The Anti-Slavery Constitution

Created by Micah Aanerud |

Racial inequality and institutional racism have reemerged as topics of intense debate in recent months. While these debates are nothing new in America, relatively new movements such as Black Lives Matter and The New York Times’ 1619 Project have caused many to reflect upon and grapple with the issue of racism in our nation’s history.

One way we can understand the impact that racism and slavery had on America’s founding is by examining the U.S. Constitution.

The founding fathers themselves had varying and conflicting beliefs regarding slavery and racism. Some such as John Rutledge and Charles Pinckney were proponents of slavery. Others, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, argued “liberty for all” but never freed their own slaves. Still others were staunch abolitionists, with founders such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams opposing slavery.

Although the issue of slavery was fiercely debated at the Constitutional Convention, the words “race” and “slavery” are never mentioned in the Constitution. They are replaced by indirect phrases such as “other persons” and “persons held in service or labor.” Unfortunately, stark divides at the convention led to a series of compromises that would merely limit slavery rather than ending it.

One of the Constitution’s most infamous compromises is Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3. This clause states that for the purposes of representation and taxation, slaves will count as three-fifths of a person. While many might think it was the southern states who sought to categorize slaves as property rather than people, it was actually the pro-slavery delegates who argued for slaves to be counted as whole persons. By counting slaves as whole persons, southern states would receive more representation in Congress. This in turn would give the southern states more power to protect and promote the institution of slavery. Abolitionists in the northern states prevented this from happening by creating the three-fifths compromise.

As we know from history, the Constitution achieved its main objective of unifying the states but failed to deliver on true “freedom for all.” It would take more than 75 years and a civil war to bring an end to slavery in America.

Still, there remains evidence of strong anti-slavery movements at the time. Abolitionists succeeded in ending the importation of slaves (after a 20 year delay) and limiting the political power of slave states. Legal arguments inspired by the Somerset case in England were used to restrict and ban slavery in individual states. Through these examples and more, many of the founding fathers sought to honor the Declaration of Independence’s promise that “all men are created equal.” Although our nation has frequently fallen short of fulfilling this vision, we are continuously striving to achieve it.

Meet the Author

Micah Aanerud is a Mancur Olson Research Fellow at the NDSU Center for the Study of Public Choice and Private Enterprise. He is an undergraduate studying agricultural economics and crop and weed science at North Dakota State University. 

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