The Right Opinion

The Constitution Did Not Condone Slavery

By Ken Blackwell · Jan. 11, 2011

With Bob Morrison

“There’s nothing new under the sun,” said President Harry Truman, “there’s only history we haven’t learned yet.” The history we haven’t learned yet was on display on page one of the Washington Post. Post writers Philip Rucker and David Farenthold reported on the reading of the Constitution by newly sworn-in Members of the 112th Congress.

Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) led the novel exercise and defended the decision not to read those portions of the Constitution that have been superseded by amendment. After all, it makes little sense to explain in detail how the president and vice president are to be chosen as the top two finishers in the Electoral College when the Twelfth Amendment changed all of that. (A good thing, too. Imagine how well George W. Bush and Al Gore would have gotten along for the first four years of the new century.)

The Rucker-Farenthold article was nowhere labeled analysis, but who expects anything but front-page editorials these days, anyway? They waded right in to a two-hundred twenty-two year old controversy when they flatly stated that the original Constitution “condoned” slavery.

Abraham Lincoln did not agree. He revered the Constitution and said that the fact that it nowhere mentioned the words slavery, slave, African, or Negro was a silent but powerful admission that the Founders were ashamed of the existence of slavery among them. They hid it away, Lincoln said, as “an afflicted man hides a wen or tumor.”

Abolitionist editor and orator Frederick Douglass also did not agree. He emphasized eloquently that not one word would have to be changed in the Constitution if only the states would follow George Washington’s example and voluntarily give up slavery.

Lincoln and Douglass were right. James Madison explained why there was no mention of slavery in the Constitution. The framers were unwilling to admit in the federal charter there could be property in men.

The idea that our Constitution “condoned” slavery and was therefore an immoral document unworthy of being viewed with reverence is a stock liberal claim. It is false.

Most of the Founders wanted to abolish the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Jefferson had denounced that “execrable traffic” in his first draft of the Declaration of Independence.

But South Carolina and Georgia delegates would not go along and, significantly, some in New England recognized the powerful influence of merchants whose ships included slavers.

But they were able to get into the original Constitution a provision which allowed Congress to ban the Slave Trade in twenty years. How odd for all those Washington liberals who today tout compromise to attack as immoral and vile this most important of compromises. Would most of the Founders have so desperately wanted to ban the Slave Trade if they thought it a good thing? If they condoned it?

When, as President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson urged Congress to act before January 1, 1808 to ban the Slave Trade, he denounced it in the strongest language ever used by any president prior to Lincoln. He called it a violation of the “human rights of unoffending Africans.” The great work of William Wilberforce in abolishing the Slave Trade in the British Empire would have been fruitless unless Jefferson had acted simultaneously in America.

Then, there’s the Post’s ritual repeating of the falsehood that the Founders viewed black people as “three fifths of a person.” That is a wholly tendentious misreading of the Three-Fifths Clause. Don Fehrenbacher is a leading authority on this. In his penetrating study, The Slaveholding Republic, he writes: “[The] fraction ‘three-fifths’ had no racial meaning. It did not represent a perception of blacks as three-fifths human…” It was a compromise on methods of levying taxes and apportioning representation in Congress.

Further, the Three-Fifths Compromise reduced the power in Congress of slaveholding states while giving an electoral bonus to any state that voluntarily emancipated its slaves. When seven of the original thirteen states abolished slavery, they were allowed to count free black people in the census for purposes of representation in Congress.

It is especially galling to have liberals attack Republican Members on these matters. They forget that it was Republicans who gave us the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments – those great guarantees of civil rights. Every vote cast against those amendments was cast by a Democrat. It was Republicans who passed the first anti-lynching bill in the House – in 1922. Those bills were routinely killed by Senate Democrats until 1957.

The Democratic Party did much to overcome its legacy. Starting in 1948, with Mayor Hubert Humphrey’s powerful call for civil rights at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, right up to Lyndon Johnson signing the 1964 Civil Rights Act that had first been offered by President Kennedy, the Democrats deserve credit.

But in all that time, they were competing with a Republican Party whose civil rights credentials were solid and understood. Without Sen. Everett Dirksen’s solid phalanx of Republicans, the Democrats' filibuster against the Civil Rights Act could not have been broken.

Let’s rejoice that we have come this far. Let’s not use the reading of the Constitution as an occasion for scoring cheap – and false – political points. Let’s proceed as Lincoln proceeded: With malice toward none.


Hard Thought said:

Liberal progressives only have a nodding acquaintance with the truth. I have pointed out these provisions to many liberals and they are always stunned that they did not know what the Constitution said.I have asked numerous people, after providing them with a copy of the Constitution, to please point out where slavery was authorized. They point to the 3/5ths clause and do not realize that that was there to discourage slave holding.Liberal progressives know so much that isn't so.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 8:03 AM

Al in Cape Coral said:

I have encountered some of those unenlightened liberal progressives Hard Thought refers to. When informed that a greater percentage of Republicans, though the minority party, voted for Lyndon Johnson's civil rights legislation over the fillibustering of Al Gore, Sr, Robert (KKK) Byrd and J.William Fulbright they are reduced to stammering like Ralph Kramden: a hummida, hummida hmmm, uh...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 11:21 AM

VoR in Ohio said:

The 3/5ths clause was not there to discourage slavery - it was there to bribe the slave-holding states into joining the new country. They were granted additional representation of the basis of a population count that included those whom the slave holders would never consider "persons".To condone is to regard or treat (something bad or blameworthy) as acceptable, forgivable, or harmless. Since there is nothing anti-slavery in the Constitution (or the slave-holding states would not have ratified it), I would have to say that meets the definition of condoning.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 12:07 PM

Anthony said:

Ken - To be clear, Eisenhower (a Republican) first raised the Civil Rights Bill since reconstruction and "Democratic Senate leader, Lyndon Baines Johnson, realized that the bill and its journey through Congress could tear apart his party, which was at the time made up of anti-civil rights and pro-civil rights members. Johnson sent the bill to the judiciary committee led by Senator James Eastland, an anti-civil rights senator from Mississippi. Eastland changed and altered the bill almost beyond recognition after the very public outburst by Senator Richard Russell from Georgia who claimed that it was an example of the Federal government wanting to impose its laws on states." Quote from:

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 12:18 PM

billc said:

Mr. Blackwell,Thanks for a terrific and educational column. Too bad they don't teach these facts in school. It might do wonders in actually toning down some of the ignorance-fueled rhetoric in out country. Ok, ok, maybe I'm a little delusional.... liberals would never let the facts get in the way of their political agenda. My apologies for the temporary lapse.Just started reading you lately and am beginning to think that you belong in the same class as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams who would be my nominees for President and Vice President. Not only would I nominate them, I would actually donate money and work door to door in their campaigns.... and I haven't done that for anyone to date in my 60+ years. My question for you would be.... which cabinet post would you prefer?For the record I'm a white conservative raised on a cotton farm in the 1950s in the heart of the racist south.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 12:42 PM

Richard Ryan said:

billc; I too am a fan of Ken Blackwell. We certainly could use people like him, as well as Sowell and Williams. I have said more than once that I would like to be able to vote for Walter Williams for president.Richard RyanLamar, Missouri (Birthplace of Harry S Truman)

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 1:15 PM

RFox said:

The bottom line is this: "Progressives" lie. They lie because the truth does not support their policies. They've been able to get away with many lies because a majority of the media outlets print their lies as truth and the truth as lies.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 2:17 PM

Steve said:

The founders considered only white people in the term "Citizen" in the Constitution. This is not debatable for anyone who researches the court cases of the first 50 years. It is also why the 14th Amendment was necessary. Rather than Amend the meaning of the term Citizen to include all races (which they knew would not be ratified by the needed majority) they created a federal class of citizen which the states were required to acknowledge and treat equally as their own state Citizens.Thus, the Constitution simply did not speak to other races as participants in the great experiment called America. Indians, Africans, Mexicans...if you were not white you were a foreigner and a resident, at best. Ownership of other people was not a new concept, even biblically. (See Philemon) Since the white Citizen of each sovereign state could choose what property they wished to own or not (freedom of property rights)there was no need to address this in the beginning of the nation.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 2:21 PM

Pondering Patriot said:

Thank you so much for raising this discussion. Having just read A Patriot's History of the US I stand amazed at just how close to perfection the Constitution is. Our founding fathers were incredibly forward thinking. Either I was thinking about basketball in history class or the basketball coach that taught our class failed to enlighten me. I am dismayed at how little I know about our history but I am working on that problem. Slavery was a horrible thing and the record needs to be set straight. Thank you.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 6:17 PM

Don G. Dinsdale said:

I am some times astonished at how one group of people (liberals) can so totally falsify what is the TRUTH, I fear there will come a time when "We the People" may be forced to once again take up arms to defend ourselves form ourselves... America & Americans are normally a fair minded group of people, with vast differences in culture, but the one thing that hold us all together is The Constitution & The Bill of Rights, let us not forget, the Rights of man are God given, not government given... Those people in Washington need to be reminded daily if need be, that they work for us and it's just a temporary job at best... Thanks for letting me rant, that's what happens when you get old and frustrated with "BO"...

Tuesday, January 11, 2011 at 7:47 PM

Abu Nudnik in Toronto said:

Good column. The neat little trick was you can't count people as chattel and citizens deserving of representation. The South accepted the lowered congressional seating because it had to. The North accepted the compromise because it effected a real decrease in slave-state power in Washington. Students of effective political compromise should take note.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 12:30 PM

Lee Birkhead in Heber Springs said:

It should come as no surprise that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a Republican. In that era, almost all black Americans were Republicans. Why? From its founding in 1854 as the anti-slavery party until today, The Republican Party has championed freedom and civil rights for blacks. The Democrat Party is as it always has been, the party of the four S’s: slavery, secession, segregation and now socialism.It was the Democrats who fought to keep blacks in slavery and passed the discriminatory Black Codes and Jim Crow laws. The Democrats started the Ku Klux Klan to lynch and terrorize blacks. The Democrats fought to prevent the passage of every civil rights law beginning with the civil rights laws of the 1860s, and continuing with the civil rights laws of the 1950s and 1960s.During the civil rights era of the 1960s, Dr. King was fighting Democrats who stood in the school house doors, turned fire hoses on blacks and let loose vicious dogs. It was Republican President Dwight Eisenhower who pushed to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and sent troops to Arkansas to desegregate schools. President Eisenhower also appointed Chief Justice Earl Warren to the U.S. Supreme Court, which resulted in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision ending school segregation. Much is made of Democrat President Harry Truman’s issuing of Executive Order in 1948 to desegregate the military. It was Eisenhower who actually took action to effectively end segregation in the military.Democrat President John F. Kennedy is praised as a proponent of civil rights. However, Kennedy voted against the 1957 Civil Rights Act while he was senator, as did Democrat Sen. Al Gore Sr. And after he became President, Kennedy was opposed to the 1963 March on Washington by Dr. King that was organized by A. Phillip Randolph, who was a black Republican. President Kennedy, through his brother Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, had Dr. King wiretapped and investigated by the FBI on suspicion of being a Communist in order to undermine Dr. King.In March of 1968, while referring to Dr. King’s leaving Memphis, Tenn., after riots broke out where a teenager was killed, Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd (W. Va.), a former member of the KKK, called Dr. King a “trouble maker” who starts trouble, but runs like a coward after trouble is started. A few weeks later, Dr. King returned to Memphis and was assassinated on April 4, 1968.Given the circumstances of that era, it is understandable why Dr. King was a Republican. It was the Republicans who fought to free blacks from slavery and amended the Constitution to grant blacks freedom (13th Amendment), citizenship (14th Amendment) and the right to vote (15th Amendment). Republicans passed the civil rights laws of the 1860s, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Reconstruction Act of 1867 that was deigned to establish a new government system in the Democrat-controlled South, one that was fair to blacks. Republicans also started the NAACP and affirmative action with Republican President Richard Nixon’s 1969 Philadelphia Plan (crafted by black Republican Art Fletcher) that set the first goals and timetables. Although affirmative action now has been turned by the Democrats into an unfair quota system, affirmative action was begun by Nixon to counter the harm caused to blacks when Democrat President Woodrow Wilson in 1912 kicked all of the blacks out of federal government jobs.Few black Americans know that it was Republicans who founded the Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Unknown also is the fact that Republican Sen. Everett Dirksen from Illinois was key to the passage of civil rights legislation in 1957, 1960, 1964 and 1965. Not mentioned in media stories about the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act is the fact that Dirksen wrote the language for the bill. Dirksen also crafted the language for the Civil Rights Act of 1968 which prohibited discrimination in housing. President Lyndon Johnson could not have gotten passage of civil rights legislation without the support of Republicans.Critics of Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater, who ran for President against Johnson in 1964, ignore the fact that Goldwater wanted to force the Southern Democrats to stop passing discriminatory laws and thus end the need to continuously enact federal civil rights legislation.Those who wrongly criticize Goldwater also ignore the fact that Johnson, in his 4,500 word State of the Union Address delivered on Jan. 4, 1965, mentioned a lot of topics for federal action, but only 35 words were devoted to civil rights. He did not mention one word about voting rights. Then in 1967, showing his anger with Dr. King’s protest against the Vietnam War, Johnson referred to Dr. King as “that Nigger preacher.”And so on and on.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 8:55 PM