Sean Wilentz, Princeton historian and Rolling Stone writer, argued in the New York Times on 16 September 2015 that “the Constitution was based on a repudiation of the idea of a nation dedicated to the proposition of property in humans.” Claiming that Southern slaveholders wished to codify the protection of slavery within the Constitution, Wilentz claimed that “antislavery Northerners” fought back by ensuring that the word “slavery” was not included in the Constitution. As such, Wilentz noted, the Constitution helped end the institution of slavery in the United States.
While the narrative of the United States as a nation embracing freedom has been popular since the early days of the Republic, it is important to read between the lines in political documents; the things that are not written are usually just as important as those that are. Why, in a document of more than 4,500 words, did the authors not mention the single most dominating trait of the young nation? According to Wilentz, we should trust James Madison, who noted during the Constitutional Convention that most delegates “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” Yet this statement brings us more questions than answers; why did Madison and his colleagues think it wrong to bring up slavery when nearly all of them were slaveholders?
The United States in 1787 was a nation dominated by the institution of slavery and cannot so easily be divided between pro- and anti-slavery factions or provincial distinctions. As many historians have demonstrated over the past several decades, Northern states gained just as much from slavery’s continuation as the Southern ones. We tend to forget that Southern cotton drove the push towards industrialization in New England, Rhode Island was a plantation-style slave society that was the epicenter of the slave trade in the United States, and New York merchants made fortunes insuring the lives of enslaved human beings.
Furthermore, the United States in 1787 was just beginning to explore the territorial ramifications of independence. Lost amidst the clamor over taxation and representation is the fact that wealthy landowners in British America were just as upset over the Proclamation of 1763, which forbid colonial expansion west of the Appalachian Mountains. The success of the American Revolution meant both the expansion of the United States and the institution of slavery. While some, particularly New England Federalists, favored a mercantile economy and slower national expansion, many others, including wealthy landowners in Virginia and the Carolinas, looked to exploit the newly available land as quickly as possible.
Regardless of the anti-slavery rhetoric written by countless delegates to the Constitutional Convention, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison among them, the majority of those individuals who signed the Constitution either owned slaves or profited from slavery in some way. And in spite of pronouncements against slavery, very few of those individuals freed any of those people they had enslaved while they were alive (George Washington being a rare exception). They were each driven by the enormous profits they gained through the institution of slavery, as well as the racial animosity towards those of African descent that had evolved in North America over the past century and a half. Again, we must ask ourselves why, if they were so opposed to the continuation of slavery, did they fail to mention it in the Constitution?
Although many of the leaders at the Constitutional Convention believed that the institution of slavery was a necessary evil and would eventually be phased out, the courageous move for the delegates would have been to codify its demise within the Constitution. Some historians have argued that such a move would have ensured that the document would not have been ratified by a sufficient amount of states, or a number of Southern states would have detached and formed their own country. These ideas do not stand up to scrutiny, however. Given the anti-slavery rhetoric of the Virginia delegates, certainly the Constitution would have gained ratification and those states that held out would have followed suit. Indeed, as Pauline Maier recently demonstrated (Ratification, 2010), the most vehement opposition to the Constitution was not in the South, but in places like Massachusetts and New York, where the fundamental disagreement was over a federal government that many felt was too powerful.
We must conclude, therefore, that the Constitutional framers’ failure to adequately address slavery was an act of perpetuating the institution of slavery itself; indeed, the refusal of the delegates to confront slavery and include provisions for its end would be a costly error. With the passage and ratification of the 10th Amendment to the Constitution in 1791, slavery would be constitutionally regulated by the states: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
With the purchase of the Louisiana Territory by Thomas Jefferson’s administration and the rise of cotton as a profitable commodity through the invention of the cotton gin, slavery began to expand exponentially in the United States. By the time the federal government felt the need to regulate the spread of slavery, it was too late. The Missouri Compromise, shaped by Congressional leaders in 1819 to control the spread of slavery in the newly acquired western territories, disintegrated in the 1850s precisely because the federal government was constitutionally barred from regulating it. Southern slave states, desperate to protect the institution of slavery, used federal regulation of slavery as part of their reasoning as they began to secede in 1861.
The beauty of the U.S. Constitution is in its ability to evolve with the times. Today, through differing interpretations and amendments to the document, the Constitution protects the freedom and rights of numerous groups of people originally left out of the compact, from women to African-Americans to homosexuals and everyone in between. But the fact that the Constitution has evolved into a freedom protecting document does not change the fact that it was originally written in a manner that protected and prolonged the institution of slavery, for the betterment of the vast majority of individuals who gathered to draft it.
By Ian J. Aebel, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Iowa in the Department of History. Find him here on Twitter: @botasdezidane.