What the 1619 Project overlooks about slavery and the Constitution
There is an important oversight in the scholarship of the 1619 Project that is also implicit in Critical Race theorizing. Neither the 1619 Project nor Critical Race Theory includes the moral position of important White political thinkers opposing slavery as contrary to the natural order of our human species.
While drafters of the Constitution found themselves forced to accept the property laws of the sovereign states, each now fully independent of Great Britain, significant thought leaders philosophically opposed slavery. While thought is less efficacious than action, it is not unimportant. Thoughts set forth the course of action and bring about the will to act.
James Wilson, for one, believed that "slavery, or an absolute and unlimited power in the master, over the life and fortune of the slave, is unauthorized by the Common Law. Indeed, it is repugnant to the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist in any social system."
This invocation of natural law laid the foundation for future reform of state laws abolishing slavery, as happened as the result of the Civil War.
In this view, Wilson followed the teaching of John Locke, who in his treatise concerning civil government, in Chapter IV, insisted that persons must never be "subject to the inconsistent, uncertain, unknown, arbitrary will of another man: as freedom of nature is to be under no other restraint but the law of nature."
Federalist Paper #54, written by Hamilton or Madison to recommend adoption of the proposed federal Constitution, followed the ethic of Wilson and Locke. In discussing the constitutional provision that persons considered as property under the laws of some states would also be counted as persons for the purpose of the census in order to determine the number of representatives allocated to each state, the essay invoked natural law to make the point that such persons — slaves — must be considered as persons as well as property.
The principle was that they were persons as well as property. Being compelled by force and tyranny to live in the status of property subject to the ownership of another could not separate them from their humanity. This is the moral and political principle of abolition, which would, in time, call forth great armies and use them to fight a great war to end slavery in this federal republic.
The inference here is that the property law of a sovereign state cannot and did not deny those persons human personhood. The counting of slaves in the census was an admission that they were still persons.
The essay pointed out that only the laws of certain states conferred upon some persons the additional status of being property and that once such laws of property were repealed, those who had been slaves would immediately become persons only.
The essay thus proposed the means of ending slavery that were used in the 1860s, proving that enacted laws are always subject to the moral imperatives of natural law whenever people align their consciences with higher principles of rightful justice.
If we are to be fully honest about our history, we have to take the good along with the bad and the ugly.
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