Our Pro or Anti-Slavery Constitution?

Steven Cromack

On January 27, 1843, during the Eleventh Annual Meeting of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison submitted a resolution to the Society for approval:  “Resolved, that the compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell—involving both parties in atrocious criminality—and should be immediately annulled.”  As time wore on, his rhetoric and actions intensified.  On July 4, 1844, he publicly burned a copy of the Constitution.[1] Garrison believed that the Constitution was inherently evil because it supported slavery. That founding document was an affront to God.   

Is the Constitution pro-slavery?   

For the past four weeks, I have had the pleasure of attending the James Madison Foundation’s Summer Institute on the Constitution at Georgetown University.  The Madison Foundation awards fellowships to social studies teachers and aspiring teachers each year, usually one per state.  As such, I am surrounded by some of the best and brightest secondary social studies teachers from across the nation. These fellow teachers care deeply about their field and their career, and are just as passionate about the material they teach.  On Monday, in a morning discussion section, the topic of conversation was whether the Constitution was pro-slavery, a compromise, or something else. 

For a good portion of the time, the fellows discussed elements of compromise found in the Constitution.  Then Will Lorigan, from Indiana, argued that the Constitution was in fact an anti-slavery document because while it conceded certain concessions to the Southern states, it also gave the national government the power and means to abolish the institution after 1808.  Another, Christopher Carl from Florida, added that the Northerners knew that by offering the Southern states serious concessions—proportional representation, the fugitive slave clause, and a ban on further legislation on the slave trade until 1808—they knew they would triumph in the long run.  Such assertions prompted significant and fascinating discussion.

It is a very intriguing argument.  Indeed, it seems that the Academy has been grappling with the issue of slavery and its role in the founding since the era of the Civil Rights movement. And the debate rages on.  In her 2006 book American Taxation, American Slavery, Robin Einhorn writes:

We can all agree that some of these masters had admirable qualities, that Thomas Jefferson was charming and eloquent, that James Madison was a talented political theorist, that George Washington was a brilliant general . . . .  Nevertheless, these men all owned human beings and, as politicians, defended the ownership of human beings— even when they believed that society would be better off if it acknowledged that “all men are created equal” . . . and so on.[2]

Throughout her book, Einhorn argues that slavery determined the economic system of the early United States, all the while undermining the spirit of a new American nation.

The historian Gordon Wood, however, lambasts those historians who considered the continuation of slavery as a failure of the revolution.  In a scathing review of Einhorn’s book, Wood writes:

It was inevitable that our recent accounts of the Revolution and the founding of the nation would reflect our increased understanding of the importance of slavery to the history of America. . . . to help satisfy the seemingly insatiable desire of many historians today to place slavery at the heart of America’s origins. . . . Robin L. Einhorn has no problem reading the present back into the past or, for that matter, reading the past forward into the present.[3]

Wood’s words essentially indict Einhorn for bringing the present perspective of hindsight into the past.

Was the Constitution pro-slavery or anti-slavery?  Was it a compromise or something else?  Such debates reveal the contested nature of history.  These men— Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—have long been dead.  Their writings live on.  Historians will never be able to fully know the inner worlds of these figures.  Scholars can never know their true intentions, or comprehend fully what they really meant.  The founders’ words offer clues, and perhaps if one gets enough pieces of the puzzle, an incomplete portrait emerges.  But if historians cannot agree on the shape of the piece, not even a partial picture emerges.

Another fellow, James Moran from Idaho, put it another way when he said, “the Constitution is what it is, nothing more.”

[1] “William Lloyd Garrison,” in American Political Thought, 6th Edition, ed. Dolbeare & Cummings (Washington: CQ Press, 2009), 203.

[2] Robin Einhorn, American Taxation, American Slavery (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2006), 14.

[3]  Gordon Wood, “Reading the Minds of the Founders,” New York Review of Books, 28 June 2007.