Thursday, August 21, 2014

Slavery in the Constitution

If Founders believed in the Founding Principles, then they knew in their heart that slavery was the epitome of oppression. Slavery denied other humans the exercise of their liberty, which the Founders understood to be precious. Yet it was a slaveholder who wrote, “All men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”

Slavery is a difficult issue in our nation’s history. The Founders, especially the Constitutional Framers, have received censure for not taking greater action against slavery. Some of the more prominent Founders are denigrated because they owned slaves. How can the Founders comments be reconciled with their actions? The answer is not simple.

Slavery at the Founding

At the time of the Constitutional Convention, slavery was illegal only in Massachusetts; more than two hundred slave ships regularly sailed out of New England; and over half of the wealth in the South comprised slaves. Both England and the North held a large amount of loans collateralized by slaves. In 1787, slavery was widespread, and a major element of the economy in both the South and the North.

Despite the position of slavery in 1787, many of the Founders believed slavery was already on its way to extinction. The slave trade had been made illegal in ten of the thirteen states. All thirteen states were seeing an increase in free blacks, especially in the North and the frontier areas of the South. Between 1775 and 1800, the number of free blacks in the nation increased from fourteen thousand to one hundred thousand. Virginia had passed legislation that freed slaves who served in the army or navy. In 1780, Quakers in Pennsylvania pressured the state legislature to pass a law declaring all children of slaves free. With the importation of additional slaves prohibited in most of the country, declining slave labor economics, and growing pressure to declare the newborn of slaves free, most of the Founders didn’t want to jeopardize the union over an institution that was already dying. For this reason, even staunch abolitionists like Benjamin Franklin only made peripheral swipes at slavery during the Constitutional Convention.