Slavery was a horrific practice. But there has been a lot of interesting conversations concerning the early U.S. Constitution and slavery. So I decided to research the matter by reading the actual early accounts rather than recent misinterpretations, and here is what I discovered.
It is widely said that Article I Section 2 refers to “slaves as three fifths of a person”. That is not exactly true: the Constitution does not use the word slave or slavery at all. It uses the words “other persons” in Article I Section 2, and there is a reason for that.
Article I Section of the Constitution states:
The House of Representatives shall be composed of Members chosen every second Year by the People of the several States, and the Electors in each State shall have the Qualifications requisite for Electors of the most numerous Branch of the State Legislature.
No Person shall be a Representative who shall not have attained to the Age of twenty five Years, and been seven Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.
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.The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.The number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Carolina five, and Georgia three.
When vacancies happen in the Representation from any State, the Executive Authority thereof shall issue Writs of Election to fill such Vacancies.
The House of Representatives shall chuse their Speaker and other Officers;and shall have the sole Power of Impeachment.
Not About Slavery?
At first glance one can easily make some false conclusions unless they know the history which I share with you here.
1. Article I (Section 2) was not about slavery. Check it out: it is all about State’s representation in the House of Representatives. Slavery only entered the discussion as a result of an attempted power grab. Each State wanted to make sure they had ample voting powers.
2. The non-slavery States were in a very heated discussion with the slave holding States. The latter insisted on a representation strictly according to the number of inhabitants, whether they were slaves or free persons. It was the non-slave holding States that wanted representation according to the number of free persons only (slaves not to be counted at all).
As one can see, the former version would have given the slave holding States a big advantage, and encouraged more slavery. By simply importing more slaves, a State could have easily increased their representation, and power in the House Of Representatives. The disagreement was so volatile that it nearly ended the creation of the Constitution of these United States.
3. After much discussion, a compromise was reached which was that three fifths of the slaves were counted as part of the number of free persons, as the basis of the appointment of Representatives. Interesting note: They purposely did not use the word slaves for reasons to be explained below. But it was well understood that “other persons” referred to the slave population.
Why the word slavery is not in the Constitution:
The word slavery was never used in the original Constitution for a reason. The framers did not want the Constitution to enforce or endorse slavery. In fact; George Mason, said: “[Slavery is a] slow Poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentleman here is born a petty Tyrant…. And in such an infernal School are to be educated our future Legislators & Rulers. So some founders argued to preserve slavery in the colonies, but others strongly opposed it. “
The Constitution was written to end slavery:
Article I Section 9: “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.”
“James Madison, who is known as the architect of the Constitution said, “Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution”
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, in his book “The Familiar Exposition Of The American Constitution”, writes “This clause as is manifest from its language, was designed solely to reserve to the Southern states, for a limited period, the right to import slaves. It is to the honor of America, that she should have set the first example on interdicting and abolishing the slave trade, in modern times.” (pg 185).
He further writes (on page 186): “And it ought be considered as a great point gained, in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years should enable Congress to terminate, in America (as Congress in fact has terminated the African slave trade) a traffic, which has so long and so loudly upbraided the morals and justice of modern nations.” It is interesting to note that his book was written well before the Civil War.
Note: Joseph Story was Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1811 to 1845. He was a child of the American Revolution, born three years after the Declaration of Independence.
The video below explains even more, and tells you what Frederick Douglas, who was a scholarly black man, and himself once a slave, had to say about the Constitution and slavery.
No Reading Among Slaves
Now one can easily understand why the slave owners did not want blacks taught to read. They would have understood what Martin Luther King understood:
“In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness… America has given the Negro people (His words not mine) a bad check, a check which has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.” ….Martin Luther King
The Underground Railroad and the Founders:
Visiting a black college had a profound effect on Ben Franklin. Several years later he joined an abolition Society. Franklin came to believe that slavery should be ended, and eventually freed his own two slaves.
American history is not perfect. We had Founding Fathers who practiced slavery. But why do we no longer hear about those who opposed it, and participated in the “Underground Railroad” to free the slaves? Why do public schools no longer teach the Constitution?
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