The U.S. Constitution and Slavery

(4) George Stephanopolous: Flake

Mark Levin: Let me focus on the issue of slavery, which Stephanopolous jumps on.  The fact is that a number of prominent Founders did attempt to end or at least take on the issue of slavery, including Virginia‘s George Mason, who was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention.

The inability to end slavery was among the reasons he refused to support the Constitution.  While he was a slave-owner, he nonetheless opposed the institution going forward.  Mason was no light-weight, either.  He had authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which later served as the basis for James Madison‘s draft of the Bill of Rights.

The Constitution itself reflects some of the hard-fought compromises over slavery, resulting from the demands of anti-slavery delegates, including ending the importation of slaves on a date certain and diminishing the influence of the southern slave states in the federal House of Representatives with the three-fifth’s limit respecting apportionment.

Historian Bernard Bailyn has made the important point that the Founders unleashed a process that would eventually destroy the institution of slavery by “condemning [it], confining it, and setting in motion the forces that would ultimately destroy it.”

Even before the Constitutional Convention, there was much heated debate over slavery.  Thomas Jefferson’s first draft of the Declaration specifically condemned the treatment of blacks by the Crown as a basis for America declaring its independent from Britain.  He wrote:

“he [the king of Britain] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among 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 which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

This provision was dropped because of objections from Georgia and South Carolina.  But Jefferson and many of the delegates not only recognized the injustice of slavery, but they were also objecting to Britain’s deplorable slave-trade practices, we continued to export slaves to the United States over the objections of certain states.

Importantly, the final draft of the Declaration that was adopted by all the states contained the crucial recognition of God-given unalienable rights that belonged to all human beings.  The phrase was borrowed by Jefferson from philosopher John Locke, who was anti-slave.  And it was used repeatedly by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War to explain the nation’s commitment, from the start, to rid society of this cancer, and its imperative.



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