Part 1: What’s So Great About Our Constitution, Anyway?
Essay 19 – Slavery
Obviously, fully covering the topic of slavery is way beyond the scope of these essays. However, it would be irresponsible to not address it, as it was, and is, a very legitimate criticism of the founders, the founding era, and how the Constitution originally handled it.
Because it is such an important issue when considering the value of the Constitution, this topic will be a bit longer than others and I’ll break into two essays.
Slavery at any time, by anyone, is and was abhorrent.
For any rational thinking person of today, that is immediately understood. It’s difficult to think and talk about how that realization has not always been the case throughout history, because when you try to give it any historical context it sounds very much like excusing it in some way. That is certainly not the intent here.
With that said, here are the major points I’d like you to consider about slavery as it relates to the founders, our founding, and the Constitution:
- At the time of our founding, slavery had been an institution around the world for thousands of years. The people during those ancient and early eras lived completely different lives than we do today. Mostly, they were all ruled by kings or some other despotic regime. All they knew was that there was a certain hierarchy in society…slaves, servants, peasants, subjects, nobility, royalty, etc. People were born into their lot in life and that’s how they were raised and taught and they believed that’s simply the way things were, no matter which class they were in. It’s hard for us to see that through our modern day lens.
- It was the 18th century (the 1700’s) when the Age of Enlightenment occurred. In a nutshell, it was the enlightenment philosophy that started to plant the seed of individual liberty, equality, and the concept of natural rights into the minds of the people. This was a new thought…that all people were actually born with equal natural rights such as life, liberty, and property.
- As people learned about this philosophy during the Age of Enlightenment, thoughts about these things were being transformed. Mankind was becoming better, but, unfortunately, it wasn’t like flipping a switch. Our founders, and our actual founding, were heavily influenced by this new thinking. They were among the transitioning generation.
- Approximately half of the signers of the Constitution were slave owners, including some of the most notable founders such as George Washington, James Madison, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson. Of course, this also means that half were not. Many of those who were slave owners obtained their slaves mostly through inheritance, and there were many laws at the time that prevented individuals from freeing their slaves. That’s not to say that they all would have freed all of their slaves if they were able to. It’s only to say that things were much more complicated at the time than what we can easily see 250 years later.
- As I mentioned earlier, these men were part of a transitional generation largely influenced by the enlightenment philosophy and further by their own fight for freedom during the American Revolution. Their thoughts and attitudes toward slavery evolved throughout their lives as these influences and experiences enlightened their own thinking. This resulted in Franklin and others, such as Alexander Hamilton and John Jay, taking large roles in the antislavery movement and leading to the end of slavery in the North. It led to Madison and Jefferson taking public stands against the evil of slavery and attempts to promote legislation to prevent its spread and eventually eliminate it. Washington struggled with how to remedy his own involvement in slavery. He was concerned about freeing his slaves and having them unable to fare well for themselves. In the end, he did free his slaves in his will, including provisions to financially take care of the elderly and the children.
None of this excuses slavery or these men for owning slaves.
Each of these men who owned slaves certainly had their own personal failings in this regard. My intent is not to convince you that these were still all great men in spite of them being slave owners. All of the details and the implications of the points made above can be debated a great deal.
However, what is not debatable is that the principles that these men based their ideas on for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the formation of our Republic – that all men are created equal with natural rights including life, liberty, property and the pursuit of happiness – laid the foundation for eventually making it a reality.
They recognized they were in the wrong, that history would not look kindly on this and they set in motion the reasoning and mechanism to end it, even though they couldn’t find a way to do it themselves.
Many of them wanted to end it at the time of the Constitution’s ratification. Unfortunately, the transition of enough minds was not complete yet (far from it) and it was determined that the Union simply would not survive if that battle was waged at that time.
They believed that if they implemented the Constitutional Union and the principles behind it, then more and more people would realize the wrongness of slavery and it would soon die out on its own. They decided that it was more crucial to hold the Union together at this critical time than it was to fight the slavery battle.
Whether that was the right call will forever be debated. Progress was made, but not nearly enough, and we know that it took nearly 75 years before it finally came to a head and the Civil War would decide the issue of slavery once and for all.
So, since it required a very brutal, bloody civil war to settle the issue anyway, would it have been better, in hindsight, to have fought the battle during the founding?
Perhaps it would have, but we will really never know what would have happened. The likely result of that would have been that we would never have united and there would have been two, or three, or four separate confederacies. In that scenario, we would have been more likely to be invaded by other countries and conquered, one confederacy at a time. Or, we would have been in constant war with each other as we fought over expanding territories. And slavery may very well have continued even much longer than it did.
Where we’ve gone wrong…
Participating in the slavery industry at all was the first way we went wrong, and then taking so long to stop it was shameful.
Even after slavery was ended, it still took another 100 years to provide full civil rights. To this day, we still have a lot of racial tension, but I believe the vast majority of people are perfectly happy to accept each other and live together in peace. It seems to me that we allow a minority of people on the extremes to stir up trouble and encourage divisions.
No, racism is not, and never will be, fully eliminated, but the good people far outnumber the bad. It’s just that the bad tend to get all of the attention and the constant drumbeat of the 24 hour news cycle makes things seem much worse than they are.
We need to realize that nobody alive today was a slave owner or was responsible for slavery. And nobody alive today was a slave under the legal system of slavery. Fewer and fewer people alive today were involved in the Jim Crow laws and fewer and fewer alive today were directly affected by them.
Yes, there are still lasting affects of slavery and the oppressive aftermath of it, but we cannot remedy that by making those alive today be responsible for the sins of their fathers and grandfathers. The best we can do today is to provide equal opportunity for all under the law and respect all people as being born with the equal natural rights of life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness.
About this series:
The People Are Sovereign! is a series of 30 essays that will be posted on a daily basis. The series will continue tomorrow with Essay 20 – More On Slavery
To view the previous essay in the series, click this link: Essay 18- Checks and Balances
To view the next essay in the series, click this link: Essay 20- More On Slavery