today. This is a tough thing to look at directly, but the lesson we can learn is that we are often held short of our moral best by economic and personal self-interest, and we should be honest with ourselves about the times we act in our self-interest and not in the interest of the group so that we can avoid the perils that the South made at the time of our founding.

How We Remember American Slavery

In his book, Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats shares his understanding of the universe with his son. He focuses on the shared experiences of black Americans dating back to slavery and the time immediately after the institution fell. What Coats returns to over and over in his book is the idea of the physical relationship between black people, white people, and our country. His views are not pretty, but they represent a reality that we have tried to forget and that many of us have done a good job ignoring.

“In America,” he writes, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage. Enslavement was not merely the antiseptic borrowing of labor—it is not so easy to get a human being to commit their body against its own elemental interest.”

I recently read a piece on Vox.com that was written by an individual who used to lead tours at a historical plantation in the South, and the author was struck by the questions people asked and about the way in which people made an effort to skip past the violent reality of slavery. The host was often asked questions that showed that people did not truly understand the brutality of slavery. Questions like whether or not house slaves appreciated getting to be in a house and not in a field. Many people had a view of slavery that sounded more like a view of minimum wage workers than of people forced into labor, exploited, and physically punished if they did not comply with the requests and demands of an individual with fully subjective control over their lives.

Growing up in Reno, Nevada I felt that I had a pretty good education regarding the Civil War. I was taught that the war was about slavery and not about state’s rights, but never in my classes did we truly discuss what it meant to be enslaved and the violence that the enslaved faced. I understood that there were violent reactions and punishments for those who fled slavery, but we did not discuss what it meant to not have ownership of one’s physical body, and for that body to be physically destroyed by another human being. I think that Coats is justified in arguing that we should think of slavery as not just borrowed or uncompensated labor (the way we may think about college interns today) but we should rather think of slavery as the destruction of a human being, physically, mentally, and emotionally. The toll on the body of the human being that slavery, lynchings, and punishment have brought to black people were meant to take away the power of the black person and to demote them to a lower place in a fictitious hierarchy of human beings. We must not forget what it meant to own another human being. Slavery and owning another human being meant that American’s did more than exploit an individual’s labor for economic gain. It meant that American’s had the authority to use violence, to distort the black body, and to control the physical experience of another human being for purely exploitative means.

The Onset of the Civil War

I heard recently in a podcast that the North won the Civil War, but the South won the culture war that followed. How we remember the civil war and think about the people who fought on both sides of the war is complex, and there is no easy way to remember and truly understand the history of slavery in our country. Many people in our country have a heritage that runs back to the colonial period prior to the civil war, and for many the iconography of the confederacy is a representation of that heritage. Unfortunately, that iconography, the men and women of that time, and the heritage represented cannot be untangled from the legal ownership and subjugation of human beings. There certainly had been slavery throughout the world before the United States’ Civil War, and outlawing slavery at the time our constitution was written would have required a monarch (something desperately avoided by our founders), but by the time the Civil War occurred, the legitimacy of owning people was very much in doubt. In his book, Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehesi Coats looks at the onset of the Civil War, and why slavery was worth protecting for white men and women in the South.

 

“At the onset of the Civil War, our stolen bodies were worth four billion dollars, more than all of American industry, all of American railroads, workshops, and factories combined, and the prime product rendered by our stolen bodies —cotton—was America’s primary export. The richest men in America lived in the Mississippi River Valley, and they made their riches off our stolen bodies. Our bodies were held in bondage by the early presidents. Our bodies were traded from the White House by James K. Polk. Our bodies built the Capitol and the National Mall. The first shot of the Civil War was fired in South Carolina, where our bodies constituted the majority of human bodies in the state. Here is the motive for the great war. It’s not a secret. But we can do better and find the bandit confessing his crime. ‘Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery,’ declared Mississippi as it left the Union, ‘the greatest material interest of the world.'”

 

The right that Southern states wanted to protect was the right for white men and women to own black people as property. The South won a cultural war in changing the meaning and purpose behind the Civil War and throughout reconstruction and the early 1900s this idea was able to spread and gained legitimacy. When we reflect back on the period we should recognize that our history was not guided by angels but shaped by human beings. We made mistakes, we acted in self-interest, and we found ways to excuse our behaviors. We allowed the exploitation of human beings to form the backbone of our greatness, and then we made excuses to allow such exploitation to persist. As deplorable as our humanity may have been, we can still look back and celebrate the best part of our history, but we should not work to salvage memories of the worst part of our history. We can celebrate what men like Washington and Jefferson accomplished despite the fact that they owned slaves, but we should not revere the Confederacy or men like Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, or Alexander Stephenson who were major players in history precisely because they owned slaves and fought for the right to continue to subjugate human beings as property. The iconography of the civil war should be understood not as pride in being southern, but as the very battle symbol that men wielded in the fight to maintain the exploitation of black men and women. We cannot compartmentalize the state’s right that the south fought for, and the iconography of the time.