Slavery was America’s original sin

Nations, like individual human beings, have things in their history which they hate to face.  For us Americans (or at least white Americans), it is slavery.  Not only was slavery part of our national fabric from the beginning, acceptance of slavery was the price that had to be paid for our nation to come into existence in the first place.

Our very founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, show this.

When Thomas Jefferson submitted his draft of the Declaration of Independence to the Continental Congress, it contained this complaint against King George III:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere … determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold … he is now exciting those very people to rise to arms against us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them … thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes he urges against the lives of another.

This was a double complaint – that the British government had sanctioned the African slave trade and introduced slavery into the American colonies; and then that the British encouraged those slaves to revolt against their masters.   So the British were to blame for the existence of slavery, but also condemned for recruiting slaves to fight against their masters.  Jefferson had things both ways.

But even this was too much for some of the delegates.  As Jefferson later noted, the South Carolina and Georgia delegations were strongly in favor of continuing the slave trade, and some Northern delegates were reluctant to condemn it, since New England Yankee ship captains were themselves active in the slave trade.

References to the slave trade were deleted, and the final version, signed on July 4, 1776, had only this to say on the subject of slavery:

He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us …

The document that proclaims that all men have the inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness also condemns instigation of slave revolts.  That’s not consistent.  But if South Carolina and Georgia hadn’t supported the Revolution, maybe American independence could not have been won.  The Continental Congress faced a real moral dilemma.

Fast forward to the Constitutional Convention in 1783.  Without the agreement of the slave states, the Constitution would not have been ratified, and the United States would not have become a nation in its present form.  Three provisions were necessary to win the slave states’ agreement.

Article One, Section 9, of the Constitution says:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may by imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

In plain English, this says that the slave trade will be allowed to continue at least until 1808.  The United States did, in fact, outlaw participation in the trans-Atlantic slave trade effective Jan. 1, 1808, at the same time the slave trade was outlawed within the British Empire.  Internal slave trading was another matter.  It continued to be an important economic activity in the United States right down to the Civil War.

Article Four, Section 2, says:

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

In plain English, this says that slaves who flee slave states to free states must be returned to slavery.  This provision was the Constitutional basis for the Fugitive Slave Laws, and for the Supreme Court decision that the slave Dred Scott did not gain his freedom by moving to a free state.   This was part of the Constitution until the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery in 1865.

The most important support given by the Constitution to slavery was Article One, Section 2, the notorious “three-fifths” clause.  It says:

Representatives and direct taxes shall be apportioned among the several states which may be included within this Union, 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.

In plain English, it says that congressional representation and direct federal taxes will be based on the total number of free white citizens and indentured servants plus three-fifths of the number of black slaves.  This is often described as an assertion that an African-American is “three-fifths of a man.”  But the anti-slavery position would have been to base representation on the free people alone, and zero representation for owning slaves.  As it was, a Southern planter who owned 15 slaves had more representation in Congress than nine free white people in the North who owned no slaves.  This extra representation enabled the South to dominate the government and stave off the possibility that a Northern majority would abolish slavery, until the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

None of this is anything for us Americans to be proud of.  But I certainly do not claim standing to condemn the Founders.  If I had been a member of the Continental Congress or Constitutional Convention, I think I would have gone along with these compromises.  This was the price of a unified, independent nation.  Without a Union, there would have been no framework for working for the abolition of slavery.

I don’t deny the high price that was paid, and I hope that being white doesn’t make me minimize that price.  Some people have said that the American Civil War was our great national tragedy.  No, the fact of slavery, which made the Civil War inevitable, was our great national tragedy.

Abraham Lincoln throughout his political career pointed out that the original Constitution did not contain the word slavery.  He thought the Founders’ reticence meant that they were half-ashamed of what they did.  In his view, they accepted slavery as an inescapable evil, but they did not deny that it was an evil.

That was Lincoln’s position, too.  He rightly saw the Founders’ acceptance of slavery as a pragmatic compromise that was incompatible with the Declaration’s proclamation of the inalienable human right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  He said slavery should not be allowed to spread because it was morally wrong, but, out of respect for the Constitution and for fear of a civil war, he did not propose to abolish it where it was.

If the Southern leaders had not initiated the Civil War, slavery might have continued for decades longer than it did, conceivably even into the civil rights era of the 1960s.   Paradoxically, the Southern leaders’ unwise and unsuccessful attempt to break up the Union in defense of slavery removed the inhibitions of Lincoln and the Republicans about abolishing slavery.

After posting this, I made some minor edits and additions, as I often do, for clarification.

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One Response to “Slavery was America’s original sin”

  1. The long shadow of slavery | KAJINSKY Says:

    […] with captivated men and women imported from Africa. The Constitution drafted in 1787 explicitly protected slavery with a number of measures, which were politically necessary to have it ratified also by […]


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