MYTH: The Constitution was pro-slavery.
REALITY: This is mostly false. Since the early 1800s, there has been a back-and-forth argument on whether the Constitution was a pro-slavery document or an anti-slavery document.
Many supporters of slavery argued that they had a constitutional right to own slaves. While the principles of natural rights contained in the Constitution were used by abolitionists to argue against the practice of slavery.
The most notable abolitionists who believed the Constitution was anti-slavery were Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Sumner, John Quincy Adams, and Salmon P. Chase.
All of them were Republicans with the exception of John Quincy Adams, who was part of the Whig party before the formation of the Republican Party.
Republican and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, was a former slave who believed that Constitution promoted freedom, not slavery.
On July 5, 1882, Frederick Douglass said, “Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.” He also added, “Let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.”
Abraham Lincoln, the founder of the Republican Party, was also an abolitionist who believed that the Constitution was anti-slavery.
On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln said, “An inspection of the Constitution will show that the right of property in a slave in not “distinctly and expressly affirmed” in it.”
On September 15, 1858, Abraham Lincoln said, “I say when this government was first established it was the policy of its founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new Territories of the United States, where it had not existed. But Judge Douglas and his friends have broken up that policy and placed it upon a new basis by which it is to become national and perpetual.”
Did the founders intend on removing slavery? Was Abraham Lincoln correct?
Abraham Lincoln does provide pretty good proof of the framer’s intentions to abolish slavery. In Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, he proved that the majority of the framers of the Constitution were against slavery. He noted that out of the 39 framers, 23 had been questioned about banning slavery in the new territories. Of the 23, Twenty-one of the 23 voted to ban slavery.
Lincoln said, “Thus the twenty-one acted; and, as actions speak louder than words, so actions, under such responsibility, speak still louder. Two of the twenty-three voted against Congressional prohibition of slavery in the federal territories, in the instances in which they acted upon the question. But for what reasons they so voted is not known… The remaining sixteen of the “thirty-nine,” so far as I have discovered, have left no record of their understanding upon the direct question of federal control of slavery in the federal territories.” (Lincoln, February 27, 1860)
It is unknown how the sixteen would have voted, but they most likely would have voted like the rest. Even when you exclude the sixteen, a vast majority of the Constitutional framers voted against slavery.
Abraham Lincoln also argued that the Constitution led to laws and regulations that directly put an end to slavery practices.
Excerpt of Abraham Lincoln Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854:
In 1794, they prohibited an out-going slave-trade—that is, the taking of slaves FROM the United States to sell.
In 1798, they prohibited the bringing of slaves from Africa, INTO the Mississippi Territory—this territory then comprised what are now the States of Mississippi and Alabama. This was TEN YEARS before they had the authority to do the same thing as to the States existing at the adoption of the constitution.
In 1800 they prohibited AMERICAN CITIZENS from trading in slaves between foreign countries—, for instance, from Africa to Brazil.
In 1803 they passed a law in aid of one or two State laws, in restraint of the internal slave trade.
In 1807, in apparent hot haste, they passed the law, nearly a year in advance to take effect the first day of 1808—the very first day the constitution would permit—prohibiting the African slave trade by heavy pecuniary and corporal penalties.
In 1820, finding these provisions ineffectual, they declared the trade piracy, and annexed to it, the extreme penalty of death. While all this was passing in the general government, five or six of the original slave States had adopted systems of gradual emancipation; by which the institution was rapidly becoming extinct within these limits.
Thus we see, the plain unmistakable spirit of that age, towards slavery, was hostility to the PRINCIPLE, and toleration, ONLY BY NECESSITY.
Those who say that the Constitution is pro-slavery claim that there are four clauses contained in the Constitution that support slavery.
The specific clauses of the Constitution that they are talking about are the Three-Fifths Clause, the ban on Congress ending the slave trade for twenty years, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave insurrection clause.
Frederick Douglass refutes every one of those claims. (Read below for more information).
Edward O’Byrn, Assistant Professor of Philosophy and Africana Studies at Carleton College, explained, “Douglass noted that the pro-slavery interpretation required language outside the plain text of the Constitution to justify its argument. In other words, they assume the intentions of America’s founders and claim that these interpretations are common sense. Rejecting this originalism Douglas pointed out that this fixation on secret intentions and the context of the founders is ultimately a self-defeating argument.”
Frederick Douglass said, “It is an admission that the thing for which they are looking is not to be found where only it ought to be found, and that is in the Constitution itself. If it is not there, it is nothing to the purpose, be it wheresoever else it may be.”
He also stated, “The Constitution may be right, the Government is wrong. If the Government has been governed by mean, sordid, and wicked passions, it does not follow that the Constitution is mean, sordid, and wicked.”
Frederick Douglass concluded, that if it’s “interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a glorious liberty document.”
What I find interesting is that today, many Democrats claim that the Constitution is a pro-slavery document. The evidence they use is the very same arguments that pro-slavery Democrats, like Stephen A. Douglas, made in the past. Democrats, today, completely ignore the arguments that anti-slavery Republicans like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass made.
So, ask yourself, who do you think is right? Do think abolitionists like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass are right? Or do you think the pro-slavery Confederate, Stephen A. Douglas, is right?
(Check below for more information)
Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution says, “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.”
Frederick Douglass explained that the Three-Fifths Clause doesn’t protect slavery. He pointed out that it actually leaned in favor of States that abolished slavery by giving them greater representation in Congress.
Frederick Douglass said, “A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”
20 YEARS TO END SLAVERY CLAUSE
Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1 of the United States Constitution says, “The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”
The Constitution was ratified in 1788, giving Slave States until 1808 (20 years) before Congress can ban the importation of slaves.
Frederick Douglass explained, that “it is anti-slavery, because it looked to the abolition of slavery rather than to its perpetuity. Fourthly, it showed that the intentions of the framers of the Constitution were good, not bad. I think this is quite enough for this point.”
It’s important to note that on Jan. 1, 1808, the very first day on which it was constitutionally permissible, the slave trade was abolished by law.
FUGITIVE SLAVE CLAUSE
Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution says, “No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”
Frederick Douglass explained, “In the first draft of the fugitive slave clause were such as applied to the condition of slaves, and expressly declared that persons held to “servitude” should be given up; but that the word “servitude” was struck from the provision, for the very reason that it applied to slaves.”
He continued, “But it may be asked — if this clause does not apply to slaves, to whom does it apply? I answer, that when adopted, it applies to a very large class of persons — namely, redemptioners — persons who had come to America from Holland, from Ireland, and other quarters of the globe — like the Coolies to the West Indies — and had, for a consideration duly paid, become bound to “serve and labour” for the parties two whom their service and labour was due. It applies to indentured apprentices and others who have become bound for a consideration, under contract duly made, to serve and labour, to such persons this provision applies, and only to such persons. The plain reading of this provision shows that it applies, and that it can only properly and legally apply, to persons “bound to service.” Its object plainly is, to secure the fulfillment of contracts for “service and labour.” It applies to indentured apprentices, and any other persons from whom service and labour may be due. The legal condition of the slave puts him beyond the operation of this provision. He is not described in it.”
THE INSURRECTION CLAUSE
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 15 of the United States Constitution says, “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions.”
As Frederick Douglass said, “I go to the “slave insurrection” clause, though, in truth, there is no such clause. The one which is called so has nothing whatever to do with slaves or slaveholders any more than your laws for suppression of popular outbreaks has to do with making slaves of you and your children. It is only a law for suppression of riots or insurrections.”
ALMOST HALF OF DEMOCRATS OPPOSE THE CONSTITUTION
According to a Heartland and Rasmussen Reports survey, 49% of Democrats think the Constitution should be mostly or completely rewritten, compared to 17% of Republicans and 28% of Independents who felt the same way. Republicans had a 93% favorable view of the Constitution, compared to 74% of Democrats.
The survey also found that a majority of Democrats viewed the Constitution as racist and sexist. “The Heartland Institute and Rasmussen Reports of 1,025 likely voters found that 57% of Democrats and 65% of liberals believe the Constitution is rooted in racism, and 64% of Democrats and 69% of liberals say the Constitution is a sexist document that gives men advantages over women.”
Douglass, F. (1852, July 5). “What to the slave is the fourth of July?”. Teaching American History. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/what-to-the-slave-is-the-fourth-of-july/
Lincoln , A. (1857, June 26). Speech on the dred scott decision. Teaching American History. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://teachingamericanhistory.org/document/speech-on-the-dred-scott-decision/
Slavery and the Constitution. Bill of Rights Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://billofrightsinstitute.org/essays/slavery-and-the-constitution
Sandefur, T. (2019, August 21). The Founders Were Flawed. The Nation Is Imperfect. The Constitution Is Still a ‘Glorious Liberty Document.’ Cato Institute . Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.cato.org/commentary/founders-were-flawed-nation-imperfect-constitution-still-glorious-liberty-document
Wood, G. S. (2021, January 12). Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document? (published 2021). New York Times . Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.nytimes.com/2021/01/12/books/review/james-oakes-the-crooked-path-to-abolition.amp.html
McCormack, J. (2011, July 6). Weekly standard: Founding fathers opposed slavery. NPR. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.npr.org/2011/07/06/137647715/weekly-standard-founding-fathers-opposed-slavery#:~:text=The%20founding%20fathers%2C%20said%20Lincoln,from%20the%20vast%20Northwest%20Territory.
Douglass, F. (2012, March 15). (1860) Frederick Douglass, “The constitution of the united states: Is it pro-slavery or anti-slavery?” . BlackPast. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/1860-frederick-douglass-constitution-united-states-it-pro-slavery-or-anti-slavery/
Goldwin, R. A. (1987, May 1). Why blacks, women, and jews are not mentioned in the Constitution … – aei. American Enterprise Institute . Retrieved October 24, 2022, from https://www.aei.org/articles/why-blacks-women-and-jews-are-not-mentioned-in-the-constitution/
Root, D. (2006, October). ‘A glorious liberty document’. Reason . Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.google.com/amp/s/reason.com/2006/10/01/a-glorious-liberty-document-2/%3famp
U.S. Department of the Interior. (2015, April 10). Summary of Lincoln’s arguments at Cooper Union. National Parks Service. Retrieved October 23, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/summary.htm
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