The Constitution Did Not Condone Slavery
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 led the novel exercise and defended the decision not to read those portions of the Constitution that have been superseded by amendment.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.