A Proslavery Constitution?

Nikole Hannah-Jones and other 1619 acolytes have been consistently pushing the idea that the Constitution was a “pro-slavery” document.

This comports to 19th century abolitionist rhetoric led by William Lloyd Garrison. To Garrison and his followers, the Constitution was not only a pro-slavery document, it was a pact with the devil.

You know who didn’t believe this? About 99% of the American public.

The 1619 stooges are advancing a position that most Americans (the vast majority) rejected throughout American history.

But this is now being passed for mainstream legal thought. It’s ridiculous.

On the other side, we have the neoconservatives, libertarians, and some leftists who insist that the Constitution was an anti-slavery document.

They point to Frederick Douglass for this claim. Douglass, of course, credited Lysander Spooner for moving his thought in that direction. Spooner wrote a little book on the Constitution in the 1850s that argued that the Constitution was not only not pro-slavery, it was explicitly anti-slavery.

He relied on natural law and a “loose construction” position to make his point, but this has become the most important argument for American “conservatives” who fear being called bad names by the left.

It’s also incorrect.

The Constitution did contain several “clauses” that would at least seem to support the “proslavery” position: the 3/5 clause, the fugitive slave clause, the 20 year lease on the international slave trade.

Notice, however, that slavery was never mentioned in the text and that slaves were recognized as “persons,” language that explicitly rejects the notion of chattel slavery.

The anti-slavery arguments amount to the fact that the Constitution is mute on the subject and does not have the power to protect slavery. It tolerates it but is not legally in defense of the institution, thus making the Constitution an anti-slavery document. They also point to the Preamble which explains the document was intended to protect “liberty,” a term incompatible with slavery.

Again, this is incorrect.

The Constitution was neither proslavery nor anti-slavery. It was neutral. It allowed slavery as long as the States maintained slavery. In other words, slavery was left up to the constituent members of the Union. Southerners made this point often during ratification. In fact, delegates to the South Carolina ratifying convention worried that the Constitution did not protect slavery, as did George Mason at the Philadelphia Convention.

They were told by proponents of the document that the Constitution did not give the central government the power to interfere with the institution and that was enough to persuade them to support the document.

These friends of the Constitution were correct, but that has more to do with State constitutions than the United States Constitution.

Slavery in the territories was another matter, but even here, proslavery advocates simply wanted the general government to avoid passing antislavery legislation. They said that was unconstitutional. That does not make the document proslavery, but simply neutral. A request for positive slavery legislation would be another matter, and nothing like that happened.

Either way, this is a debate that is so loaded politically that it is difficult to discuss. It shouldn’t be. No one today owned slaves or was a slave. This should simply be a question of historical accuracy, but the left has transformed the issue into a debate over modern race relations. That is unjust.

I discuss the issue in Episode 475 of The Brion McClanahan Show.

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