Tuesday, July 13, 2021

America's "Racist" Constitution

Every properly woke person knows that our Constitution is racist.  They did not abolish slavery.  Indeed while the word slave appears nowhere in it until the 13th Amendment abolished it. Art. 4 Sec. 2, cl. 3 provides for extradition of persons "bound to service," a term that applied to apprentices, indentured servants and slaves.  Art. I, sec. 2 treats non-free persons as 3/5 of a person for purposes of taxation and representation.   In both cases, this means slaves.

So why did the Framers so carefully avoid the word slave?  A number of Framers including some slaveholders (such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson) regarded slavery as an evil that needed to go away at some point.  Breen's Tobacco Culture examines how tobaccos reliance on slave labor eventually led Washington to switch from tobacco to wheat.  Many other delegates were active abolitionists such as Ben Franklin, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton.   

Even supporters of slavery from states profoundly tied to the system recognized the immorality of it, or at least getting high and mighty about it.  When C.C. Pinckney returned from Philadelphia and had to justify why the new Constitution had no Bill of Rights, he explained: One was that bills of rights generally begin by declaring that all men are by nature born free. The reporter's summary of his observation concluded, "Now, we should make that declaration with a very bad grace, when a large part of our property consists in men who are actually born slaves."[18]

So what did the new Constitution do about slavery, a contentious issue that risked losing South Carolina and Georgia from the United States?  It did something no other government of the time had the moral character to do: it set a deadline for abolition of the international slave trade in 1808.  Yes Britain did likewise in 1807 but the U.S. Constitution stated the goal in 1788.  This was well before William Wilberforce's successful persuasion of Parliament.

For all that America's founders missed the boat on slavery they were still ahead of the rest of the world.  Remind your local antiracist of this.


  1. The Constitution never mentions race, except for the reference to "Indians not taxed". The notorious "3/5 clause" applied to slaves, not to blacks; "free colored" persons (as they were then called) counted the same as anyone else.

    However, the Constitution did not "set a deadline for abolition of the international slave trade in 1808." Rather, it stated that

    "The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight ..."

    which meant that the slave trade could not be touched before 1808, if any of the original thirteen states permitted it.
    Incidentally, that very indirect way of addressing the question prohibited any restriction on immigration. For an alternate-history seed, what if that clause had been phrased in such a way that the general bar on immigration restriction was perpetual? But still dependent on the original thirteen?

    1. Everyone understood that importation of slaves would end in 1808. Indeed, every State prohibited importation until South Carolina changed its mind and relegalized import just before the 1808 law.

    2. Really?

      One wonders what was the point of the constitutional provision then.

      Is there a source for the dates when the various states did this? And why South Carolina reversed when it did? (Aside from general pro-slavery cussedness.)

      And that history plays into the alt-hist idea: if it was known that all states would prohibit the trade themselves, then the conditional restriction on federal action might be left perpetual.

      In which case, as I noted, any of the original states could unilaterally nullify any national immigration restrictions.

    3. W.E.B. Dubois' _Suppression of the Atlantic Slave Trade_ (his doctoral dissertation, I believe) lists the years the various states prohibited the importation of slaves, some during the Revolution. There was no guarantee that every state would do so, but it was definitely the direction that everyone assumed we were heading: abolitionists hated importation because it was slavery; surprisingly enough some slave holders were uncomfortable with breaking up families (and many worked hard to avoid it even in America); slave breeders in Virginia figured it would increase demand for slaves and therefore increase prices.

    4. It was his doctoral dissertation at Harvard (1896) and a splendid history.

    5. Available here: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/17700/17700-h/17700-h.htm

    6. Search for "Restrictions in Maryland": for an example.

      "South Carolina was the first Southern State in which the exigencies of a great staple crop rendered the rapid consumption of slaves more profitable than their proper maintenance. Alternating, therefore, between a plethora and a dearth of Negroes, she prohibited the slave-trade only for short periods. In 17883 she had forbidden the trade for five years, and in 1792,4 being peculiarly exposed to the West Indian insurrection, she quickly found it "inexpedient" to allow Negroes "from Africa, the West India Islands, or other place beyond sea" to enter for two years. This act continued to be extended, although with lessening penalties, until 1803.5 "