Slavery’s Complex Relationship with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence

Slavery’s Complex Relationship with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence

Abraham Lincoln loudly proclaimed, in his oft-quoted Peoria Address on October 16, 1854, “Allow ALL the governed an equal vice in the government, and that, and that only is self-government.” Unfortunately, the proponents of slavery in the 1850s were not so easily convinced. In a nation plagued by heated debate and threats of succession, Lincoln’s words only served to stir the pot of turmoil in a hotly-divided nation. In order to better understand the underpinnings of the national divide, it is necessary to examine the proper relationship between the slavery issue and the Constitution (and Declaration of independence), from both the legal/constitutional and moral perspectives.

This paper will first address the constitutional issues (in terms of the Constitution as it existed in the 1850s) involved in the slavery debate, through examining both the text of the Constitution and the Framer’s intent. Next, I will focus on the both the political and legal arguments made by both slavery-proponents and abolitionists, as seen through their differing opinions on the appropriate structure and function of the federal and state governments. Finally, I will examine some of the moral arguments advanced by each side, and the resulting ethical implications.

The Constitution and Slavery
A. Textual Interpretation
When first looking to the text of the Constitution, as it existed in the 1850s, it is clear that the slave had few—if any—rights. Though there was no mention of slavery by name, Article IV, also known as the Fugitive Slave Clause, mandated that those “held in Service of Labour” that escaped be returned to their owners. As of 1850, the slavery issue was seen primarily as a states’ issue—states retained the power to regulate, or abolish, the slave trade within the realm of their police powers. In terms of the importation of slaves though, Congress banned international slave trade after 1808. Moreover, on a federal level slaves were also considered to count as three-fifths of a person in terms of the electoral college. Thus, in terms of textual rights, slaves were not extended any rights of citizenship, and appear to be considered more in terms of property than people.
Frederick Douglass disagreed with the interpretation that the textually, the Constitution was pro-slavery. He argued that the three-fifths clause actually imposed a “disability” upon slave states since black persons in their states counted as two-fifths less than black persons in free states. This electoral scheme, he insisted, actually “encourages freedom” through acting as a political incentive to slave-holding states. Douglass’ argument, though interesting, has little other supporting textual evidence from the Constitution itself. What is clear from the Constitution and congressional acts of our young nation is that slavery was seen at the time to be a states’ rights issue, only subject to certain regulation from the federal government.

The Declaration of Independence, on the other hand did not address the issue of slavery at all. In fact, the Declaration seems to textually denounce the idea of a distinction between people based upon race when it declares, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The problem being, of course, that the Declaration was never explicitly incorporated into the Constitution. Moreover, slavery proponents would argue that it only applied to those who were considered “men” at the time of its adoption, which clearly did not include slaves, who were property of their “rightful owners.” Though the Declaration could not function as the sole textual basis for the abolitionist argument, Lincoln effectively argued that it—and its declaration of liberty and equality for all—should be viewed as the foundation of our Constitution and our system of governance. As I will address later on, Lincoln saw the Declaration as enunciating important principles that speak to the proper structure of our government.

B. The Intent of the Framers
It is undisputed that many of the Framers of the Constitution were slave-holders themselves. Yet, Lincoln persuasively argued that this did not mean that they saw the Republic as a nation which protected the inherent right to own slaves. Lincoln pointed to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 as proof that the Framers saw slavery as a “necessary” institution that was to die out in succeeding years. The Northwest Ordinance, advocated by Thomas Jefferson (referred to by Lincoln as the “most distinguished politician in our history”), prohibited slavery in new territories as the young Republic began to expand.

Yet, this interpretation was not universally accepted, nor strictly adhered to in succeeding years. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill propelled the issue of the Framer’s intent into direct spotlight. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill proposed to allow some new territories the right to self-determination when it came to the slave issue. Lincoln argued that this was in direct conflict with the intentions of the Framers, as manifest from the adoption some sixty years prior of the Northwest Ordinance. In allowing states the right to self-determination, Lincoln believed that the institution of slavery would be changed from a “necessary” but dying institution into a “scared right.” As Daniel Farber corroborates, Jefferson and others predicted and attempted to facilitate the ultimate extension of slavery through the adoption of the Northwest Ordinance. Lincoln pointed directly to the example of the recently integrated State of Wisconsin in 1848 as the pinnacle of Jefferson’s vision—“the happy home of teeming millions of free, white, prosperous people, and no slave amongst them.”

In effect, pro-slavery advocates tried to divert attention away from Lincoln’s argument regarding the intentions of the Framers, and instead advance arguments regarding the right to self-governance. These proponents saw the “absolute right of local Self Government, or Sovereignty” as the cornerstone upon which the Union was formed. In effect, they ignored the intent of the Framers that was evidenced in the Northwest Ordinance, and instead focused on structural arguments. Yet, even though Lincoln’s assessment of the Framer’s intent may not have been a dispositive issue in the debate at the time, in looking at the relationship between the Constitution and slavery, it should be noted that the Framers did not seek to enshrine the institution of slavery in the cloak of perpetuity.

C. Structure of Government / Right of Self-Governance
As previously addressed, the proponents of slavery in the 1850s consistently trumpeted the rights of the new territories to decide the slavery issue for themselves under the guise of the “right to self-governance.” These proponents focused on the idea of absolute state sovereignty as the foundation for their advocacy of the Missouri Compromise, and later as the basis for the argument that the South had a constitutional right to secede. In the 1870s the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, further contended that the Constitution was effectively a “compact between independent States” that was later breached when Northern states were refusing to return fugitive slaves, and thus justified secession. Thus, the theoretical basis of the South’s secession from the union was premised on a larger argument regarding the structure of the Union.
Here the question arises—did the structure of the Union in the 1850s mandate rigorous adherence to state sovereignty, leaving the plight of the slaves at the mercy of the most discriminatory state? Lincoln said it did not. Lincoln rebutted these arguments in two ways in his speech at Peoria. First, he argued that the doctrine of self-government is absolute and eternal, but must apply to all men. By advocating self-government for only the white man, and the right of the white man to govern the negro, what we are left with “is more than self-government—that is despotism.” Lincoln argued that a fundamental principle of government, as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence, is that the government “deriv[es] their just powers from the consent of the governed.” It follows, Lincoln advanced, the relationship between the “master and slave” is “pro tanto, a total violation of this principle.”

Lincoln recognized, the Constitution in the 1850s did not mandate political or social equality between blacks and whites, but simultaneously, he was certain that it was not consistent with the institution of slavery. Accordingly, he concluded, in advocating the right of absolute self-government, the proponents of slavery were correct—but unbeknownst to them, they actually making an argument in favor of abolition. Thus, even though there were few structural protections in the Constitution in the 1850s, I believe Lincoln persuasively argued that the fundamental principles upon which the Union was built were not consistent with the institution of slavery.

Slavery and Morality
Lincoln contended that in order to support the institution of slavery, one must be willing to view deny the very humanity of the slave—in essence, to resolutely state that the slave is no different than a hog. Lincoln argued that even the most steadfast proponents of slavery still were uncomfortable with the slave trade on some level, as evidence by the general contempt that Southerners had for “slave-dealers.” He explained that, “it is your sense of justice and human sympathy, continually telling you, that the poor negro has some natural right to himself—that those who deny it, and make mere merchandise of him, deserve kicking, contempt and death.” Lincoln held that the very principle of “slavery is founded in the selfishness of man’s nature—opposition to it is his love of justice.” Accordingly, Lincoln believed that the fundamental immorality of slavery would invariably destroy the very fiber of principles upon which America was built. Daniel Farber explains that Southerners took affront to Lincoln’s allegations of immorality. In response, they claimed that the black man was of an “inferior race” and in need of guidance from the “superior race.” Yet, Lincoln stood resolute. In his speech at Peoria he again explained that slavery was inherently opposed to the moral principles upon which the Republic was founded. In his speech, he proclaimed that “we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now from that beginning we have run down to the other declaration, that for SOME men to enslave OTHERS is a ‘scared right of self-government.’ These principles cannot stand together. ”

Moreover, Lincoln thought that the existence of slavery in America threatened the nation’s standing in the international community. Thus, Lincoln it was in America’s best interests—both morally and pragmatically—to abolish the institution of slavery. Lincoln, as only Lincoln could, eloquently summarized, “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it…Let us turn from slavery and from its claims of ‘moral right’…Let us readopt the Declaration of Independence, and with it, the practices, and policy, which harmonize with it.”

The relationship between slavery and the Constitution in the 1850s was a complicated one. Though a compelling argument can be set forth that the Constitution and government did not offer the American slave in 1850 much refuge, they did provide a theoretical basis for emancipation. Through examining the arguments made my Lincoln and his opponents we are able to more clearly see that though the strengths and weaknesses our Constitutional democracy at that time. On the one hand, decentralization of power to the states likely reinforced the institution of slavery for many years. On the other, the principles enunciated in the preamble of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence were able to provide the backbone of the persuasive theoretical arguments offered by Lincoln in favor of emancipation. Thus, it must be acknowledged that the Constitution, paired with our structure of government, served to reinforce the institution of slavery for a time. Thankfully, the genius of this document (along with the Declaration) also provided the tools for slavery’s ultimate and final dismantle.