The U.S. Constitution – Lesson #11: Slavery & the Constitution


I was going to move forward on our lessons about the Constitution, but felt it was important to deal with a controversy that came out of the creation of the Constitution:  Slavery.  I want to make sure the historical record is straight when it comes to how it was addressed and compromised on during the summer of 1787.

Once it was decided upon that the House of Representatives apportionment would be based on population, slavery became an issue of debate during the Constitution Convention.  The key question on this debate:  Would slaves be counted in the census to determine a state’s apportionment in the House of Representatives?

“Persons held to service or labor” is the awkward phrase used to describe slaves (Bennett 121).  At the time of the Constitutional Convention only Massachusetts had abolished the practice, four other states were in the process of doing so (Bennett 122).  In the grand scheme of things, the Founders felt that it was a system that was on the path to extinction.  George Mason, the governor of New York railed against the practice just steps away from his friend largest slave holder in the U.S., and President of the convention, George Washington.  Very few delegates morally approved of the institution.  Washington and Jefferson, future presidents and slave holders, did not approve of the practice but were victims of history and their culture.  Washington would free all his slaves upon his death.  Again showing his greatness, he led by example.

The arguments to end or limit slavery hit a  brick wall in the form of the delegates from the southern states.  No argument of morals or economic seemed to sway them to relinquish that right.  So the Founders did what they did best in this convention. they compromised.  A topic I will address in a future post.

Slavery was not even mentioned in the Constitution, they talked around the subject (Bennet 123).  They used an interesting mathematical formula to determine a state’s population for their apportionment in the House:

Representatives…. shall be apportioned among the several states… 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.

This phrase does not mean that slaves viewed as a three fifths of a person but it was only there for figuring out how many representatives each state would get.  In fact, it distinctly calls them persons, not property or chattel.  It was only a mathematical formula to prevent slaveholders from getting more representation in Congress and electoral votes towards the presidency.  This compromise would actually encourage the emancipation of slaves.  As more slaves were free they would be counted as whole persons toward the state’s population.  Therefore increasing their representation in Congress.  In the eyes of history, the slave holding southern states were actually denying themselves more representation in Congress by holding the slaves in bondage. 

The Constitution also grants the power to Congress to abolish slavery, not immediately, but after 1808.  By granting this temporary reprieve in the Constitution they secured the approval of several delegates from slaves states, and the possibility eventually of ending slavery.  At the start of the Congressional session in 1808, Congress ended the external slave trade.  Slavery could have been abolished at that time but unfortunately party politics ran that option into the ground until the 1860s and the Civil War. 

There is one other time slavery is talked around in the Constitution.  In Article IV, Section 2, the Constitution states:

No person held to service or labor in one state, under the law thereof, escaping into another, shall in consequence of any law or regulation, therein, be discharged from such service or labor but shall be delivered up on the claim of the party to whom such service may be due.

This clause is a basic fugitive slave law.  People were required to return slaves to their owners, by the Constitution.  The founders put this in the Constitution because they believed it would not be ratified without it.

As I have stated before in other postings, the Founders made these compromises regarding slavery because that was not the larger issue at stake at the Constitutional Convention.  The issue was the create a government that would be strong enough to administer a nation of 13 different sovereign states, but with enough checks and balances so no branch or state go too powerful over the whole.  The issue of slavery would be the key issue in American politics and debate for the next eighty years of American History.  And it would take a war that killed more men than any other war in our history.  The sins of the forefathers, were paid for by their children a few short generations later, in the Civil War.

Questions?  Comments?  Concerns?  Class dismissed.

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