The Framers vs. Slavery
The Framers structured the Constitution to lead the new Republic to the ultimate end of slavery but were unable to set a time frame for its abolition. The story comes to us from James Madison’s classic Notes of the Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787.
The discussion on slavery at the Federal Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 centered on two issues: how to count the slaves in the apportionment of members in the popularly elected House of Representatives and setting an end date for the slave trade.
Three distinct groups clashed on the assignment of House representation for the slave population. Delegates from the slaveholding South wanted the slaves counted fully toward representation as they represented real wealth. Charles Pinckney of South Carolina defended slavery as being “justified by the example of all the world… In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves.” Many of the Northern delegates, however, objected maintaining that the degraded legal and human status of the slaves should preclude their having any contribution towards representation. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania led this faction in opposing any representation for “so nefarious a practice.”
Between these two contending sides stood the Virginians. While all of them had been born and raised into a slaveholding society, each had come to recognize that the institution was wrong and ultimately had to go. George Mason of Virginia (ironically the largest slave owner in attendance) gave the Convention’s most impassioned condemnation of the practice: “Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant… By an inevitable chain of cause & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.”
The Convention adopted the much-misunderstood 3/5th rule which allowed for representation and direct taxation “by adding the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, to three fifths of all other Persons.” (Italics mine) as a compromise.
In Federalist 54 by James Madison or Alexander Hamilton (or both) explained that the 3/5th provision incentivized the abolition of slavery. The Southern States could have the full representation which they wanted only by ending slavery: “if the laws were to restore the rights which have been taken away, the negroes could no longer be refused an equal share of representation with the other inhabitants.”
The Convention’s other slavery issue was the slave trade and setting a date for its termination. Again while many delegates were deeply opposed to the trade, those of the slave-states were adamant. Charles Pinckney put it simply, “South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave trade.” There had been a general agreement to set the end date as 1800. Then the Convention accepted a proposal by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina to extend the period until 1808. James Madison was devastated. “Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves.”
Nevertheless the Constitution’s end-date for the slave trade was a dramatic step toward slavery’s elimination as the Articles of Confederation had contained no such provision.
After the Federal Convention the 13 states conducted their own ratification conventions where the battles between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists played out. It was at the Virginia Ratification Convention that Patrick Henry became the country’s most prominent Anti-Federalist. Ironically, Henry, who is best remembered for “Give me liberty or give me death,” based his opposition to ratification largely on his understanding of the Constitution’s potential to eliminate slavery. On June 24, 1788 he remarkably explained that in time of national crisis Congress could require that, “every black man must fight?” and that such an eventuality would be the end of slavery. He reminded the Convention that “Slavery is detested... The majority of Congress is to the north, and the slaves are to the south.”
Henry presciently foresaw President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, his subsequent creation of the famous Black Brigades of the Civil War, and ultimately the Thirteenth Amendment which ended slavery. He was deeply insightful, but from the wrong side of history.
George Washington’s disgust for Henry and his followers was palpable: “It is a little strange that men of large property in the south should be more afraid that the Constitution will produce an aristocracy or a monarchy than the genuine, democratical people of the East.” “The Father of his Country” was already on a difficult personal journey which had begun during the Revolution. This journey would take him from being a slave-owning Virginia planter to an abolitionist who at his death freed all of his slaves at Mount Vernon.
This understanding of the Framers’ intent and their opposition to the continuation of slavery would inform the later work of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. Both would justify their opposition to slavery as representing the original intent of the Framers.
The legacy of the Framers was and remains one of freedom. Honor the Framers.
Image: Public Domain