Friday, September 18, 2015

Constitutionally, Slavery Is No National Institution: Note for a lecture,"E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"; for a view critical of the below article, see.

Image from, with comment: As the Sesquicentennnial of the Civil War is remembered, reminds us that on this day January 31, 1865, the U. S. House of Representatives passed the Thirteenth Amendment – abolishing slavery in the United States.

by SEAN WILENTZ SEPT. 16, 2015

THE Civil War began over a simple question: Did the Constitution of the
United States recognize slavery — property in humans — in national law?
Southern slaveholders, inspired by Senator John C. Calhoun of South
Carolina, charged that it did and that the Constitution was proslavery;
Northern Republicans, led by Abraham Lincoln, and joined by abolitionists
including Frederick Douglass, resolutely denied it. After Lincoln’s election to
the presidency, 11 Southern states seceded to protect what the South Carolina
secessionists called their constitutional “right of property in slaves.”

The war settled this central question on the side of Lincoln and Douglass.
Yet the myth that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists,
notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at
America’s racist past. The myth, ironically, has led advocates for social justice
to reject Lincoln’s and Douglass’s view of the Constitution in favor of
Calhoun’s. And now the myth threatens to poison the current presidential
campaign. The United States, Bernie Sanders has charged, “in many ways was
created, and I’m sorry to have to say this, from way back, on racist principles,
that’s a fact.”

But as far as the nation’s founding is concerned, it is not a fact, as Lincoln
and Douglass explained. It is one of the most destructive falsehoods in all of
American history.

Yes, slavery was a powerful institution in 1787. Yes, most white Americans
presumed African inferiority. And in 1787, proslavery delegates to the
Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia fought to inscribe the principle of
property in humans in the Constitution. But on this matter the slaveholders
were crushed.

James Madison (himself a slaveholder) opposed the ardent proslavery
delegates and stated that it would be “wrong to admit in the Constitution the
idea that there could be property in men.” The Constitutional Convention not
only deliberately excluded the word “slavery,” but it also quashed the
proslavery effort to make slavery a national institution, and so prevented
enshrining the racism that justified slavery.

The property question was the key controversy. The delegates could never
have created a federal union if they had given power to the national
government to meddle in the property laws of the slave states. Slavery would
have to be tolerated as a local institution. This hard fact, though, did not
sanction slavery in national law, as a national institution, as so many critics
presume. This sanction was precisely what the proslavery delegates sought
with their failed machinations to ensure, as Madison wrote, that “some
provision should be included in favor of property in slaves.” Most of the
framers expected slavery to gradually wither away. They would do nothing to
obstruct slavery’s demise.

The South did win some concessions at the convention, but they were
largely consolation prizes. The notorious three­-fifths clause tied slaveholding
to political power, but proslavery delegates, led by South Carolinians,
repeatedly pressed for slaves to be counted as full persons, which Charles
Pinckney professed was “nothing more than justice.” They finally conceded to
the three-­fifths compromise. Over time, the congressional bulwark of the slave
power became the Senate, where the three­fifths rule did not apply.

The proslavery delegates desperately wanted the Constitution to bar the
national government from regulating the Atlantic slave trade, believing it
would be an enormous blow against slavery. The first draft of the Constitution
acceded to their bluster. But antislavery Northerners erupted in protest and
proposed that the new government have the power not only to regulate the
trade but also to abolish it after 1800. The proslavery men, over Madison’s
furious objection, got the date extended to 1808, but it was a salvage

In the convention’s waning days, proslavery delegates won a clause for the
return of runaway slaves from free states. Yet the clause was a measure of
slavery’s defensiveness, prompted by then landmark Northern gradual
emancipation laws, and was so passively worded that enforcement was left to
nobody, certainly not the federal government. Antislavery Northerners further
refined the wording to ensure it did not recognize slaves as property.

As slavery was abolished throughout the North and as Southern slavery
became an internal empire, proslavery advocates tried to reverse the framers’
work, claiming that, with the fugitive servant clause, the Constitution actually
established slaves as property in national law. “[H]ave we not a right, under
the Constitution, to our property in our slaves?” Senator Calhoun declared in
1840. This became the foundation for proslavery arguments about the
expansion of slavery into the national territories that divided the nation in the

Antislavery leaders answered with chapter and verse that the framers had
refused to extend a constitutional right to property in slaves, and that
therefore Congress was empowered to halt slavery’s expansion, putting
slavery, in Lincoln’s phrase, on “the course of ultimate extinction.” Douglass
broke with those abolitionists who, he said, “hold the Constitution to be a
slaveholding instrument.” Running for president in 1860, Lincoln asserted
that the framers had operated “on purpose to exclude from the Constitution
the idea that there could be property in man.” He added that “[t]o show all this
is easy and certain.” It was so well understood in 1860 that it provoked the
Civil War.

image from

Far from a proslavery compact of “racist principles,” the Constitution was
based on a repudiation of the idea of a nation dedicated to the proposition of
property in humans. Without that antislavery outcome in 1787, slavery would
not have reached “ultimate extinction” in 1865.

Sean Wilentz’s new book, “The Politicians andthe Egalitarians: The
Hidden History of American Politics,” will be published next

1 comment:

Cindy Dy said...

This is just the information I am finding everywhere. Thanks for your blog, I just subscribe your blog. This is a nice blog.