Constitution Of American Anti-Slavery League [1833] - History

Constitution Of American Anti-Slavery League [1833] - History

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Whereas the Most High God "hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth," and hath commanded them to love their neighbors as themselves; and whereas, our National Existence is based upon this principle, as recognized in the Declaration of Independence, "that all mankind are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness"; and whereas, after the lapse of nearly sixty years, since the faith and honor of the American people were pledged to this avowal, before Almighty God and the World, nearly one sixth part of the nation are held in bondage by their fellow citizens; and whereas, Slavery is contrary to the principles of natural justice, of our republican form of government, and of the Christian religion, and is destructive of the prosperity of the country, while it is endangering the peace, union, and liberties of the States; and whereas, we believe it the duty and interest of the masters immediately to emancipate their slaves, and that no scheme of expatriation, either voluntary or by compulsion, can remove this great and increasing evil; and whereas, we believe that it is practicable, by appeals to the consciences, hearts, and interests of the people, to awaken a public sentiment throughout the nation that will be opposed to the continuance of Slavery in any part of the Republic, and by effecting the speedy abolition of Slavery, prevent a general convulsion; and whereas, we believe we owe it to the oppressed, to our fellow citizens who hold slaves, to our whole country, to posterity, and to God, to do all that is lawfully in our power to bring about the extinction of Slavery, we do hereby agree, with a prayerful reliance on the Divine aid, to form ourselves into a society, to be governed by the following Constitution:

ARTICLE I. ”This Society shall be called the AMERICAN ANTISLAVERY SOCIETY.

ARTICLE II. ”The objects of this Society are the entire abolition of Slavery in the United States. While it admits that each State, in which Slavery exists, has, by the Constitution of the United States, the exclusive right to legislate in regard to its abolition in said State, it shall aim to convince all our fellow citizens, by arguments addressed to their understandings and consciences, that Slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God, and that the duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned, require its immediate abandonment, without expatriation. The Society will also endeavor, in a constitutional way, to influence Congress to put an end to the domestic Slave trade, and to abolish Slavery in all those portions of our common country which come under its control, especially in the District of Columbia, —and likewise to prevent the extension of it to any State that may be hereafter admitted to the Union.

ARTICLE III. ”This Society shall aim to elevate the character and condition of the people of color, by encouraging their intellectual, moral, and religious improvement, and by removing public prejudice, that thus they may, according to their intellectual and moral worth, share an equality with the whites, of civil and religious privileges; but this Society will never, in any way, countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to physical force.

ARTICLE IV. ”Any person who consents to the principles of this Constitution, who contributes to the funds of this Society, and is not a Slaveholder, may be a member of this Society, and shall be entitled to vote at the meetings.

[The remaining six articles are purely formal. ]

What the Constitution Really Says About Race and Slavery


Former Director and AWC Family Foundation Fellow

One hundred and fifty years ago this month, the 13th Amendment officially was ratified, and with it, slavery finally was abolished in America. The New York World hailed it as “one of the most important reforms ever accomplished by voluntary human agency.”

The newspaper said the amendment “takes out of politics, and consigns to history, an institution incongruous to our political system, inconsistent with justice and repugnant to the humane sentiments fostered by Christian civilization.”

With the passage of the 13th Amendment—which states that “[n]either slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction”—the central contradiction at the heart of the Founding was resolved.

Eighty-nine years after the Declaration of Independence had proclaimed all men to be free and equal, race-based chattel slavery would be no more in the United States.

While all today recognize this momentous accomplishment, many remain confused about the status of slavery under the original Constitution. Textbooks and history books routinely dismiss the Constitution as racist and pro-slavery. The New York Times, among others, continues to casually assert that the Constitution affirmed African-Americans to be worth only three-fifths of a human being.

Ironically, many Americans who are resolutely opposed to racism unwittingly agree with Chief Justice Roger Taney’s claim in Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) that the Founders’ Constitution regarded blacks as “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect, and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.” In this view, the worst Supreme Court case decision in American history was actually correctly decided.

The argument that the Constitution is racist suffers from one fatal flaw: the concept of race does not exist in the Constitution.

Such arguments have unsettling implications for the health of our republic. They teach citizens to despise their founding charter and to be ashamed of their country’s origins. They make the Constitution an object of contempt rather than reverence. And they foster alienation and resentment among African-American citizens by excluding them from our Constitution.

The received wisdom in this case is wrong. If we turn to the actual text of the Constitution and the debates that gave rise to it, a different picture emerges. The case for a racist, pro-slavery Constitution collapses under closer scrutiny.

Race and the Constitution

The argument that the Constitution is racist suffers from one fatal flaw: the concept of race does not exist in the Constitution. Nowhere in the Constitution—or in the Declaration of Independence, for that matter—are human beings classified according to race, skin color, or ethnicity (nor, one should add, sex, religion, or any other of the left’s favored groupings). Our founding principles are colorblind (although our history, regrettably, has not been).

The Constitution speaks of people, citizens, persons, other persons (a euphemism for slaves) and Indians not taxed (in which case, it is their tax-exempt status, and not their skin color, that matters). The first references to “race” and “color” occur in the 15th Amendment’s guarantee of the right to vote, ratified in 1870.

The infamous three-fifths clause, which more nonsense has been written than any other clause, does not declare that a black person is worth 60 percent of a white person. It says that for purposes of determining the number of representatives for each state in the House (and direct taxes), the government would count only three-fifths of the slaves, and not all of them, as the Southern states, who wanted to gain more seats, had insisted. The 60,000 or so free blacks in the North and the South were counted on par with whites.

Contrary to a popular misconception, the Constitution also does not say that only white males who owned property could vote. The Constitution defers to the states to determine who shall be eligible to vote (Article I, Section 2, Clause 1). It is a little known fact of American history that black citizens were voting in perhaps as many as 10 states at the time of the founding (the precise number is unclear, but only Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia explicitly restricted suffrage to whites).

Slavery and the Constitution

Not only does the Constitution not mention blacks or whites, but it also doesn’t mention slaves or slavery. Throughout the document, slaves are referred to as persons to underscore their humanity. As James Madison remarked during the constitutional convention, it was “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”

The Constitution refers to slaves using three different formulations: “other persons” (Article I, Section 2, Clause 3), “such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit” (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1), and a “person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof” (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3).

Although these circumlocutions may not have done much to improve the lot of slaves, they are important, as they denied constitutional legitimacy to the institution of slavery. The practice remained legal, but slaveholders could not invoke the supreme law of the land to defend its legitimacy. These formulations make clear that slavery is a state institution that is tolerated—but not sanctioned—by the national government and the Constitution.

Reading the original Constitution, a visitor from a foreign land would simply have no way of knowing that race-based slavery existed in America. As Abraham Lincoln would later explain:

Thus, the thing is hid away, in the Constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.

One could go even further and argue, as Frederick Douglass did in the lead-up to the Civil War, that none of the clauses of the Constitution should be interpreted as applying to slaves. The “language of the law must be construed strictly in favor of justice and liberty,” he argued.

Because the Constitution does not explicitly recognize slavery and does not therefore admit that slaves were property, all the protections it affords to persons could be applied to slaves. “Anyone of these provisions in the hands of abolition statesmen, and backed up by a right moral sentiment, would put an end to slavery in America,” Douglass concluded.

Those who want to see what a racist and pro-slavery Constitution would look like should turn to the Confederate Constitution of 1861. Though it largely mimics the Constitution, it is replete with references to “the institution of negro slavery,” “negroes of the African race,” and “negro slaves.” It specifically forbids the Confederate Congress from passing any “law denying or impairing the right of property in negro slaves.”

Contrary to a popular misconception, the Constitution also does not say that only white males who owned property could vote.

One can readily imagine any number of clauses that could have been added to our Constitution to enshrine slavery. The manumission of slaves could have been prohibited. A national right to bring one’s slaves to any state could have been recognized. Congress could have been barred from interfering in any way with the transatlantic slave trade.

It is true that the Constitution of 1787 failed to abolish slavery. The constitutional convention was convened not to free the slaves, but to amend the Articles of Confederation. The slave-holding states would have never consented to a new Constitution that struck a blow at their peculiar institution. The Constitution did, however, empower Congress to prevent its spread and set it on a course of extinction, while leaving the states free to abolish it within their own territory at any time.

Regrettably, early Congresses did not pursue a consistent anti-slavery policy. This, however, is not an indictment of the Constitution itself. As Frederick Douglass explained: “A chart is one thing, the course of a vessel is another. The Constitution may be right, the government wrong.”

Congress and the Slave Trade

In his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson called the African slave trade an “execrable commerce” and an affront “against human nature itself.” Because of a concession to slave-holding interests, the Constitution stipulates that it may not be abolished “prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight” (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1).

In the meantime, Congress could discourage the importation of slaves from abroad by imposing a duty “not exceeding 10 dollars on each person” (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1). Although early Congresses considered such measures, they were never enacted.

Early Congresses did, however, regulate the transatlantic slave trade, pursuant to their power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations” (Article I, Section 8, Clause 3). In 1794, 1800, and 1803, statutes were passed that severely restricted American participation in it. No American shipyard could be used to build ships that would engage in the slave trade, nor could any ship sailing from an American port traffic in slaves abroad. Americans were also prohibited from investing in the slave trade.

Finally, on the very first day on which it was constitutionally permissible to do so—Jan. 1, 1808—the slave trade was abolished by law.

The law, which President Thomas Jefferson signed, stipulated stiff penalties for any American convicted of participating in the slave trade: up to $10,000 in fines and five to 10 years in prison. In 1823, a new law was passed that punished slave-trading with death.

Congress and the Expansion of Slavery

Banning the importation of slaves would not by itself put an end to slavery in the United States. Slavery would grow naturally even if no new slaves were brought into the country.

Although Congress could not prevent this, it could prevent slavery from spreading geographically to the territories from which new states would eventually be created.

Congress has the power “to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States” (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2), to forbid the migration of slaves into the new territories (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1), and to stipulate conditions for statehood (Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2).

In no way could the Constitution be said to be pro-slavery. The principles of natural right undergirding it are resolutely anti-slavery. Its language conveys disapproval of slavery.

Regrettably, early Congresses did not prevent the spread of slavery. Between 1798 and 1822, Congress enacted 10 territorial acts. Only half excluded slavery.

As a result, seven slaveholding states and five free states were admitted into the union. The seeds of what Abraham Lincoln would later call the crisis of the house divided were sown.

Slavery in the Existing States

As for the existing slaveholding states that had ratified the Constitution, what could Congress do to restrict the growth of slavery within their borders? Here Congress had more limited options. After 1808, “the migration” of slaves across state lines could have been prohibited (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1). This was never done.

In principle, slavery could have been taxed out of existence. However, the requirement that direct taxes be apportioned among the states made it impossible to exclusively target slaveholders. A capitation or head tax, for example, even though it would have been more costly for Southerners, would also impose a heavy burden on Northerners.

While one could perhaps have circumvented the apportionment requirement by calling for an indirect tax on slaves—as Sen. Charles Sumner, R-Mass., would later do during the Civil War—such arguments were not made in the early republic.

There was one clause in the original Constitution that required cooperation with slaveholders and protected the institution of slavery. Slaves who escaped to freedom were to “be delivered up” to their masters (Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3). The motion to include a fugitive slave clause at the constitutional convention passed unanimously and without debate. This would seem to indicate that all knew it would be futile to try to oppose such a measure.

The debate instead focused on the wording. Whereas the original draft had referred to a “person legally held to service or labor in one state,” the final version instead refers to a “person held to service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof.” This change, Madison explains in his notes, was to comply “with the wish of some who thought the term legal equivocal,” as it gave the impression “that slavery was legal in a moral view,” rather than merely permissible under the law.

This remark by Madison captures the Constitution’s stance vis-à-vis slavery: permissible, but not moral. Legal, but not legitimate.

In no way can the Constitution be said to be pro-slavery. The principles of natural right undergirding it are resolutely anti-slavery. Its language conveys disapproval of slavery. And it contains within it several provisions that could have been and were at times used to prevent the spread of slavery.

This may not make it an anti-slavery Constitution. But even before the 13th Amendment, it was a Constitution that, if placed in the right hands, could be made to serve the cause of freedom.

What is the history of “Antievolution”?

Perhaps nobody wants to be an “Anti.” In the American abortion debates, both sides typically self-identify as “Pro-” (Choice or Life) and debase their opponents as being “anti” something-else anti-abortion, anti-life, anti-women. People, organizations, and statements may be described as Anti-Islamic, Anti-Family, Anti-Semitic, Anti-EU, Anti-LGBT those descriptors are most often used critically.

We seem to live in an anti-anti era, and as a historian, it’s important to be highly sensitive to “actors’ categories” describing and classifying ideas and issues in ways people themselves used. This is why some historians of “science” and “religion” have argued against using those terms to describe human activity in the ancient world, or in non-Western cultures. At the same time, respecting actors’ categories does not mean giving historical figures license to define their own legacy. Hindsight and context allows historians to observe the larger trends that individuals are part of, even when people at the time couldn’t see them.

At the intersection of these two concerns—how to avoid anachronistic intellectual categories, and the rhetorical reluctance to label oneself as “anti”—comes a major question for historians of science and religion. (How) can one speak of “antievolution”? Does using the term imply a bias, suggesting a group is wrong? Is it unfair to use the term antievolution, if those described as antievolutionists object to the description? Does the term represent a singular intellectual position, or does it unfairly lump together disparate movements that should be treated as separate?

These questions are prompted by a recent essay by intelligent design (ID) advocate David Klinghoffer, in which he called the use of the word antievolution: “terminology intended to win a debate without actually having one.” That Klinghoffer raised this complaint less than a month after describing some of his own intellectual opponents as “Anti-ID”, shows how this rhetorical tactic can cut in every direction. In part, Klinghoffer wrote his essay in response to an article of mine, which talked about the prospective future of American antievolutionism in the wake of recent changes to U.S. federal education law. (Klinghoffer doesn’t address the substance of that article or its legal analysis, and most of his article slips into criticisms of the term “anti-science”, which is not a phrase I actually ever used.)

As a historian and commentator on current science and religion issues in their historical context, I’m not trying to “win a debate” about whether ID is correct. But I have written quite a bit about how partisans, on all sides of the evolution debates, invent and use historical myths, and Klinghoffer and I have previously debated over his (and other Discovery Institute fellows’) interpretation of history. In fact, I agree with Klinghoffer’s observation that the rhetoric used to describe “antievolution” matters. Around the same time that Klinghoffer wrote his essay, I had a chapter on antievolutionism published in a book on “Ignorance-Making” in American education. In that essay (snippet view here) I begin by stating that “‘antievolution’ is a loaded term” that “denotes an inherently negative claim.” I go on to argue:

To describe people as antievolutionists is to identify them more by what they don’t believe than by what they do. Such a description implies that their positive claims are in fact secondary to their negative ones, that their primary concern is not to promote their account of life but to cast doubt on evolution. The label also suggests a commonality of cause between these groups and implies, sometimes rightly, historical and intellectual linkages between them.

The term “antievolution” differs from some of these other “anti” positions in that it is a historically accurate actors’ category. There was a movement that identified itself as “Antievolution” (which, as Klinghoffer notes, was the subject of my first book). Using the term antievolution to describe that movement and its successors could be seen as a rhetorical sleight of hand, one which suggests intelligent design has a lack of philosophical or scientific validity. However, using the term in historical and cultural analysis makes a different kind of claim. In this context, the claim is about the movement’s intellectual, legal, and social continuity, with earlier forms of self-identified antievolutionism. This second use is not an attempt to win a debate about whether ID is right or wrong, but to draw a conclusion about how it fits into a longer history of American social movements in education.

It was not considered so bad to be an anti-something in earlier eras of American history. For example, the American Anti-Slavery Society, established in 1833, was one of the most vocal organizations for abolition. In the early twentieth-century America’s prohibition of alcohol consumption was accomplished through the efforts of organizations including the Anti-Saloon League. Furthermore, an animal welfare organization in Chicago still retains the name Anti-Cruelty Society from its late nineteenth-century founding.

Historically speaking, there’s no doubt that some antievolutionists also embraced “anti” terminology. One of the most iconic photographs is featured at the top of this page. Taken during the Scopes evolution trial in 1925, the photo shows the evangelist T.T. Martin’s stall outside the courthouse, where he is selling copies of his book Hell and the High School under the banner of William Bell Riley’s “Anti-Evolution League.” Five years before this photograph was taken, Martin also established the Anti-Evolution Society of America.

In 1920’s America, then, people had no problem calling themselves antievolutionists. This leaves an interesting question for historians: when and how did this rhetorical identification change? One prevailing interpretation is that this change closely followed legal developments related to the teaching of evolution in American schools. In 1968 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled state laws that prohibited teaching evolution, on the grounds that it conflicted with the Bible, were in violation of the U.S. Constitution. After this ruling it was not legally possible to advocate for antievolutionism. Emerging soon after, were laws demanding “balanced treatment” between “evolution science” and “creation science”. The historical question of interest is not whether creation science is a science or a religion, but whether advocates of balanced treatment laws actually intended teachers to present both accounts, or whether they reasoned that this law would prompt most teachers to avoid the subject altogether. In the trials that contested these laws in the 1980’s, the argument was made that the law wasn’t merely an effort to promote biblical creation, but that it was really a means to ban evolution without legally prohibiting it. It was, in other words, stealth antievolutionism. Major histories of this trajectory are more likely to use the terms Creation or Creationism than antievolution. That phrasing however, begs the question of whether intelligent design is inherently the same as (religious) creationism, which the Discovery Institute strongly disavows. “Antievolution”, then, is a term that shows points of historical continuity without asserting that the character of antievolutionism has not changed. Put succinctly: antievolutionism evolves.

Historians and legal scholars have substantially demonstrated that there are social and historical connections between the creation science movement of the 1980’s and modern day intelligent design. That doesn’t mean that the theories associated with modern ID are the same as those of creation science, or that ID is or isn’t a science, or even whether it’s religious or not. One might even accept, for the sake of argument, that intelligent design supplements some evolutionary accounts, rather than opposes them (though many would dispute this). Those issues are matters of debate amongst scientists, philosophers, and theologians. But the question of the social origins of intelligent design advocacy is historical. Is intelligent design intended to—explicitly or not—diminish the teaching of evolution? Is it, within that historical continuity, therefore a form of antievolution?

Legally, the current state of intelligent design advocacy is not explicitly intended to prohibit evolution. The “academic freedom” laws that the Discovery Institute has advocated don’t explicitly prohibit anything. The Discovery Institute and some of intelligent design’s other advocates are careful about the distinction between presenting intelligent design and endorsing religion, distinguishing ID from overtly religious creationism, and they are even careful about the distinction between permitting ID and removing evolution. It is, however, a matter of record that there are often disconnects between what state laws permit and prohibit, and what actually happens in the classroom. So the real question is, whether such academic freedom provisions contribute to antievolutionism in practice? There are examples of teachers and school districts stating that they are promoting intelligent design as a scientific alternative to mainstream evolution, who in practice use the rhetoric of intelligent design to promote overtly religious agendas and thus practice antievolutionism. Is that a predictable, but perhaps stealthily intended consequence, of intelligent design advocacy? Some people have certainly made this case.

My intention in this post is not to argue whether intelligent design is or isn’t true, whether or not it is scientific or religious, or whether it’s the same as creationism, or whether the theory as expressed is inherently opposed to the prevailing scientific theories of evolution. My aim is to consider the role of the term antievolution as a historical category. To do so, one must understand “antievolution” not just to refer to a specific negative claim (that biological evolution is wrong) but as a social movement whose origins were rooted in people who identified with that claim. It’s a social movement with articulated political goals, and considered in this way, antievolution is a label that allows one to identify historical continuity. It may even be that antievolution as a social movement no longer exactly matches the intellectual claims presented at its instigation, but in the history of social movements, it’s not uncommon for names to become detached from their original meanings.

There is a danger in interpreting the historical category “antievolution” through the rhetorical cynicism of a present-day mind-set, which finds the label of “anti” inherently demeaning and a biased means of avoiding debate. Despite this, to deny its use as a historical category is to re-frame history, to imply that modern intelligent design has no historical connections with the generations of unashamed antievolutionists who came before it.

/>Dr Adam Shapiro is a Research Associate in the Science, Religion and Culture program at Harvard Divinity School and the author of Trying Biology: The Scopes Trial, Textbooks, and the Antievolution movement in American Schools.

12a. The Impact of Slavery

More than 140 slaves lived and worked at Andrew Jackson's Hermitage plantation in Tennessee in the 1840's

Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness simply did not seem consistent with the practice of chattel slavery. How could a group of people feel so passionate about these unalienable rights, yet maintain the brutal practice of human bondage? Somehow slavery would manage to survive the revolutionary era, but great changes were brought to this peculiar institution nevertheless.

The world's first antislavery society was founded in 1775 by Quakers in Philadelphia, the year the Revolution began. By 1788, at least thirteen of these clubs were known to exist in the American colonies. Some Northern states banned slavery outright, and some provided for the gradual end of slavery. At any rate, the climate of the Revolution made the institution unacceptable in the minds of many Northerners, who did not rely on forced labor as part of the economic system. Northerners did not, however, go as far as to grant equal rights to freed blacks. Nonetheless, this ignited the philosophical debate that would be waged throughout the next century.

Many slaves achieved their freedom during the Revolution without formal emancipation . The British army, eager to debase the colonial economy, freed many slaves as they moved through the American South. Many slaves in the North were granted their freedom if they agreed to fight for the American cause. Although a clear majority of African Americans remained in bondage, the growth of free black communities in America was greatly fostered by the War for American Independence. Revolutionary sentiments led to the banning of the importation of slaves in 1807.

Slavery did not end overnight in America. Before any meaningful reform could happen, people needed to recognize that the economic benefit was vastly overshadowed by the overwhelming repugnance, immorality, and inhumanity of slavery.

Slavery and the Constitution

Authors: Angela Sailor , Paul Larkin Jr. , Timothy Sandefur , Allen Guelzo, Ph.D. , Sean Wilentz, Ph.D. and Lucas Morel, Ph.D.

Key Takeaways

The 1619 Project mistakenly claims that the Constitution creates a right to slavery.

Although the Constitution did not immediately end or explicitly condemn slavery, the Constitution creates no such constitutional right.

The Constitution’s text created a path for the federal and state political processes to abolish slavery.


The question of the hour is whether the Constitution is pro-slavery or anti-slavery. History has shown us that great leaders and reasonable men and women have changed their viewpoints on this question.

Frederick Douglass, the foremost black abolitionist in the 1840s, called the Constitution a radically and essentially pro-slavery document, but by the 1850s, Douglass changed his mind, concluding, the Constitution, when construed in light of well-established rules of legal interpretation, “is a glorious liberty document.”

As we war over America’s heart and soul, many are asking what convinced Douglass to change his viewpoint. Some declare it was what the Framers had hoped would preserve a legacy of freedom for generations to come: silence. Douglass asked, “If the Constitution were intended to be by its framers and adopters a slave-holding instrument, then why would neither ‘slavery,’ ‘slave-holding,’ nor ‘slave’ be anywhere found in it?” That is not the focus of those who challenge the integrity of the Constitution.

Some who challenge the integrity of the Constitution say it is weakened by the existence of slavery in the United States at the time the Constitution was adopted. Slaveholders took part in the framing of the Constitution, and they say slaveholders, in their hearts, intended to secure certain advantages in that instrument for slavery. As Americans who believe in the motto “E pluribus unum,” how do we move forward and bolster the present-day opportunity to live as free men?

We will learn how to answer that question today.

Angela Sailor is Vice President of the Edwin J. Feulner, Jr., Institute at The Heritage Foundation.

The Thirteenth Amendment

What did the Constitution say about slavery before the 13th Amendment became law? Did the Constitution protect the rights of slaveholders? Did the Constitution forbid slavery? Or did the Constitution avoid taking either of those positions and leave the matter entirely to the political process?

What made those questions a contemporary subject was that, from the day that the New York Times published the 1619 Project in August 2019, the opinions expressed in that work touched nerves in American historical and political scholarship, as well as in American life. The thesis of the 1619 Project was that the true beginning of American history was not 1776, when America declared its independence from England, but was in 1619, when the first African slaves arrived in America at Jamestown. The project also claimed that whatever enduring benefits the nation has seen and has granted to the world are attributable to the nation’s slave-owning past.

While the 1619 Project was correct to condemn slavery, particularly on one of its anniversaries (slavery is a despicable institution, and no one is sorry that the Thirteenth Amendment ended it after the Civil War), the 1619 Project is not a work of historical scholarship. Numerous historians have objected to the project on the grounds that it contains an erroneous view of history. A large number of Americans have objected to it on the grounds that it was leftist political agitprop.

To help frame the discussion, this section will play the devil’s advocate. It will argue that the Constitution protected the right of slave-holding states to create that peculiar and evil institution through law. The subsequent sections will then detail why this point of view is erroneous.

This section will articulate two arguments. First, it will begin with making the argument in a manner that would be well-known to lawyers today, and then, second, it will make the argument in a way that would be most persuasive to people in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Argument One: Constitutional Text. Starting with today’s perspective requires one to begin with the text of the Constitution. The most obvious point is that there is no Thirteenth Amendment in the original Constitution. That omission is significant. It perhaps is the dog that did not bark, REF because the Framers knew how to ban certain practices or types of legislation that they found undesirable. Congress cannot pass bills of attainder, ex post facto laws, export taxes, port preferences for some cities over others, or titles of nobility. REF States cannot pass bills of attainder or ex post facto laws, treaties with foreign nations, legislation coining money, laws impairing the obligation of contracts, and titles of nobility. REF Congress knew how to go out of its way to make sure that our nation’s founding document prohibited various types of legislation that it did not want to see either the federal or state governments adopt.

Beyond that, there are four clauses in the Constitution that arguably protect slave-owners’ interests: (1) the Three-Fifths Clause, REF about which I will say more later (2) the Slave Trade Clause, which prohibited Congress from outlawing the slave trade until a date in the future REF (3) the Militia Clause, which allowed the President to call out the militia to deal with insurrections REF and (4) the Fugitive Slave Clause, which required each state to return slaves who had escaped to the state of their origin. REF

The history behind the Constitution supports the evident conclusion of the text itself. The Declaration of Independence said that all men are created equal, but at the time, no state outlawed slavery, and the Declaration itself contained no such provision. The Articles of Confederation, which preceded the Constitution, also did not outlaw slavery. Early congressional legislation is also consistent with this conclusion. It distinguished between “citizens of the United States” and “persons of color,” granting rights to the former, to citizens, that it would not necessarily grant to the latter.

Argument Two: Unenumerated Rights. Finally, we come in that regard to the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. REF In Dred Scott, the Supreme Court said that the Missouri Compromise could not abolish state law rights over slaves. The effect was not only to declare the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, but also to ensure that the laws creating this institution in slave-holding states could not be undone by Congress.

The Dred Scott decision also created what has come to be known as the Unenumerated Rights Doctrine, a doctrine that has current contemporary force in cases such as Roe v. Wade REF and Obergefell v. Hodges. REF But they are not the only ones. There are a series of other cases, part of the Unenumerated Rights Doctrine, that are favored by different people in society. For example, the Constitution, as interpreted by the Supreme Court, recognizes a right of parents to non-public school their children. REF The Constitution grants the states immunity in the courts of other states or against federal agencies. REF The Anti-Commandeering Doctrine prohibits Congress from assigning responsibilities to state officers. REF One of the most well-known principles of criminal justice, that a defendant’s guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, is also an example of this Unenumerated Rights Doctrine. REF

That is how we would argue it today. If you go back to how you would argue back in the 18th century, what was critical then was not whether courts could enforce constitutional rights. This was a pre-Marbury period, REF and certainly a pre-Warren Court and pre-Burger Court period. What was most important to the Republic then was the ability to elect legislators, because the legislative process was seen as the primary threat to individual rights.

Guess what? The Three-Fifths Clause mentioned earlier enhanced the population basis that slave-holding states would have, by allowing them to count three-fifths of every slave they owned as a person towards the number of representatives that they would have in the House of Representatives and the number of presidential electors they had to choose Presidents. If you add that to the equal representation that each state had in the Senate, what you wind up with was a political process that was biased toward the Southern states, all of which had slavery at this time.

Paul J. Larkin, Jr., is the John, Barbara & Victoria Rumpel Senior Legal Research Fellow in the Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, of the Institute for Constitutional Government, at The Heritage Foundation.

Pre-War, Anti-Slavery Constitutionalism

This section will approach the question from a legal perspective in the way that the anti-slavery constitutional thinkers did. This is an aspect of American history that has been unfortunately downplayed, to the point that a great many people, including law students, graduate from school unaware that there even was a tradition of pro-Constitution, anti-slavery thought in the years leading up the Civil War.

The most famous advocate of that view was Frederick Douglass, but he was certainly not the only one. People like John Quincy Adams, Charles Sumner, and Salmon P. Chase were, to one degree or another, adherents of this pro-Constitution, anti-slavery view. Unfortunately, today’s history distorts their records by over-emphasizing the Garrisonian Abolitionists, which was the group of abolitionists who thought the Constitution was an evil, pro-slavery document, and therefore that it should be abolished. Those people had very little influence on American political and legal development in the Civil War era. It is a shame that the pro-Constitution, anti-slavery thinkers like Douglass are left out in a lot of these discussions.

Two Rules of Legal Interpretation. So how would a constitutional abolitionist make the case that slavery is unconstitutional? REF They would begin with two basic rules of legal interpretation. The first one: Only the text on the paper itself is the law when you are reading the Constitution—not the subjective desires of the people who wrote the document. Only the words of the Constitution are the law and are legally binding.

The second rule: We should interpret the Constitution as pro-freedom whenever possible. This comes from an 1805 Supreme Court case called United States v. Fisher, REF in which the Supreme Court said we have to interpret the Constitution as being pro-liberty unless there is a clear instruction from Congress or from the lawmakers saying otherwise. Lawyers call this a “clear statement rule,” and we still use that kind of rule in interpreting the Constitution today. REF

With those two rules of interpretation in mind, now we look at the Constitution. It starts out with those big words, “We, the People of the United States.” REF Who are those “people”? The Constitution contains no definitions section, so to understand who “the people of the United States” are, we refer back to the Declaration of Independence, which sets forth who the people of the United States are. The people of the United States are the same “one people” that dissolved their political bands with Great Britain in the Declaration. REF The “one people” is referred to as a united body, not divided by color. There is no reference to color lines in either the Declaration or the Constitution. We have no legal reason to believe that black Americans are not part of “the people of the United States.” The Constitution draws no such line. REF

If that is the case, then why should we think that the Constitution is only intended for white Americans? We have no reason to believe that. In fact, the word “slave” and the word “slavery” do not appear anywhere in the Constitution of 1787. It is never mentioned. That is pretty remarkable. After all, if the Constitution is supposed to protect slavery, you would think it would at least mention that. What Douglass says is that reading the Constitution and saying that it is pro-slavery is like claiming to own property according to a deed, and then when you look at the deed, it contains no reference to the property on the piece of paper. REF That would be a pretty weird argument to make.

In other words, the burden of proof is now on the pro-slavery side to prove that the Constitution is pro-slavery REF —and they really cannot do it. There is no federal guarantee of slavery. There is no express limit on Congress banning or limiting it. Of course, the provision regarding the Western Territories says that Congress has power to legislate however it wants with regard to the Western Territories, REF which, of course, was the real issue that sparked the Civil War.

What about the four provisions that the previous section mentioned referring to slavery circuitously? Again, none use the word “slavery.” There is the Three-Fifths Clause. REF There is what we call the “Fugitive Slave Clause.” REF There is the rule about importation and exportation of slaves. REF Douglass’s answer to that was this: The Three-Fifths Clause does not protect slavery. It recognizes that slavery existed at the time, but it did not guarantee it. In fact, it rewarded states that abolish slavery by giving them more representation in Congress.

The Fugitive Slave Clause does not refer to slaves. It says “persons” from whom “labor” is “due,” but labor is not due from slaves. They are the victims of injustice, who have not been given due process of law, so labor cannot be due from them. Labor is due from apprentices or indentured servants. And it is true that runaway apprentices and runaway indentured servants were a serious legal problem in the Nineteenth Century. As for the Importation Clause, in fact, the Importation Clause did allow Congress to ban slavery in 1808, which it promptly did—in 1808. These provisions, although they obviously refer to slavery, do not protect slavery. REF

This is an important point. The anti-slavery constitutional thinkers did not say that the Constitution banned slavery. REF Obviously it did not. Instead, they said three things.

  • First, it provides no guarantee of slavery at the federal level
  • Second, it allows Congress, if it chooses to do so, to limit or even abolish slavery and
  • Third, its provisions are in the long run inconsistent with slavery, including things like due process.

If black Americans are persons, then the Constitution says they cannot be deprived of liberty without due process of law. REF That is obviously inconsistent with slavery. What about the Bill of Attainder Clauses? REF Slavery is a kind of bill of attainder, and yet the Constitution prohibits bills of attainder. REF The Constitution prohibits the seizure of persons without legitimate lawful authority. REF Obviously, slavery was inconsistent with that.

The most important provision was the Privileges and Immunities Clause, which said that people who are Americans cannot be deprived of their rights when they travel from state to state. REF The problem with this was that black people could be citizens in some states, such as Massachusetts, and then travel to a place like South Carolina and be deprived of their liberty in violation of the federal guarantee. REF

Those are the three principles of the anti-slavery Constitution: the Constitution does not guarantee slavery, it allows the federal government to limit or abolish it, and there are other provisions of the Constitution that, in the long-term will, prove inconsistent with slavery.

Going back to the concluding remarks in the previous section, it is not true that since the 17th and 18th Centuries were a pre-Marbury world, it was uncertain whether courts could enforce individual rights. Common law courts protected “unenumerated” individual rights all the time. Under the British Constitution, the British courts protected individual rights without any written bill of rights at all. The idea that courts could protect individual rights was a well-respected and well-recognized principle at the time. That is why a lot of anti-slavery constitutional thinkers went to court to make their argument.

Timothy Sandefur is the Vice President for Litigation at the Goldwater Institute where he also holds the Duncan Chair in Constitutional Government. He is the author of The Conscience of the Constitution (2013) and Frederick Douglass: Self-Made Man (2018).

The Slaveholders’ View: An Anti-Slavery Constitution

This section will look at the question of a pro-slavery Constitution from the point of view of the slaveholders, which is not often a point of view considered in many of these discussions. There, we discover that they, too, did not believe in a pro-slavery Constitution. It was one of the primary arguments that slaveholders used in the secession winter of 1860 to justify the secession of the slave states—that their Northern free-state brethren had somehow reneged on the guarantees of the Constitution, which otherwise protected the slave states in their ownership of slaves.

Louisiana’s Judah P. Benjamin, in his departing speech to the Senate, insisted that “under a just and fair interpretation of the Federal Constitution,” it was impossible to “deny that our slaves, which directly and indirectly involve a value of more than four thousand million dollars, are property” and “entitled to protection in Territories owned by the common Government.” Still, even though “the Constitution heads you off at every step in this Quixotic attempt,” the North was persistent in its threat to slavery, and secession was the only cure. REF

Similarly, Robert Barnwell Rhett was indignant, in his “Address of the People of South Carolina,” at how “by gradual and steady encroachments on the part of the people of the North. the limitations in the Constitution have been swept away.” While “the Southern States, from the commencement of the Government, have striven to keep. within the orbit prescribed by the Constitution,” the northern states, accused Rhett, “were planning nothing short of “the overthrow of the Constitution of the United States. ” REF

This sense that the Constitution was a rampart that sheltered slave owning had a long history, stretching back at least as far as the ratification process in 1788. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney assured his fellow South Carolinians that the new Constitution provided “a security that the general government can never emancipate” slaves, because “no such authority is granted.” To the contrary, Pinckney explained, “we have secured an unlimited importation of negroes for twenty years. Nor is it declared that the importation shall be then stopped it may be continued. We have obtained a right to recover our slaves in whatever part of America they may take refuge, which is a right we had not before. In short, considering all circumstances, we have made the best terms for the security of this species of property.” REF

Nineteenth-century abolitionists, for their part, took Pinckney at his word. Frederick Douglass, in 1849, argued that, from the Three-Fifth Clause to the Insurrection Clause, “the Constitution, not only consented to form bulwarks around the system of slavery, with all its bloody enormities, to prevent the slave from escape, but has planted its uncounted feet and tremendous weight on the heaving hearts of American bondmen, to prevent them from rising to gain their freedom.” REF And several important modern historians of slavery have argued forcibly that Douglass and Pinckney were right. “Slavery would be protected by several interlocking provisions” in the Constitution, writes David Waldstreicher, so that “in growing their government, the framers and their constituents created fundamental laws that sustained human bondage.” REF

Still, there was no absolute agreement on construing the Constitution as a pro-slavery document. As Michael Conlin has shown, the Three-Fifths Clause gave slavery less heft in national affairs than it might have seemed, since Northern electors in the Electoral College enjoyed a 53 percent to 47 percent edge as early as 1796, percentages which continued to swing against the South, so that by 1860, Northern electors enjoyed a 60–40 superiority. REF And anti-slavery northerners from Salmon Chase to Abraham Lincoln argued that the Constitution in fact gave no national sanction to slavery. Even Frederick Douglass, in 1852, swung over to the view that, “interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a Glorious Liberty Document.” REF

But what has been almost entirely missed in the debate over the Constitution and slavery is the degree to which Southern slave-owners themselves, when they are only talking to themselves, turn out to have agreed with Lincoln, Chase, and Douglass, and admit that the Constitution was a bruised reed for slavery to lean upon.

Ironically, the slave-owners’ doubts actually begin with Pinckney: His attempt to convince the South Carolina ratification convention that the slavery was sheltered by the Constitution was done in the face of anti-Federalist slave-owners who doubted that it did any such thing. “Your delegates had to contend with the religious and political prejudices of the Eastern and Middle States,” Pinckney pleaded, and they should realize that the deal they made was the best “it was in our power to make. We would have made better if we could.” REF

Slave-owners’ constitutional peace of mind did not improve with time. In the midst of the agitation over the Compromise of 1850, “J.A.C.” (which may have been John A. Cleveland, a Charleston slave-owner) took to the pages of the Southern Quarterly Review to warn that Southerners had made a grave mistake if they imagined that “the clause of the constitution which allows a representation for the slave population would withstand six months agitation in the Northern States.” The Constitution was a “parchment idol,” and “Southern people” should not be “deceived to the conclusion that the Constitution is the basis of an Union of equal States.” It was, in fact, “the article of a trading partnership,” a partnership which could not be relied upon to protect them. REF

One year later, the Review was even more pessimistic. “No legal assurances of future security are to be found in the constitution” for slavery, it concluded. REF DeBow’s Review was just as pessimistic. Writing for DeBow’s in 1855, the Louisiana planter John J. Perkins claimed that the Constitution lacked the strength to resist bending into an anti-slavery shape. “The compends and condensed commentaries upon the Constitution, prepared for schools and business men. all gloss over and misrepresent—in a manner calculated to deceive—the rights of the slaveholder under the Constitution while they enlarge and artfully magnify, by every possible construction, the degree of power given to the federal government over the subject.” REF

When slave-owners were candid, they could explain quite clearly why the Constitution gave them no confidence. Edmund Ruffin, Virginia’s arch-secessionist, frankly admitted that “the forms or letter of the constitution may be used as to destroy” slavery. In fact, claimed Ruffin, “without the need of infringing the letter of a single article of the Constitution, the southern states, their institutions, property, and all that is dear to them. will be at the mercy of their fanatical and determined enemies….Negro slavery may be thus abolished, either directly or indirectly, gradually or immediately.” REF

Oddly, the most obvious concession of the Constitution’s weakness on slavery was hidden in plain sight, in Chief Justice Roger Taney’s infamous majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford in 1857. It was precisely because the Constitution had resisted any suggestion that there could be “property in men,” that Taney had to rush in, in an act of judicial re-interpretation, to deny any recognition of due process or privileges and immunities for African-Americans, free or otherwise.

The ultimate proof, however, of the slave-owners’ real lack of faith in the Constitution was how, the moment they lost political control of the constitutional processes with the election of Lincoln, the slave-owners immediately tossed the Constitution aside, attempted to secede from the Union, and wrote a new Constitution which, this time, they believed would secure to them what the old one had not. It would give them a very different Constitution than the old one, looking forward (as James Stoner has written) to something more closely approximating a British parliamentary system. REF But that is, after all, the point: The slave-owners’ actions speak louder than their words, and their actions were an admission that the old Constitution was not their tool, much less their friend.

Allen C. Guelzo, PhD, is Director of the Initiative on Politics and Statesmanship at Princeton University.

Abolition and the Framers

Having arrived at the Civil War, this section will look back to 1787, first, to clarify something that comes up a lot, and that is simply this: why did the Framers not abolish slavery? The facts of the matter are pretty plain: There simply was no chance whatsoever that the Framers were going to abolish slavery in 1787. It was not because they were singularly bad people. And it was not because the Southern slaveholders somehow cowed the Northerners into submission, as if slavery’s outright abolition was ever on the agenda in Philadelphia. REF

There were at least three very good reasons why the issue was a non-starter.

  • One has to do with property, which the Constitution was framed in part to protect. Even with all of the things that they did do regarding coinage and contracts, chiefly in Article I, the Framers were not going to interfere with the basic property laws of the established states, Southern states any more than Northern. That is, the Constitution would no more abrogate established southern laws regarding enslavement than it would, say, the Pennsylvania abolition law of 1780, which declared slavery an offense against nature.
  • Second, in 1787, slavery was still a fully extant institution in eight of the 13 states, including New York and New Jersey. Even if anyone in the convention had attempted to do so, it would have been virtually impossible for the proposed Constitution to abolish slavery summarily or to authorize the new national government to do so, and then expect to gain ratification in any of the states outside of New England and Pennsylvania.
  • Third, and perhaps most important, anti-slavery was a very new thing in the world in 1787, at least among those who were not enslaved. Before the Revolution, as John Jay, the great Federalist and early abolitionist once observed, there was hardly any opposition to slavery among whites in America, or, for that matter, in any part of the Atlantic world. REF Even among the Quakers, among whom anti-slavery protests arose as early as 1688, it took decades before racial slavery truly became illicit, and the Quakers were, of course, a tiny minority. It was the coming of the Revolution that helped encourage the creation of an unprecedented anti-slavery sentiment outside the ranks of the enslaved, which created in the rebel colonies the very first noticeable—if somewhat dispersed and ramshackle—anti-slavery movement anywhere in the Atlantic world. REF

Anti-slavery enjoyed some great successes before 1787 in the North, including the appearance of the first written constitution in history to abolish adult slavery (in the breakaway district of Vermont) enactment of the first gradual emancipation laws of their kind in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Rhode Island and the elimination of slavery by judicial rulings in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Yet the idea that this fairly recent movement was going to be able to abolish slavery across the nation by fiat in 1787, as some New England abolitionists seemed to desire, was, to say the least, quixotic. It ascribed to the anti-slavery movement far more power in national counsels than it possibly could have had.

Now, though, let us consider the Framers’ deliberations in 1787. Everybody knows that there were many slaveholders at the Federal Convention, upward of 25 of the 55 delegates. What rarely gets talked about is that there were many avowed anti-slavery delegates at the convention as well, including the president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, Benjamin Franklin. These delegates knew that, while they could do nothing to abolish slavery under the new Constitution, they could prevent the pro-slavery delegates from enshrining human bondage in national law. They could also directly authorize the new government, if it so chose, to hinder slavery’s expansion. A key issue for them, in this connection, was the Atlantic slave trade. Most people at the time believed, that, without at least the possibility of continuing the trade, slavery itself would be endangered. Every prominent emancipation proposal up to that point had called for ending the Atlantic slave trade as the first step.

At least some of the anti-slavery delegates came to Philadelphia prepared to try and make sure that the new government would have the power to abolish the trade. Abolitionists outside of Congress, in the Pennsylvania Abolition Society (PAS) and the New York Manumission Society, debated how best to press the convention on the matter and the PAS sent an anti-slave trade petition to Franklin, with a request that he present it to his fellow delegates. In part on the advice of the PAS’s secretary, Tench Coxe, who considered the petition “overzealous,” Franklin laid it aside, but he knew that the convention would soon enough take up the matter. REF

Franklin, who was something of a marked man on the matter of slavery, was politic enough to keep his own counsel inside the convention on the issue he knew very well what the anti-slavery delegates were up against. Indeed, after more than two months of debate and discussion, the lower South delegates managed to devise a draft Constitution, which would have given the new federal government no power whatsoever over the Atlantic slave trade. Led by the South Carolinians, the pro-slavery advocates called it a deal-breaker: unless the convention left the Atlantic slave trade entirely in the hands of the states, the Constitution was doomed.

Fortunately, the anti-slavery delegates, principally Gouverneur Morris of New York (although he officially represented Pennsylvania), called the pro-slavery men’s bluff, tore the draft Constitution to shreds on the slavery issue, and secured to the federal government the authority not simply to regulate the Atlantic slave trade but to abolish it outright. It is true that, through some careful and crafty bargaining, the lower South delegates, led by Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, managed to get an extension forbidding Congress from acting until 1808, a move which James Madison, an opponent of the trade, immediately decried. Nevertheless, even with the delay, the outcome in Philadelphia was the first major blow against the Atlantic slave trade taken in the name of a national government anywhere in the Atlantic world. To this extent, the anti-slavery delegates succeeded beyond anything the slaveholders vowed they would permit.

None of which is to say that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document the lower South, and even some of the Northern delegates, certainly would have bolted if it were. Quite apart from the so-called federal consensus barring national action in states where slavery existed, the pro-slavery side came away with compromises sufficient to persuade their constituents that the new federal government actually gave strong protection to slavery. The Three-Fifths Clause was a concession, although not as much of one as the most ardent pro-slavery delegates wanted. The Fugitive Slave Clause—adapted from an anti-slavery proposal regarding the Northwest Territories advanced by Rufus King in 1785, which evolved into the Northwest Ordinance of 1787—gave nominal added protection to slavery, albeit with no stipulated active role by the federal government.

Set against these compromises, though, stood the convention’s handling of the concept of property in man, the legal as well as moral essence of slavery. At the state level during the fights over northern emancipation, the pro-slavery advocates argued, above all else, that they enjoyed a vested property interest in property in slavery that no government could touch. The anti-slavery counter-argument was very simple: There could be no vested right in slavery because property in man is simply illegitimate, an offense to God and natural law.

Having lived through, and in some cases participated in, these struggles over northern emancipation, the anti-slavery northerners at the convention, joined by delegates ranging from Luther Martin of Maryland to James Madison of Virginia, were absolutely determined to keep the idea of property in man out of national law. They succeeded in doing so. Madison’s notes of the convention debates show incontrovertibly that while the Constitution would tolerate slavery where it already existed, it would not recognize the institution in national law—which is say that slavery would have no presumed legitimacy in areas under national jurisdiction, including the national territories.

Based on a combination of scant ambiguous evidence and sheer projection, some historians have argued that the Framers deliberately left the word “slavery” out of the Constitution in order to assuage their guilt and fend off charges of hypocrisy from foreign critics. REF That is why, these scholars argue, the Constitution often uses what they describe as circumlocutions such as “persons held to labor or service,” shamefully to hide the fact that they had hard-wired a pro-slavery Constitution. The assertion is groundless. The evidence, albeit flawed, about what the delegates actually said, as opposed to what later historians claim and insist they were really saying, shows that the convention took its decision to exclude property in man not out of cunning or cowardice, but out of conviction.

This did not guarantee, by any means, that under the new Constitution slavery would be ended anytime soon. Again, it needs emphasizing that if the Constitution was not pro-slavery, neither was it anti-slavery. Without giving, as Massachusetts delegate Elbridge Gerry remarked, “any sanction” to slavery, the Framers left slavery’s future up to political process. REF For a long time, the slaveholders and their Northern allies had enough power in the Congress to ensure that slavery would not be interfered with. (It should be noted that the Three-Fifths Clause made little or no difference to the expansion of slavery of what would be the cotton kingdom beyond the original Southern states: The issue was political, not constitutional.)

This situation began to change after the War of 1812 when it became increasingly apparent that, while the cotton revolution had given plantation slavery a new lease on life, the rapid growth of the Northern population, combined with the fitful growth of anti-slavery opinion, left slavery increasingly vulnerable in national politics. The Missouri Compromise crisis, by yielding a compromise that banned slavery in the great preponderance of the Louisiana Purchase lands, made clear that the Framers had invested the national government with formidable powers, not to abolish slavery directly but to check its growth, to hamper it, to hinder it, and to put it, as Abraham Lincoln would later remark, on “the course of ultimate extinction.”

Once the anti-slavery side in the North began gaining traction in Congress, and once the territorial issue re-entered national politics, the political initiative began gradually to shift away from what became known in the 1840s as the Slave Power. As Professor Guelzo has noted, that shift seemed completed with the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency in 1860 the writing was on the wall, and the slaveholders’ rebellion began. Yet Lincoln’s Republican Party could only have existed—and the anti-slavery cause could only have attained national power—because of what the Framers did in 1787, by keeping property in man out of the Constitution.

This did not make the Constitution, it bears repeating one last time, an anti-slavery document. The anti-slavery Framers did not sit around saying, “In 1809, this man, Lincoln, is going to be born, and everything’s going to work out.” For all of their flawed wisdom, the Framers were not clairvoyant and the politics of slavery and anti-slavery could have worked out very, very differently.

But they worked out the way that they did in 1865 in no small measure because of what the Framers did in 1787. To that extent, the anti-slavery elements in the Constitution, which anti-slavery constitutionalists would develop over the succeeding 70 years, were and are absolutely crucial in understanding the nation’s founding.

Sean Wilentz, PhD, is George Henry Davis 1886 Professor of American History at Princeton University.

Lincoln and Douglas: Federalism and Founders’ Intent

The great conundrum of 21st-century Americans looking back to the Founding is squaring their many statements affirming human equality and natural rights and condemning slavery while they continued the practice of slavery. Many today simply see this as rank hypocrisy and unwittingly find themselves agreeing with U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney and Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D–IL) , who concluded that the founding generation could not have meant “all” when they wrote “all men are created equal” because they did not immediately free all American slaves. Therefore, in the words of Douglas, “This government of ours was founded, and wisely founded, upon the white basis. It was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” REF How could Abraham Lincoln not draw the same conclusion?

When Lincoln looked back to the Founders for guidance on how to deal with the growing crisis over slavery, he was not the only one who appealed to the Founding Fathers. Stephen Douglas was the leading Democrat in the 1850s, and he claimed that he knew better than Lincoln what “our Revolutionary fathers” thought about the question of slavery. Douglas cited the Founders by name: “Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jay, and the great men of that day made this government divided into free states and slave states, and left each state perfectly free to do as it pleased on the subject of slavery. Why can it not exist on the same principles on which our fathers made it?” REF Douglas claimed his policy aligned more closely with the Founders’ hopes for the new republic. In Lincoln’s mind, the future of freedom and the eventual demise of slavery depended on whose interpretation of the Founders was correct.

Lincoln did not believe that the Constitution was designed to protect slavery per se and certainly did not agree with the 1857 Dred Scott opinion by Chief Justice Roger Taney. He did not think that Taney was correct in stating, “The right of property in a slave is distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution.” REF Lincoln argued during his 1858 debates with Douglas “that the right of property in a slave is not distinctly and expressly affirmed in the Constitution, and Judge Douglas thinks it is.” REF Lincoln did not believe the Founders were hypocrites, generally speaking. As he put it, “We had slavery among us, we could not get our constitution unless we permitted them to remain in slavery, we could not secure the good we did secure if we grasped for more, and having by necessity submitted to that much, it does not destroy the principle that is the charter of our liberties.” REF He thought the Founders did not think they could free themselves and free their slaves at the same time.

As Professor Harvey Mansfield recently put it, “The American founding couldn’t be perfect from the start. It had to progress towards its goal.” REF Put simply, the founding generation of Americans did not believe that they could both free themselves and free their slaves without hazarding the success of both their independence and their new way of governing themselves. However, once they had secured their independence, what did they do collectively with regards to the state institution of slavery? Did their federal Constitution indicate a desire to strengthen slavery’s hold on the American people or did the Framers attempt to reduce their dependence upon the peculiar institution?

Lincoln answered by observing that the U.S. Constitution, unlike the Articles of Confederation, empowered Congress to ban the importation of slaves in 1808. “A Constitutional provision was necessary to prevent the people, through Congress,” Lincoln noted, “from putting a stop to the traffic immediately at the close of the war. Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity?” REF

If the federal government did not possess the authority to abolish slavery where it already existed in the states, then the Founders attempted to begin its abolition by preventing its continued supply. It was believed at the time that cutting off the supply would produce its eventual demise. In addition, under the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution of 1787, Congress passed an ordinance banning slavery from the Northwest Territory, the only territory owned by the United States at that time. REF Taken together, these were early attempts at the national level to prevent both the supply and expansion of slavery on American soil. The expectation was that slavery would eventually wither on the vine and the nation would peacefully outlive the utility of slavery. Jefferson, Madison, and others feared a race war if emancipation occurred immediately and en masse. REF

Of course, these actions and expectations all occurred prior to the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, prior to the enormous profitability of plantation-grown cotton as an export, and what then became the extraordinary productivity of slave labor in harvesting that cash crop. To be sure, South Carolina and Georgia were always resistant to national control over slavery in their states, and they exercised outsized power as a minority of the American states at the Constitutional Convention.

Thus, to speak of the Founders when it came to expectations regarding slavery over the long haul is to speak in general terms and not to affirm an opinion held by every significant political player in this tragic drama. This is what produced some of the debates at the convention and the eventual compromises over slavery in the Constitution. Madison expected that these would lead to the demise of slavery over time. REF

In his “House Divided” speech, Lincoln predicted, “Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction or its advocates will push it forward until it shall become alike lawful in all the states, old as well as new, North as well as South.” REF Those were the stakes in 1858, and Lincoln tried to show white Northerners that the key to preventing the spread of slavery was interpreting the Constitution as empowering Congress to ban slavery in the territories.

This was contrary to Taney’s ruling in Dred Scott, but Lincoln believed the Constitution belonged to the American people, and if they disagreed with the Supreme Court, they could work politically to get the Court to reconsider its ruling. REF In fact, as President, Lincoln would sign into law a ban against slavery in the District of Columbia on April 16, 1862, and two months later a ban against slavery in all the territories, even with the Dred Scott ruling still on the books. The Thirteenth Amendment made the constitutional conflict moot, but Lincoln and the Republicans believed an anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution was worth the political challenge.

Lucas E. Morel, PhD, is Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute, and Head of the Politics Department at Washington & Lee University


Mr. Larkin: Professor, thank you very much. I would now like the remaining members of the panel to join us. I want to ask if anyone has any comment that he would like to offer based on the remarks of the people who spoke after. That would be Timothy, Allen, and Sean. Let me go in reverse order. Sean, do you have anything that you would like to add to what Professor Morel said?

Professor Wilentz: All I can say is ditto. Lucas gave a very lucid account of how Lincoln, in particular, understood the question.

Mr. Larkin: Allen, anything you would like to add?

Professor Guelzo: I’m always impressed by the obduracy of the Southern delegates in the Constitutional Convention. When I say the Southern delegates, I am really talking about South Carolina and Georgia, their obduracy on the subject of slavery. They folded their arms and said, “We will not be part of a union that does not allow us to continue with slavery or continue to import slaves for at least some period.” On that, they were prepared to see things break up. There really was a serious threat that the Union might, in fact, break up. We think there is a natural progression, because we are looking at this from our perspective. We think this is natural progression, from the Continental Congress to the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution, and it was just seamless, and it was going to happen anyway.

That is not necessarily the case. There were many people who fully expected that even in the last moments of the Articles of Confederation that the entire federal Union would break up into a variety of small confederacies. If that had happened, the results probably would not in the long-term have been pretty. Those Southerners fought hard for that. In many respects, they were going to demand that as a concession. In order to get a Constitution and to keep the Union together, Northerners are going to have incentives to say, “All right, we’ll make these allowances,” but watch how they make those allowances.

Roger Sherman, Oliver Ellsworth, when this question is pushed on them in the debates in August of 1787, what they said is, “All right, we’re not going to push on the issue about slavery or the slave trade, because slavery’s going away anyhow.” Sherman says, “Slavery’s going to disappear in a few years.” Ellsworth says, “Slavery’s on its way out. In a few years, there will not be any trace whatsoever that there was such a thing as slavery in America, so let’s not kick the sleeping dog. Let’s move ahead, because the Constitution that we’re making and the union that we’re creating is going to point us towards an anti-slavery conclusion eventually.”

Looking at what they had to say, you really have to put the question in terms of shall we have a union where we let the slave-owners break the whole thing to pieces, especially when the slavery issue was, as many people thought then, going to disappear anyhow. You set up the Constitution so that it accommodates that disappearance, and you sit back and you wait for it to happen, which it did not do. That was for reasons that were beyond the power of the Constitutional Convention to understand. They were not, after all, prophets with crystal balls. They could not see what was going to happen in the next 20, 30 years in the economy of the United States.

Professor Wilentz: It is true they bullied, they yelled Pinckney and all of the rest of them, but they lost. They lost on the slave trade. They said, “This is a deal breaker. We’re out of here,” and then they did not leave. I think that one of the things we have to deal with is not simply the fact of anti-slavery constitutionalism at the convention, but their power. They were strong. They made the Southerners eat crow more than once.

Professor Guelzo: I think interesting to look at, too, the terms in which they demanded the continuation of the slave trade. They were willing to talk about 20 years, because in large measure—and this is an explanation that surfaces in the ratification convention in South Carolina—what they are looking for is basically to make up the slave population they had lost to British occupation. The argument that is often—David Ramsey makes this argument—that what we are looking at, South Carolina’s full of waste places, we need cheap labor in order to make them productive, so we need to replenish the supply, and when that supply is replenished, then we will be content. When that supply was replenished, they were not entirely content. You can doubt some of the sincerity there, but that is the argument that is made. What we are looking at is something provisional. What we are looking at is something temporary, because if we do not, our state economy is going to go into the tank. If it does, then that is going to create an imbalance of power in this new constitutional arrangement.

Mr. Larkin: Let me ask another audience question. I’d like panelists to discuss the significance of the ban on slavery in the Northwest Ordinance. To what extent, for example, is it Exhibit A that can be offered in defense of the argument that the Constitution did not protect slavery, because if it did, then the entire Northwest Ordinance, one of the earliest pieces of the nation’s legislation, was unconstitutional from the outset? Please, what was the significance of the ban on slavery in the Northwest Ordinance?

Professor Guelzo: Certainly, Lincoln thought that was Exhibit A, because in the Cooper Institute speech in February of 1860, he makes it Exhibit A that the Northwest Ordinance, something which is in its first form adopted by the Confederation Congress and then readopted in 1787. It contains this explicit ban on slavery in the territories that were organized north of the Ohio River, and the wording of Section 6 of the Northwest Ordinance, in fact, becomes the model that is used for the wording of the Thirteenth Amendment—just picks it up and copies it completely.

People very widely understood the Northwest Ordinance that way to be an anti-slavery statement. Now bear in mind that that provision was not uniformly applied in the organization of those territories. There was a lot of unevenness. There were a number of exceptions. There were a number of lacunae in that, so that it looks more like a rumpled blanket than a simple sheet that eliminates slavery completely, and yet it was an extraordinary statement in its own right, put into national law governing the future of these territories, which had fallen into the hands of the United States administration as a result of the Treaty of Paris.

Professor Morel: I would just add that Lincoln liked that example and quoted it often precisely to show that you cannot have an anti-slavery Constitution without an anti-slavery people. For him, it showed the impulse for freedom, which is an impulse against slavery. You cannot get rid of slavery, as they thought at the time, immediately. This was the number one way to prevent it from continuing to entrench itself on American soil: Keep it from expanding and then, as early as possible, which turned out to be January 1st, 1808 (Jefferson signed it into law the previous year), ban the importation of slaves, and the hope was that slavery would die on the vine.

Mr. Sandefur: What Douglass and Lincoln would have pointed to demonstrate that America was intended to be a place of an anti-slavery people was the Declaration of Independence. When you talk about the Northwest Ordinance, that is one of the organic laws of the United States. But another one of the organic laws of the United States is the Declaration. The issue that the anti-slavery constitution insisted upon was on the legal significance, not just as a rhetorical or political document, but the legal significance of the Constitution of the United States, which appears in the Statutes at Large (at volume 1, page 1) and in the U.S. Code REF and is a law. REF

The reason this comes up is before this conversation started, we were talking about this book, the Mark Graber book—Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil—and this is a perfect example of what we are talking about. He says, “Whether the persons responsible for the Constitution thought Constitutional protections for property encompassed property and human beings is unclear. Both pro [sic] and anti-slavery are plausible interpretations of the Constitution.” REF Then on page 86 he says, “What Americans needed—and what Constitutional law would have no capacity to provide—was the political consensus necessary for decisive choice to be made between those two.” REF Lincoln would have said, we have the key to that decisive choice. It’s the Declaration of Independence. That is the deciding factor in this argument.

This is not discussed in any detail in Graber’s book. But that is really what this issue is about, when Lincoln says in the Gettysburg Address, “[d]edicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”—today’s argument about the 1619 Project and similar things is an argument about what proposition America is dedicated to. If you do not believe America is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, in a legal sense as well as a political and rhetorical and spiritual sense, then what is it that you think we are dedicated to? That is what this discussion’s really about. REF

Professor Guelzo: I am curious in this respect that when we talk about the phrase “property in man,” that, of course, is James Madison’s phrase so often quoted from the records of the Constitutional Convention. It is not only Madison. [It is] Roger Sherman also. It is almost literally the same words, “We cannot be writing a Constitution that endorses the idea of property in men.” The fundamental tenet of slavery itself, that human beings could be chattel property, is something that the desires of the Constitution make very clear has no place in the Constitution and no place in the organic law of the United States. That is what leads ineluctably to what you have with the Northwest Ordinance. It leads to the banning of the slave trade, because if there could be property in men, why is there this possibility of banning trade in what would otherwise have been considered property? That would have been a violation of provisions of the Constitution itself.

Susan B. Anthony

Susan Brownell Anthony was a feminist and reformer whose Quaker family was committed to social equality. She began collecting anti-slavery petitions when she was 17 and became an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society at age 36. In 1869, Anthony, alongside Elizabeth Cady Stanton, founded the National Woman Suffrage Association, and they played a pivotal role in the women’s suffrage movement.

Early Years
Susan B. Anthony was born February 15, 1820 in Adams, Massachusetts to Quaker Daniel Anthony and Lucy Read Anthony, who shared a passion for social reform. Daniel encouraged all of his children, girls as well as boys, to be self-supporting he taught them business principles and gave them responsibilities at an early age.

When she was seventeen, Anthony attended a Quaker boarding school in Philadelphia, but her family was financially ruined in the Panic of 1837. Susan had to return home after only one term. They were forced to sell everything they owned at an auction, but a maternal uncle bought their belongings and restored them to the family.

In 1846, at age 26, Anthony accepted a position as head of the girls’ department at Canajoharie Academy. She taught there for two years and earned $110 a year.

Education Reform
In her speech at the state teachers’ convention of 1853, Anthony called for women to be admitted to the professions and for better pay for women teachers. In 1859 Anthony spoke before state teachers’ conventions in Troy, New York and Massachusetts for coeducation (boys and girls educated together), arguing there were no differences between the minds of males and females.

Anthony fought for equal educational opportunities for all regardless of race, calling for all schools, colleges, and universities to open their doors to women and former slaves. She also campaigned for the right of black children to attend public schools.

In the 1890s Anthony served on the board of trustees of Rochester’s State Industrial School and campaigned for coeducation and equal opportunity for boys and girls. She raised $50,000 in pledges to ensure the admittance of women to the University of Rochester. Fearing she might miss the deadline, she put up the cash value of her life insurance policy. The University was forced to make good its promise and women were admitted for the first time in 1900.

Anti-Slavery Work
In 1845, the family purchased a farm on the outskirts of Rochester, New York, partly paid for with Lucy’s inheritance. The Anthony farmhouse soon became the Sunday afternoon gathering place for local activists, including prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and former slave Frederick Douglass, who became Anthony’s lifelong friend.

Susan B. Anthony played a key role in organizing an anti-slavery convention in Rochester in 1851. She was also a stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, and her diary entry in 1861 stated: “Fitted out a fugitive slave for Canada with the help of Harriet Tubman.”

In 1856 Anthony became an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society, putting up posters, arranging meetings, distributing pamphlets, and making speeches. Hostile mobs and flying missiles thrown in her direction did not deter her. In Syracuse her image was dragged through the streets, and she was hung in effigy.

Women’s National Loyal League
In 1863, during the Civil War, Anthony and others organized the Women’s National Loyal League – the first national women’s political organization in the United States. In support of the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which would abolish slavery, the League conducted the largest petition drive in American history – nearly 400,000 signatures. Anthony worked to organize the operation of recruiting and coordinating some 2000 volunteer petition collectors.

The League also provided a platform for women’s rights by telling the public that petitioning was the only political tool available to women. With a membership of 5000, this organization developed a new generation of women leaders and provided experience and recognition for newcomers like Anna Dickinson. The League demonstrated the value of a women’s movement that had been only loosely organized up to that point, and a widespread network of women activists expanded the pool of talent that was available to reform movements after the war.

These women’s rights activists supported equal rights for women and people of any race, including the right to vote. They campaigned for the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which granted citizenship to “all persons born or naturalized in the United States,” including former slaves recently freed.

They also worked tirelessly for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which prohibits the federal and state governments from denying a citizen the right to vote based on their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” They were bitterly disappointed when women were excluded from those amendments.

Women’s Rights Activist
In 1851, at Seneca Falls, New York, Amelia Bloomer introduced Susan B. Anthony to Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who wrote this about their first meeting:

Walking home with the speakers, who were my guests, we met Mrs. Bloomer with Miss Anthony on the corner of the street waiting to greet us. There she stood with her good, earnest face and genial smile, dressed in gray delaine, hat and all the same color relieved with pale-blue ribbons, the perfection of neatness and sobriety. I liked her thoroughly from the beginning.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Anthony and Stanton became lifelong friends and partners in social reform movements, particularly women’s rights. Their relationship led Anthony to join the women’s rights movement in 1852, and she attended her first women’s rights convention in Syracuse that same year. At that time Stanton was housebound raising seven children, and Anthony often supervised the children, giving Stanton time to write.

There were hardships in the early days. The women’s movement rarely had enough money to execute its programs. And, at that time, few women had an independent source of income those with jobs were required by law to give their wages to their husbands. There were no precedents, so they created them as they went.

In 1853, Anthony organized a convention in Rochester to launch a state campaign for improved property rights for married women. In February 1856 Anthony traveled to Albany and presented petitions to the Legislature, requesting that a new law be passed to allow women to control her wages and have custody of her children. She was referred to Samuel Foote, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Foote’s incredible response:

The committee is composed of married and single gentlemen. The bachelors … have left the subject pretty much to the married gentlemen. … the ladies always have the best place and choicest titbit at the table. They have the best seat in the cars, carriages and sleighs the warmest place in winter and the coolest in summer. They have their choice on which side of the bed they will lie, front or back. …

It has thus appeared to the married gentlemen of your committee, being a majority … that if there is any inequality or oppression in the case, the gentlemen are the sufferers. They, however, have presented no petitions for redress, having doubtless made up their minds to yield to an inevitable destiny.

On the whole, the committee have concluded to recommend no measure, except that they have observed several instances in which husband and wife have both signed the same petition. In such case, they would recommend the parties to apply for a law authorizing them to change dresses, so that the husband may wear petticoats, and the wife breeches, and thus indicate to their neighbors and the public the true relation in which they stand to each other.

In 1860, after years of advocacy by Anthony and otheres, the Legislature passed the New York State Married Women’s Property Bill, which allowed married women to own property, keep their wages, and have custody of their children. Anthony and Stanton then campaigned for more liberal divorce laws in New York.

The Revolution
Anthony and Stanton published a weekly women’s rights newspaper called The Revolution in New York City from January 8, 1868 and February 17, 1872. Its combative style matched its name, and it focused on women’s rights, especially women’s suffrage. Anthony managed the business side while Stanton served as the editor.

After more than two years of mounting debts, Anthony transferred The Revolution to Laura Curtis Bullard, a wealthy women’s rights activist who published the paper two more years. Despite its short lifespan, the paper helped move women’s issues back into the national spotlight after the Civil War and established Stanton and Anthony as public figures whose demands for equal rights were not ignored.

Working Women’s Advocate
While publishing The Revolution in New York Anthony came into contact with women in the printing trades. In her newspaper, she advocated an eight-hour workday for women, equal pay for equal work, the purchase of American-made goods, and encouraged working women to form women’s labor organizations.

In 1870 Anthony founded the Working Women’s Association (WWA), which reported on working conditions and provided educational opportunities for its workers. The WWA concentrated in the printing industry in its early days its members included women who were employed, or self-employed, in print shops.

The Association’s membership grew to include more than a hundred working women, in addition to journalists and other women whose work was more mental than manual. When printers went on strike in New York, she urged companies to hire women. She believed this was an opportunity to show that they could do the job as well as men and therefore deserved equal pay.

Susan B. Anthony also advocated dress reform for women. She cut her hair and wore the Bloomer costume for a year before she realized that this radical dress was detracting from the other causes she supported.

Image: Susan B. Anthony House 17 Madison Street Rochester, New York In 1866, Anthony and her family moved to this house, which was to be her home for forty years. In this photograph from 1891, she and some of her fellow activists gather on the front lawn.

In 1866, Anthony and Stanton initiated the American Equal Rights Association (AERA) campaigned for equal rights for both women and African Americans. The leadership of this new organization included such prominent activists as Lucretia Mott and Lucy Stone. Some abolitionist leaders wanted women to postpone their campaign for suffrage until after African American males were given the right to vote.

The AERA eventually divided into two wings. One group was willing for black men to achieve suffrage first. The wing led by Anthony and Stanton insisted that women and black men should be enfranchised at the same time they wanted to work toward an independent women’s movement that would no longer be dependent on abolitionists. The AERA effectively dissolved in May 1869, leaving two competing women’s suffrage organizations in its aftermath.

Susan B. Anthony was convinced by her work in social reform movements that women needed the vote if they were to influence public affairs. In 1869, after the demise of the AERA, Anthony and Stanton founded the National Woman Suffrage Association (NWSA) and began to campaign for a constitutional amendment giving women the right to vote.

The American Woman Suffrage Association (AWSA) adopted a strategy of getting the vote for women state-by-state some territories or new states in the West were the first to extend suffrage to women. The territory of Wyoming was the first to give women the vote in 1869, long before it became a state (1890). Anthony campaigned for women’s suffrage in the West during the 1870s.

Anthony, three of her sisters, and a few other women in Rochester voted in the 1872 Presidential Election. On November 18, 1872, a U.S. Deputy Marshal arrested Anthony for illegally voting. She was arraigned in Rochester Common Council chambers along with the other women voters and the election officials who had allowed her to vote .

Susan B. Anthony was tried and convicted in a highly publicized trial, which gave her the opportunity to spread her arguments to a wider audience. The judge fined her $100, and although she refused to pay it, the authorities declined to take further action.

Anthony traveled extensively and gave as many as 75 to 100 speeches per year in support of women’s suffrage. She worked on many state campaigns. By 1877, she had gathered petitions from 26 states with 10,000 signatures, and she presented them to Congress.

Susan B. Anthony Amendment
In 1878, Anthony and Stanton arranged for Senator A.A. Sargent of California to present to Congress an amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote. The women proposed a revision of the Sixteenth Amendment that would read:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.

What was popularly called the Susan B. Anthony Amendment became the main lobbying strategy for suffragists committed to winning the vote through a constitutional amendment. Though Congress repeatedly rejected the revision, Sargent continued to propose it. In the years between 1878 and 1906, Anthony appeared at every Congressional session to ask for passage of a suffrage amendment.

Between 1881 and 1885 Anthony, Stanton, and suffragist Matilda Joslyn Gage collaborated on the multi-volume book, History of Woman Suffrage. Anthony and Ida Husted Harper edited the final volume, which was published in 1902.

In 1887 the new National American Woman Suffrage Association was created with Stanton as president and Anthony as vice-president. Anthony became president in 1892 when Stanton retired.

Anthony campaigned in the West in the 1890s to make sure that the territories that had granted women the vote were not blocked from admission to the Union. She also helped to establish the World’s Congress of Representative Women at the World’s Fair held in Chicago in 1893.

Image: Susan B. Anthony circa 1900

Public perception of Susan B. Anthony changed radically during her lifetime. When she began campaigning for women’s rights in the 1850s, she was harshly ridiculed. By 1900, she had established her worth as an activist and champion for women. That year President William McKinley invited her to celebrate her eightieth birthday at the White House that year.

Anthony never married, and she remained active until her death.

I don’t want to die as long as I can work the minute I can not, I want to go.

Susan B. Anthony died March 13, 1906 at her home in Rochester.

The Susan B. Anthony Silver Dollar was minted from 1979 to 1981 it brought a new awareness of her life in activism to the public.

Constitution Of American Anti-Slavery League [1833] - History

Whereas the Most High God "hath made of one blood all nations of men to dwell on all the face of the earth," and hath commanded them to love their neighbors as themselves and whereas, our National Existence is based upon this principle, as recognized in the Declaration of Independence, "that all mankind are created equal, and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" and whereas, after the lapse of nearly sixty years, since the faith and honor of the American people were pledged to this avowal, before Almighty God and the World, nearly one-sixth part of the nation are held in bondage by their fellow-citizens and whereas, Slavery is contrary to the principles of natural justice, of our republican form of government, and of the Christian religion, and is destructive of the prosperity of the country, while it is endangering the peace, union, and liberties of the States and whereas, we believe it the duty and interest of the masters immediately to emancipate their slaves, and that no scheme of expatriation, either voluntary or by compulsion, can remove this great and increasing evil and whereas, we believe that it is practicable, by appeals to the consciences, hearts, and interests of the people, to awaken a public sentiment throughout the nation that will be opposed to the continuance of Slavery in any part of the Republic, and by effecting the speedy abolition of Slavery, prevent a general convulsion and whereas, we believe we owe it to the oppressed, to our fellow-citizens who hold slaves, to our whole country, to posterity, and to God, to do all that is lawfully in our power to bring about the extinction of Slavery, we do hereby agree, with a prayerful reliance on the Divine aid, to form ourselves into a society, to be governed by the following Constitution: --

ARTICLE I. -- This Society shall be called the AMERICAN ANTI-SLAVERY SOCIETY.

ARTICLE II. -- The objects of this Society are the entire abolition of Slavery in the United States. While it admits that each State, in which Slavery exists, has, by the Constitution of the United States, the exclusive right to legislate in regard to its abolition in said State, it shall aim to convince all our fellow-citizens, by arguments addressed to their understandings and consciences, that Slaveholding is a heinous crime in the sight of God, and that the duty, safety, and best interests of all concerned, require its immediate abandonment , without expatriation. The Society will also endeavor, in a constitutional way, to influence Congress to put an end to the domestic Slave trade, and to abolish Slavery in all those portions of our common country which come under its control, especially in the District of Columbia, -- and likewise to prevent the extension of it to any State that may be hereafter admitted to the Union.

ARTICLE III. -- This Society shall aim to elevate the character and condition of the people of color, by encouraging their intellectual, moral, and religious improvement, and by removing public prejudice, that thus they may, according to their intellectual and moral worth, share an equality with the whites, of civil and religious privileges but this Society will never, in any way, countenance the oppressed in vindicating their rights by resorting to physical force.

ARTICLE IV. -- Any person who consents to the principles of this Constitution, who contributes to the funds of this Society, and is not a Slaveholder, may be a member of this Society, and shall be entitled to vote at the meetings.

Lecompton Constitution

The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four proposed constitutions for the state of Kansas (it was preceded by the Topeka Constitution and was followed by the Leavenworth and Wyandotte Constitutions, the Wyandotte becoming the Kansas state constitution). The document was written in response to the anti-slavery position of the 1855 Topeka Constitution of James H. Lane and other free-state advocates. The territorial legislature, consisting mostly of slave-owners, met at the designated capital of Lecompton in September 1857 to produce a rival document. Free-state supporters, who comprised a large majority of actual settlers, boycotted the vote. President James Buchanan's appointee as territorial governor of Kansas, Robert J. Walker, although a strong defender of slavery, opposed the blatant injustice of the Constitution and resigned rather than implement it. This new constitution enshrined slavery in the proposed state and protected the rights of slaveholders. In addition, the constitution provided for a referendum that allowed voters the choice of allowing more slaves to enter the territory.

Both the Topeka and Lecompton constitutions were placed before the people of the Kansas Territory for a vote, and both votes were boycotted by supporters of the opposing faction. In the case of Lecompton, however, the vote was boiled down to a single issue, expressed on the ballot as "Constitution with Slavery" v. "Constitution with no Slavery." But the "Constitution with no Slavery" clause would have not made Kansas a free state it merely would have banned future importation of slaves into Kansas (something deemed by many as unenforceable). Boycotted by free-soilers, the referendum suffered from serious voting irregularities, with over half the 6,000 votes deemed fraudulent. Nevertheless, both it and the Topeka Constitution were sent to Washington for approval by Congress.

A vocal supporter of slaveholder rights, President Buchanan endorsed the Lecompton Constitution before Congress. While the president received the support of the Southern Democrats, many Northern Democrats, led by Stephen A. Douglas, sided with the Republicans in opposition to the constitution. Douglas was helped considerably by the work of Thomas Ewing Jr., a noted Kansas Free State politician and lawyer, who led a legislative investigation in Kansas to uncover the fraudulent voting ballots. A new referendum over the fate of the Lecompton Constitution was proposed, even though this would delay Kansas's admission to the Union. Furthermore, a new constitution, the anti-slavery Leavenworth Constitution, was already being drafted. On 4 January 1858, Kansas voters, having the opportunity to reject the constitution altogether in the referendum, overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton proposal by a vote of 10,226 to 138. And in Washington, the Lecompton constitution was defeated by the federal House of Representatives in 1858. Though soundly defeated, debate over the proposed constitution had ripped apart the Democratic party. Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861.

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American Anti-Slavery Society, Declaration of Sentiments

By 1830, slavery had become very much a regional, as opposed to a national institution (see Number of Slaves in the Territory Enumerated, 1790 to 1850). The New England and Middle States had, through a combination of gradual abolition and immediate emancipation measures, dramatically decreased the number of slaves in their territories, while the Southern states had increased their reliance upon slave labor in the production of various cash crops, chief among them “King Cotton.” Nevertheless, there were individuals in both sections of the country who recognized the need for continued prudential reform. In December 1833, dozens of Northern activists met in Philadelphia to found the American Anti-Slavery Society. Although the group called for the immediate and uncompensated emancipation of all enslaved persons, they also denounced the use of violent resistance – an important concession to Southern slaveholders fearful of additional armed uprisings like Nat Turner’s Rebellion (1831). Southern activist Angelina Grimke addressed similar fears in her Appeal to the Christian Women of the South. Grimke urged Southern women to speak out against slavery as an unjust and oppressive system, but also counseled them to encourage patience and submission on the part of their slaves until freedom was obtained.

As the decade wore on, such moderate positions were eclipsed by a hardening of views and greater entrenchment on both sides. Southern newspapers carried advertisements for runaway slaves that described them in horrific, brutalizing terms, which Northern publishers delighted in reprinting to highlight the inhumanity of slaveholders. In 1849, Frederick Douglass – a self-emancipated former slave – emphatically denounced all plans related to abolition that did not also aim at ending racial prejudice and lead towards the formal equality of blacks and whites. Yet five years later, Southern sociologist George Fitzhugh was still defending race-based slavery as positive good, arguing that it benefited the slave as well as the owner.

Declaration of Sentiments of the American Anti-Slavery Convention, Selections from the Writings of W. L. Garrison (Boston:1852), 66–71.

The Convention assembled in the city of Philadelphia, to organize a National Anti-Slavery Society, promptly seize the opportunity to promulgate the following Declaration of Sentiments, as cherished by them in relation to the enslavement of one-sixth portion of the American people.

More than fifty-seven years have elapsed, since a band of patriots convened in this place, to devise measures for the deliverance of this country from a foreign yoke. The corner-stone upon which they founded the Temple of Freedom was broadly this “‘that all men are created equal that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights that among these are life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness.” At the sound of their trumpet-call, three millions of people rose up as from the sleep of death, and rushed to the strife of blood deeming it more glorious to die instantly as freemen, than desirable to live one hour as slaves. They were few in number poor in resources but the honest conviction that Truth, Justice and Right were on their side, made them invincible.

We have met together for the achievement of an enterprise, without which that of our fathers is incomplete and which, for its magnitude, solemnity, and probable results upon the destiny of the world, as far transcends theirs as moral truth does physical force.

In purity of motive, in earnestness of zeal, in decision of purpose, in intrepidity of action, in steadfastness of faith, in sincerity of spirit, we would not be inferior to them.

Their principles led them to wage war against their oppressors, and to spill human blood like water, in order to be free.

Ours forbid the doing of evil that good may come, and lead us to reject, and to entreat the oppressed to reject, the use of all carnal weapons for deliverance from bondage relying solely upon those which are spiritual, and mighty through God to the pulling down of strong holds. Their measures were physical resistance the marshalling in arms – the hostile array – the mortal encounter. Ours shall be such only as the opposition of moral purity to moral corruption – the destruction of error by the potency of truth – the overthrow of prejudice by the power of love – and the abolition of slavery by the spirit of repentance.

Their grievances, great as they were, were trifling in comparison with the wrongs and sufferings of those for whom we plead. Our fathers were never slaves – never bought and sold like cattle – never shut out from the light of knowledge and religion – never subjected to the lash of brutal taskmasters.

But those, for whose emancipation we are striving – constituting at the present time at least one-sixth part of our countrymen – are recognized by law, and treated by their fellow-beings, as marketable commodities, as goods and chattels, as brute beasts are plundered daily of the fruits of their toil without redress really enjoy no constitutional nor legal protection from licentious and murderous outrages upon their persons and are ruthlessly torn asunder – the tender babe from the arms of its frantic mother – the heart-broken wife from her weeping husband – at the caprice or pleasure of irresponsible tyrants. For the crime of having a dark complexion, they suffer the pangs of hunger, the infliction of stripes, the ignominy of brutal servitude. They are kept in heathenish darkness by laws expressly enacted to make their instruction a criminal offence.

These are the prominent circumstances in the condition of more than two millions of our people, the proof of which may be found in thousands of indisputable facts, and in the laws of the slaveholding States.

Hence we maintain – that, in view of the civil and religious privileges of this nation, the guilt of its oppression is unequalled by any other on the face of the earth and, therefore, that it is bound to repent instantly, to undo the heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free.

We further maintain – that no man has a right to enslave or imbrute his brother – to hold or acknowledge him, for one moment, as a piece of merchandise – to keep back his hire by fraud – or to brutalize his mind, by denying him the means of intellectual, social and moral improvement.

The right to enjoy liberty is inalienable. To invade it is to usurp the prerogative of Jehovah. Every man has a right to his own body – to the products of his own labor – to the protection of law – and to the common advantages of society. It is piracy to buy or steal a native African, and subject him to servitude. Surely, the sin is as great to enslave an American as an African.

Therefore we believe and affirm – that there is no difference, in principle, between the African slave trade and American slavery:

That every American citizen, who detains a human being in involuntary bondage as his property, is, according to Scripture, (Ex. xxi. 16,) a man-stealer:

That the slaves ought instantly to be set free, and brought under the protection of law:

That if they had lived from the time of Pharaoh down to the present period, and had been entailed through successive generations, their right to be free could never have been alienated, but their claims would have constantly risen in solemnity:

That all those laws which are now in force, admitting the right of slavery, are therefore, before God, utterly null and void being an audacious usurpation of the Divine prerogative, a daring infringement on the law of nature, a base over-throw of the very foundations of the social compact, a complete extinction of all the relations, endearments and obligations of mankind, and a presumptuous transgression of all the holy commandments and that therefore they ought instantly to be abrogated.

We further believe and affirm – that all persons of color, who possess the qualifications which are demanded of others, ought to be admitted forthwith to the enjoyment of the same privileges, and the exercise of the same prerogatives, as others and that the paths of preferment, of wealth, and of intelligence, should be opened as widely to them as to persons of a white complexion.

We maintain that no compensation should be given to the planters emancipating their slaves:

Because it would be a surrender of the great fundamental principle, that man cannot hold property in man:

Because slavery is a crime, and therefore is not an article to be sold:

Because the holders of slaves are not the just proprietors of what they claim freeing the slave is not depriving them of property, but restoring it to its rightful owner it is not wronging the master, but righting the slave – restoring him to himself:

Because immediate and general emancipation would only destroy nominal, not real property it would not amputate a limb or break a bone of the slaves, but by infusing motives into their breasts, would make them doubly valuable to the masters as free laborers and

Because, if compensation is to be given at all, it should be given to the outraged and guiltless slaves, and not to those who have plundered and abused them.

We regard as delusive, cruel and dangerous, any scheme of expatriation which pretends to aid, either directly or indirectly, in the emancipation of the slaves, or to be a substitute for the immediate and total abolition of slavery.

We fully and unanimously recognize the sovereignty of each State, to legislate exclusively on the subject of the slavery which is tolerated within its limits we concede that Congress, under the present national compact, has no right to interfere with any of the slave States, in relation to this momentous subject:

But we maintain that Congress has a right, and is solemnly bound, to suppress the domestic slave trade between the several States, and to abolish slavery in those portions of our territory which the Constitution has placed under its exclusive jurisdiction.

We also maintain that there are, at the present time, the highest obligations resting upon the people of the free States to remove slavery by moral and political action, as prescribed in the Constitution of the United States. They are now living under a pledge of their tremendous physical force, to fasten the galling fetters of tyranny upon the limbs of millions in the Southern States they are liable to be called at any moment to suppress a general insurrection of the slaves they authorize the slave owner to vote for three-fifths of his slaves as property, and thus enable him to perpetuate his oppression they support a standing army at the South for its protection and they seize the slave, who has escaped into their territories, and send him back to be tortured by an enraged master or a brutal driver. This relation to slavery is criminal, and full of danger: IT MUST BE BROKEN UP.

These are our views and principles – these our designs and measures. With entire confidence in the overruling justice of God, we plant ourselves upon the Declaration of our Independence and the truths of Divine Revelation, as upon the Everlasting Rock.

We shall organize Anti-Slavery Societies, if possible, in every city, town and village in our land.

We shall send forth agents to lift up the voice of remonstrance, of warning, of entreaty, and of rebuke.

We shall circulate, unsparingly and extensively, anti-slavery tracts and periodicals.

We shall enlist the pulpit and the press in the cause of the suffering and the dumb.

We shalt aim at a purification of the churches from all participation in the guilt of slavery.

We shall encourage the labor of freemen rather than that of slaves, by giving a preference to their productions: and

We shall spare no exertions nor means to bring the whole nation to speedy repentance.

Our trust for victory is solely in God. We may be personally defeated, but our principles never. Truth, Justice, Reason, Humanity, must and will gloriously triumph. Already a host is coming up to the help of the Lord against the mighty, and the prospect before us is full of encouragement.

Submitting this Declaration to the candid examination of the people of this country, and of the friends of liberty throughout the world, we hereby affix our signatures to it pledging ourselves that, under the guidance and by the help of Almighty God, we will do all that in us lies, consistently with this Declaration of our principles, to overthrow the most execrable system of slavery that has ever been witnessed upon earth to deliver our land from its deadliest curse to wipe out the foulest stain which rests upon our national escutcheon and to secure to the colored population of the United States, all the rights and privileges which belong to them as men, and as Americans – come what may to our persons, our interests, or our reputation – whether we live to witness the triumph of Liberty, Justice and Humanity, or perish untimely as martyrs in this great, benevolent, and holy cause.

Study Questions

A. How might the shifting demographics of slavery in the United States have contributed to the regional tensions and the escalating rhetoric on the issue? Looking at the prints from the period, what can we conclude about the treatment of southern slaves? How do the various authors view the slave experience how do they view enslaved individuals? What reasons do they offer for ending or supporting slavery?

B. How are the arguments about slavery in this chapter like or unlike those about wage slavery and slavery?

C. How true does President Abraham Lincoln’s remark that both Northerners and Southerners prayed to the same God and read the same Bible appear in light of the very different interpretations of the Bible on the question of slavery, as evidenced here? In what ways are the arguments about eugenics in the twentieth century reminiscent of the arguments in favor of slavery? How might either set of arguments be evaluated in light of the Declaration of Independence? In what ways do the arguments for and against containment of the Soviet Union recall earlier arguments for and against the containment of slavery hinted at by the documents here? How might we evaluate the discussion of African American Civil Rights in the twentieth century light of the texts in this chapter: how have attitudes from the earlier time period remained in force? How have they changed?