The Constitution and Slavery

Slavery made a significant impact at the 1787 Constitution Convention.  Most of the Framers believed that they had other more pressing worries than the fate of that increasingly sectional institution, but they knew full well that a national debate over the future of slavery was divisive and potentially catastrophic for the new union.  In his engaging article, “The Pennsylvania Delegation and the Peculiar Institution,” Paul Finkelman explores how Pennsylvania’s leading delegates approached this challenge.  He argues that in their varied responses, Pennsylvania men such as Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson, help illustrate how and why the Framers compromised over slavery and how despite growing disdain for slavery in the 1780s, the Constitution that was the principal political product of that critical decade nonetheless protected and ultimately helped extend slavery’s domain in the years before the Civil War.  Students in History 288 should be able to identify and explain the views of Pennsylvania’s most prominent delegates.  They should understand the leading compromises forged over slavery in 1787 .  And they should contemplate whether it is appropriate to label the original Constitution either pro- or anti- Slavery.

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4 Responses to The Constitution and Slavery

  1. Lee S. says:

    Even without the word slave or slavery written in the Constitution, it was in many ways more in favor of slavery than it was against it. With the assistance of Pennsylvania’s delegates Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson, clauses were established that prolonged the institution of slavery. With the creation of the three-fifths clause, the Constitution allowed a certain percentage of slaves to be represented, mainly for voting purposes, and forced run away slaved to be returned to their slaveholder. Another clause was added that prohibited the prohibition of the slave trade till 1808, which Benjamin Franklin worried would only allow the slave institution to progress. Lastly, all export taxes were also prohibited. While it was important for both Northern and Southern states to agree on matters concerning taxation and representation, which was a key factor during the 1787 Constitutional Convention, at the end of the day it appears that the South won the majority of the “compromises.” Many Southern States would not agree on a compromise if it did not benefit them greatly.
    Both Morris and Wilson were placed in a hard position. Pennsylvania was surrounded by slave states and both delegates wanted to maintain a peaceful relationship with their neighbor states. One possible way to do maintain a certain level of peace was through a compromise. James Wilson appears to be more of an appeaser than a liberal and Gouverneur Morris while filled with disgust over the idea slavery made suggestions for the compromises that only furthered slavery. Morris wanted to end the slave practice but understood that the South would never agree to a constitution that prohibited slavery. Wilson believed it was in the best interest of the Union that a series of compromises would maintain a level of peace, even if it meant giving the South more of the bargain. For example in the United States Constitution Article I, Section 2 alluded to the idea of the three fifth clauses; however, it was removed once the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. Also Article 4, Section 2, before ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment, allowed fugitive slaves to be returned to their owner.

  2. Kyle says:

    It would appear that this initial tendency of the delegates making compromises that in general favored the Southern states would set a precedent that would follow all the way to the civil war. In most of the heated debates raised, starting with this drafting of the Constitution, the Slave States threatened more drastic actions such as secession in response to attempts on restricting slavery.
    Representatives such as James Wilson was one who valued Union over the slave issue, and therefore was willing to compromise in order to solidify this Union that they had worked so hard to create. But someone like Gouvernor Morris was so opposed to slavery, that he would not simply compromise and allow the Slave States to come out on top. This division between those Free States of appeasement or fervent opposition would continue until the early 1860s. The James Wilson type would ultimately keep the Union together, but as each issue arrived and was disputed, it further exacerbated the split between North and South. The roots of the sectional issue over slavery that eventually tore the nation apart can be traced to the drafting of the Constitution itself.

  3. Tim says:

    It is easy to see how the compromises forged in the Constitution leads people to debate whether the original Constitution should be labeled as either pro- or anti – slavery. Opinions throughout the country varied on the issue of slavery, but there is no doubt the compromises present in the final product protected and prolonged the institution until the clash of the Civil War. However, I still hesitate to apply a pro-slavery label to the document because there were other issues the delegates deemed more pressing and relevant at the time, such as establishing a united country with a central government as the foundation. It is also important to remember that the men creating this new government had rebelled from Britain because of the strength placed within a single monarchy. The men feared that too much centralized power would result in the same effect as having a monarchy therefore they were hesitant to place too much power in the central government. The delegates wanted the states to retain influence and relative autonomy over certain aspects of the government which led to many debates throughout the convention. In particular, a leading force in those debates was the delegation from Pennsylvania, also the most talkative delegation present.
    The Pennsylvania delegation was led by James Wilson, Gouvernor Morris, Benjamin Franklin, and Jared Ingersoll. All four of these men believed in and agreed on the immorality of slavery. Pennsylvania presented such an interesting case because it had adopted a gradual emancipation scheme in 1780, but was surrounded by slave states. Slavery presented a big issue during the Constitutional Convention because it raised the issues of how to calculate representation, taxation, domestic security, and the interstate rendition of fugitive slaves. The final result of the compromises officially adopted in the Constitution include the 3/5ths Compromise, the prolonged ban of the slave trade until 1808, and a fugitive slave clause requiring the return of runaway slaves to their masters. These issues over slavery arose because Southerners saw it as vital to their way of life and economy. The Pennsylvania delegation, along with others, however had issues with slavery because it violated their republican sensibilities and morals. Members of southern delegations proved hard to compromise with, as a result, the Pennsylvania delegation had to wisely choose their battles to ensure that a solid frame of government creating a union could be forged. As a result, members of the Pennsylvania delegation became willing to make certain concessions. Gouvernor Morris felt the South would not outlaw the slave trade so instead he chose to focus on representation. The South wanted their slaves to be counted, which would give them the upper hand as a result, so James Wilson proposed the 3/5ths Compromise. While the Pennsylvania delegation supported this and the notion passed, it did however oppose prolonging the ban of the slave trade until 1808. While the institution of slavery presented certain sectional problems and issues, slavery was not as extensive and the framers did not anticipate the amount of growth the institution would experience due to the invention of the cotton gin in 1793. The delegates opposed to slavery, with the Pennsylvania delegation leading the way, were willing to compromise because they placed more importance upon creating the foundation of a solid government than losing multiple states in the south due to sectional difference over the institution of slavery. The three compromises included in the final product of the Constitution Convention of 1787 do not make the document pro-slavery, but they did indeed help prolong and secure the future of the institution in the United States until after the Civil War.

  4. Lindsey Blais says:

    Some believe that the Civil War was inevitable; this assumption is made due to the founders of the Constitution inability to remove slavery from American society. By the 1787 Constitution Convention, there was already a growing divide between those who supported the institution while there were those who wished to abolish slavery and remove the practice from the growing nation. But due to the desire to keep the new nation together, slavery was allowed under the law.
    One such law that preserved the institution of slavery until the Civil War was the 3/5th Compromise. When attempting to figure out how representation in Congress should be distributed, the issue of the huge slave population in the South was in need of being addressed. Pushed forward by delegates Gouverneur Morris and James Wilson, the 3/5th clause labeled slaves as property who were not even worth being counted as a full human in the census. Found in Article 4, Section 2, the Constitution also addressed the issue of runaway slaves. This section gave slaveholders the right to collect their slaves if they had run away to a free state. The appeaser, James Wilson, in order to preserve the union of the States felt giving into the issue of slavery was the smaller issue in comparison to the split of the most prosperous states from the Union. This point also gave Morris a reason to side with Wilson and push for the continuation of the project. Neither could picture an America without the support from the South’s agricultural prosperity. Therefore as a result the South was given favor at the Convention.
    Accompanying the 3/5th compromise and the runaway slaves, Article 1 Section 9 was put into place with the intent of ending the African slave trade in America. But in favor of the slaveholding South, the section did not wish to close the trade until 1808. Those in favor of slavery such as delegate Pierce Butler, wished to in that allotted window, increase the trade immensely in order to prepare for the closing of the trade in America.

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