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3.7: Slavery in the Constitution

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The Declaration of Independence included a list of grievances against King George. Thomas Jefferson’s original draft of the Declaration included a grievance condemning slavery and blaming the King for introducing it into the Americas. That grievance was deleted before the final version was adopted, but the Declaration did include the phrase “all men are created equal.”

In spite of this, the Constitution allowed slavery to continue. The documents below include Jefferson’s slavery grievance and statements from several framers of the Constitution explaining their decision not to abolish slavery. As you read, think about why slavery persisted in the Constitution, despite the fact that the Declaration declared all men equal.

Slavery Grievance – Jefferson

Source: Thomas Jefferson was born to a slave-owning family and he himself owned slaves. As chairman of the committee that drafted the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote a paragraph condemning slavery in his first draft of the Declaration. He included this paragraph in his list of complaints against King George III. Before the final version of the Declaration was adopted, this paragraph was deleted.

[King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce....

Questions:

  1. Sourcing: When was this passage written? By whom?
  2. Close Reading: How does Jefferson describe slavery? Who does he blame for the continuation of the slave trade?
  3. Close Reading: Why do you think Jefferson italicizes the word ‘Christian’ at the end of the first paragraph?
  4. Contextualization: What else was going on at this time? Why do you think that Thomas Jefferson included a paragraph about slavery when he first wrote the Declaration of Independence? Why do you think it was removed?

Constitutional Convention – Statements on Slavery

Source: Statements from the Constitutional Convention, which was held in Philadelphia in 1787. Representatives from the 13 colonies gathered at the Constitutional Convention to write the new constitution. These are some of their comments about the issue of slavery. The comments of Rutlidge, Elseworth, and Williamson are taken from notes made by James Madison. The comment by Franklin is taken from a published speech he delivered in Philadelphia just before the Constitutional Convention.

Mr. RUTLIDGE:.... Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question....The true question at present is whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union.... If the Northern states consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of Slaves which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.

Mr. ELSEWORTH:... Let every state import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves. What enriches a part enriches the whole....

Mr. WILLIAMSON:.... Southern States could not be members of the Union if the clause should be rejected, and that it was wrong to force any thing down, not absolutely necessary, and which any State must disagree to.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: I agree to this Constitution with all its faults—if they are such—because I think a general government necessary for us.... [W]hen you assemble a number of men, to have the advantage of their joint wisdom, you inevitably assemble with those men all their prejudices, their passions, their errors of opinion, their local interests, and their selfish views. From such an assembly can a perfect production be expected?

It therefore astonishes me, sir, to find this system approaching so near to perfection as it does....

Questions:

  1. Did each of these men consider slavery to be immoral? What other issues do they believe to be more important than slavery?

A Necessary Evil? – John P. Kaminski

Source: Excerpt from A Necessary Evil?, a book written by historian John Kaminski and published in 1995.

Never did the delegates consider eradicating slavery. The Revolutionary rhetoric of freedom and equality had been left behind; Americans in general and the delegates to the Convention in particular wanted a united, well-ordered, and prosperous society in which private property—including slave property—would be secure.

Question:

  1. According to Kaminski, why didn’t the authors of the Constitution abolish slavery?

The Founding Fathers and Slavery – William Freehling

Source: Excerpt from The Founding Fathers and Slavery, a book written by historian William Freehling and published in 1987.

The financial cost of abolition, heavy enough by itself, was made too staggering to bear by the Founding Fathers’ racism, an ideological hindrance to antislavery no less important than their sense of priorities and their commitment to property. Here again Jefferson typified the age. As Winthrop Jordan has shown, Jefferson suspected that blacks had greater sexual appetites and lower intellectual faculties than did whites.... These suspicions, together with Jefferson’s painfully accurate prophecy that free blacks and free whites could not live harmoniously in America for centuries, made him and others tie American emancipation to African colonization.

Question:

  1. According to Freehling, why didn’t the authors of the Constitution abolish slavery?

The Law of American Slavery – Kermit Hall

Source: Excerpt from The Law of American Slavery, a book written by historian Kermit Hall and published in 1987.

Slavery.... hung over the Philadelphia Convention, threatening to divide northern and southern delegates.... Even though slavery existed by law in some of the northern states in 1787, the sentiment there favored its end. Southerners were a good deal more ambivalent, both because they had significantly greater numbers of slaves to deal with and because an end to the peculiar institution had important economic implications....The result was compromise.... The framers were more determined to fashion a new nation than they were to bring an end to slavery.

Question:

  1. According to Hall, why didn’t the authors of the Constitution abolish slavery?

Section Question:

  1. Based on the information from the primary sources above, which of the historians’ explanations do you find most convincing? Why?

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