Slavery and the Constitution

The reverence and brilliance with which the Constitution is regarded casts a glow upon it that often deflects scrutiny. But seeing race play out over and over on the contemporary scene I became more and more fascinated with the origins of our race problem. I’ve read the Constitution three times over the last few years along with various other books about our history. However I found that when I went to explain or point out a fact to another I lacked the language to make my point. Therefore I thought it important enough to write about.

As an American I respect the Constitution. But I felt a need to understand how Freedom with its high ideals could co-exist with slavery and the treatment of Native American Indians. Also I wanted to know how our past effects what is happening today. These remain questions that I want to understand better. I’ve come to respect diversity as a pillar of life, diversity in Persons, diversity in Culture, diversity in Nature.

Slavery is alluded to four times in the Constitution. It is important to know that the word “slavery” is never mentioned. It’s quite possible that if you were to read the Constitution and were given a quiz, you would never have recognized that slavery was Constitutional or even referred to. The founders that crafted this document went out of their way to make sure they did not draw attention to the institution of slavery, but that it was accounted for and provided for nonetheless. Of course in our current time Amendments to the Constitution have made the original clauses on slavery null and void.

The first reference to slavery comes in Article I, Section 2, Clause 3:

“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 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.”

The key distinction to be made in this section is the difference between “free Persons” and “three fifths of all other Persons.” To translate, if you were not a free Person you were a slave and hence not counted as a whole Person but merely three fifths of a Person. Therefore when determining representation in the House of Representatives and taxes per state, those number values were used.

The second mention that refers to slavery is in Article I, Section 9, Clause 1:

“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 Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.”

In this section the “importation of such Persons” legalizes the slave trade for the next 20 years and results in about 200,000 more slaves brought in from Africa as well as countless deaths as a result of the conditions on board slave ships.

The third reference comes in Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3:

“No Person held to Service or Labour in one state, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.”

This fugitive slave law makes it mandatory for non-slave states to return a runaway slave. Though the Constitution itself implicates the entire United States of America in the evil of slavery, this specific clause made the implication take physical form, even for those Americans that abhor slavery.

The fourth and final mention appears in Article V which in one paragraph describes how to amend the Constitution. One stipulation within that paragraph reads as follows:

“Provided that no Amendment which may be made prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight shall in any Manner affect the first and fourth Clauses in the Ninth Section of the first Article”

In other words one could not outlaw the importation of slaves for the next 20 years.