Editor’s note: This article is the final installment (for now) in a series “inspired” by a July 4 piece in the Lincoln Journal Star (title noted below). Click here for a full list of titles in the series.
Whatever the Founders’ reasons, slavery’s omission from the political agenda remains a shameful spot on our nation’s founding, one that doesn’t gel with our view of the Founders.
In his article, Whose Side are the Founding Fathers on?, Mertes rhetorically takes the Founders, as a group, to the proverbial woodshed because they didn’t use the Constitution to end slavery in the new country. In doing so, Mertes clearly reveals whose side he’s on — that of revisionist historians. The abolition of slavery was clearly part of the Founders’ “political agenda,” an agenda they advanced in the process of drafting the Constitution.
The Founders inserted into the Constitution a provision empowering Congress to end the slave trade 20 years after the Constitution was ratified. This was a radical thing to do in the 1780’s. No other nation had, at that time, had such a discussion and had taken such a radical step. In 1808, 20 years after ratification, Congress did, indeed, vote to abolish the slave trade.
Critics of the Founders often hold up Great Britain as an example. It is true, Great Britain voted in 1807 to abolish the importation of slaves throughout the British Empire, largely due to the efforts of William Wilberforce. What the Founders’ detractors fail to note, however, is that Wilberforce’s first effort to outlaw the slave trade in Britain was soundly defeated in Parliament in 1789, the year after our Constitution was ratified.
Moreover, the Constitution itself reflects the strong anti-slavery sentiments of the Founders. The document does not contain the words “slaves” or “slavery,” and historical records demonstrate that this omission was intentional. James Madison declared that even the word “servitude” was struck out because the convention would not consent that the idea of men as property should be admitted into the Constitution.
No lesser light than Frederick Douglass, himself a former slave, called the Constitution an anti-slavery document. Contrary to everything that most historians today believe, the three-fifths clause punished, rather than rewarded, the South for slavery. Take away the three-fifths clause, and all the slaves would have been counted for purposes of representation, since the default position in the Constitution was that representation would be based on the entire population. In this manner, the Constitution reduced the South’s representation by counting three-fifths rather than five-fifths of the slaves. Moreover, by inserting the three-fifths clause, the Founders had planted in the Constitution an incentive for the slave states to increase their representation in Congress by emancipating their slaves. Douglass argued, and rightly so, that there is nothing in the actual text of the Constitution to justify any other reading.