Antislavery: The Crusade for Freedom in America

By Dwight Lowell Dumond | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
SLAVERY AND THE CONSTITUTION

Did the Fathers of the Constitution look to the ultimate abolition of slavery? That question has been asked many times. The only reasonable answer is that they could not have done otherwise. They were men of great intellectual power, of courage, and above all, of integrity. It is unthinkable that they could have forgotten so soon the freedom for which they themselves struggled as to have fastened perpetual slavery on others and their descendants. They had gone too far in endorsing the principles of the Declaration of Rights and Declaration of Independence, too far along the road of emancipation in the several states, to have framed consciously a document incompatible with those principles. They knew that there was an irreconcilable repugnance between the principles under which they had secured independence and the practice of slavery. They sought permanence and stability as a nation in the family of nations. That alone would have impelled them to avoid charges of inconsistency in their conduct. Certainly, old hands at framing constitutions, as these men were, would not have hesitated to use the words slave and slavery in the new instrument of government if they had intended that slavery was to be protected forever by the government they were creating. They did not do so, obviously being restrained by some very strong motive.

Evidence of the strong desire to avoid endorsement, or even recognition, of the right of property in man, is overwhelming. James Iredell, of North Carolina, later Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States and a leading architect of state rights philosophy, said in the North Carolina ratifying convention: "The northern delegates, owing to their particular scruples on the subject of slavery did not choose the word slave to be mentioned."1Roger Sherman, of Connecticut, the only man to sign the Articles of Association, the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution, opposed a tax on slaves imported because a tax would imply that they were property.2 So too did Madison, who thought that allowing twenty years of the slave trade would "be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution."3 It is a singular fact that the giants among the members were opposed, as we shall see, to slavery, to the slave trade, to slave representation, and to slavery expansion.

There were three provisions written into the Constitution dealing directly with the subject of slavery, and two others which were of considerable collateral importance. These were: Article I, Section 2, "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"; Article IV, Section 2, "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

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