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3.7: Slavery in the Constitution

Difficulty Level: At Grade Created by: CK-12
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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. He has taken away the most sacred rights of Life and Liberty from a distant people who never offended him. He did this by captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere if they did not die a miserable death in their transportation to this new world. These disgraceful practices are the Warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain.

He has stopped every attempt to prohibit or to restrain the disgusting business of slavery. He is determined to keep open a market where men are bought and sold.


  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 \begin{align*}13\end{align*} 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 and humanity have nothing to do with this question. The true question at present is whether the Southern states shall or shall not be a part of the Union. If the Northern states think about their interest, they will not oppose the increase of slaves because they will profit by selling the goods that slaves produce.

Mr. ELSEWORTH: Let every state do what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are decisions 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 slave trade ended. It is wrong to force any thing that is not absolutely necessary, and which any state must disagree to.

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN: I agree to this Constitution with all its faults because I think a federal [national] government necessary for us. When you assemble a large group of men, you will inevitably find that they will disagree with each other about their local interests, and their selfish views. We have to accept some of these disagreements in order to build a national government.


  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.

The men at the Constitutional Convention never considered getting rid of slavery. The Revolutionary talk of freedom and equality had been left behind; Americans in general and the men at the Convention in particular wanted a united, well-ordered, and prosperous society in which private property—including slave property—would be secure.


  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 Founding Fathers’ racism [was] a barrier to antislavery. Here again Jefferson typified the age. Jefferson suspected that blacks had greater sexual appetites and lower intellectual abilities than did whites. These suspicions, together with Jefferson’s fear that free blacks and free whites could not live harmoniously in America, made him and others think that the only way Africans could be free was if they were sent back to Africa.


  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, most people there favored its end. Southerners were more unsure about whether to end slavery, both because they had significantly greater numbers of slaves to deal with and because an end to [slavery] had important economic implications. The result was compromise. The Founding Fathers were more determined to fashion a new nation than they were to bring an end to slavery.


  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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