Secession Crisis

    Constitution on Slavery  "Clearly Sanctioned"

Black African slavery had existed in the North American English colonies for 168 years before the U.S. Constitution was drafted in 1787. It had existed all across colonial America, but by 1804 most Northern states, finding that slavery was not profitable for them, had effectively abolished the institution. In the South, however, especially after the 1793 invention of the cotton gin, the institution grew, becoming an inextricable part of the economy and way of life.

Whether slavery was to be permitted and continued under the new Constitution was a matter of conflict between the North and South, with several Southern states refusing to join the Union if slavery were disallowed. Thus, in spite of a warning from Virginian George Mason that slaves "bring the judgment of Heaven on a country," the continuance of slavery was clearly sanctioned in the U.S. Constitution, although the words slave and slavery are not found anywhere in the document. Section 2 of Article I states that apart from free persons "all other persons," meaning slaves, are each to be counted as three-fifths of a white person for the purpose of apportioning congressional representatives on the basis of population. Section 9 of Article I states that the importation of "such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit," meaning slaves, would be permitted until 1808. And Section 2 of Article IV directs that persons "held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another," meaning fugitive slaves, were to be returned to their owners.

The Bill of Rights, adopted in 1791, says nothing about slavery. But the Fifth Amendment guaranteed that no person could "be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." Slaves were property, and slaveholders had an absolute right to take their property with them, even into free states or territories.

Fascinating Fact:  The rhetoric in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence about liberty, freedom, being created equal, and so on, was seldom considered applicable to blacks, slave or free. Seen a subservient race, they were excluded from consideration as members of society and had few rights.


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