Slavery, the American Revolution, and the Constitution
American soldiers served with valor at the battles of Lexington
and Bunker Hill. In November 1775, however, Congress decided
exclude blacks from future enlistment out of a sensitivity to
the opinion of southern slave holders. But Lord Dunmore's promise
of freedom to slaves who enlisted in the British army led Congress
reluctantly to reverse it decision, fearful that black soldiers
might join the redcoats.
Americans played an important role in the revolution. They fought
at Fort Ticonderoga and the Battle of Bunker Hill. A slave helped
row Washington across the Delaware. Altogether, some 5,000 free
blacks and slaves served in the Continental army during the Revolution.
By 1778, many states, including Virginia, granted freedom to slaves
who served in the Revolutionary war.
American Revolution had profound effects on the institution of
slavery. Several thousand slaves won their freedom by serving
on both sides of the War of Independence. As a result of the Revolution,
a surprising number of slaves were manumitted, while thousands
of others freed themselves by running away. In Georgia alone,
5000 slaves, a third of the colony's prewar total, escaped. In
South Carolina, a quarter of the slaves achieved freedom.
the British and the colonists believed that slaves could serve
an important role during the revolution. In April 1775, Lord Dunmore
(1732-1809), the royal governor of Virginia, threatened that he
would proclaim liberty to the slaves and reduce Williamsburg to
ashes if the colonists resorted to force against British authority.
In November, he promised freedom to all slaves belonging to rebels
who would join "His Majesty's Troops...for the more speedily
reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty...."
Some eight hundred slaves joined British forces, some wearing
the emblem "Liberty to the Slaves." The British appeal
to slave unrest outraged slave holders not only in the South
in New York's Hudson Valley. Later, Sir Henry Clinton (1738-1795)
promised protection to all slaves who deserted from the rebels.
Clinton's promise may well have contributed to the collapse of
the British cause in the South. By suggesting that the Revolution
was a war over slavery, he alienated many neutrals and even some
an American diplomat, Silas Deane (1737-1789), hatched a secret
plan to incite slave insurrections in Jamaica. Two South Carolinians,
John Laurens (1754-1782) and his father Henry (1724-1792), persuaded
Congress to unanimously approve a plan to recruit an army of 3000
slave troops in South Carolina and Georgia. The federal government
would compensate the slaves' owners and each black would, at the
end of the war, be emancipated and receive $50. The South Carolina
legislature rejected the plan, scuttling the proposal. In the
end, however, and in contrast to the later Latin American wars
of independence and the U.S. Civil War, neither the British nor
the Americans proved willing to risk a full-scale social revolution
by issuing an emancipation proclamation.
The Constitution and Slavery
the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, Thurgood Marshall,
the first African American to sit on the Supreme Court, said that
the Constitution was "defective from the start." He
point out that the framers had left out a majority of Americans
when they wrote the phrase, "We the People." While some
members of the Constitutional Convention voiced "eloquent
objections" to slavery, Marshall said they "consented
to a document which laid a foundation for the tragic events which
were to follow."
word "slave" does not appear in the Constitution. The
framers consciously avoided the word, recognizing that it would
sully the document. Nevertheless, slavery received important protections
in the Constitution. The notorious Three-fifths clause--which
counted three fifths of the slave population in apportioning representation--gave
the South extra representation in the House and extra votes in
the Electoral College. Thomas Jefferson would have lost the election
of 1800 if not for the Three-fifths compromise. The Constitution
also prohibited Congress from outlawing the Atlantic slave trade
for twenty years. A fugitive slave clause required the return
of runaway slaves to their owners. The Constitution gave the federal
government the power to put down domestic rebellions, including
framers of the Constitution believed that concessions on slavery
were the price for the support of southern delegates for a strong
central government. They were convinced that if the Constitution
restricted the slave trade, South Carolina and Georgia would refuse
to join the Union. But by sidestepping the slavery issue, the
framers left the seeds for future conflict. After the convention
approved the great compromise, Madison wrote: "It seems now
to be pretty well understood that the real difference of interests
lies not between the large and small but between the northern
and southern states. The institution of slavery and its consequences
form the line of discrimination."
the 55 Convention delegates, about 25 owned slaves. Many of
framers harbored moral qualms about slavery. Some, including
Benjamin Franklin (a former slave owner) and Alexander Hamilton
born in a slave colony in the British West Indies) became members
of antislavery societies.
August 21, 1787, a bitter debate broke out over a South Carolina
proposal to prohibit the federal government from regulating the
Atlantic slave trade. Luther Martin of Maryland, a slaveholder,
said that the slave should be subject to federal regulation since
the entire nation would be responsible for suppressing slave revolts.
He also considered the slave trade contrary to America's republican
ideals. "It is inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution,"
he said, "and dishonorable to the American character to have
such a feature in the constitution."
Rutledge of South Carolina responded forcefully. "Religion
and humanity have nothing to do with this question," he insisted.
Unless regulation of the slave trade was left to the states, the
southern-most states "shall not be parties to the union."
A Virginia delegate, George Mason, who owned hundreds of slaves,
spoke out against slavery in ringing terms. "Slavery,"
he said, "discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise
labor when performed by slaves." Slavery also corrupted
slave holders and threatened the country with divine punishment: "Every
master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment
of heaven on a country."
Ellsworth of Connecticut accused slave holders from Maryland
Virginia of hypocrisy. They could afford to oppose the slave
trade, he claimed, because "slaves multiply so fast in Virginia
and Maryland that it is cheaper to raise then import them, whilst
in the sickly rice swamps [of South carolina and Georgia] foreign
supplies are necessary." Ellsworth suggested that ending
the slave trade would benefit slave owners in the Chesapeake
since the demand for slaves in other parts of the South was increase
the price of slaves once the external supply was cut off.
controversy over the Atlantic slave trade was ultimately settled
by compromise. In exchange for a 20-year ban on any restrictions
on the Atlantic slave trade, southern delegates agreed to remove
a clause restricting the national government's power to enact
laws requiring goods to be shipped on American vessels (benefiting
northeastern shipbuilders and sailors). The same day this agreement
was reached, the convention also adopted the fugitive slave clause,
requiring the return of runaway slaves to their owners.
the Constitution a pro-slavery document, as abolitionist William
Lloyd Garrison claimed when he burned the document in 1854
called it "a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell"?
This question still provokes controversy. If the Constitution
temporarily strengthened slavery, it also created a central government
powerful enough to eventually abolish the institution.
Discussion Topic: Did the framers of the Constitution
miss an opportunity to put slavery on the path to eventual extinction?
June 1787, the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of
Slavery - the
world's first antislavery society - asked its president,
Benjamin Franklin, to deliver an anti-slave trade resolution
Convention. The resolution declared: "In vain will be
Americans' Pretentions to a love of liberty or regard for
national character while they share in the profits of a Commerce
that can only be conducted upon Rivers of human tears and
never presented that resolution or any other antislavery materials
to the convention. He explained that he "thought it advisable
to let them lie over for the present."
did send a petition to Congress on behalf of the Society
the abolition of slavery and an end to the slave trade. The
petition, signed on February 3, 1790, asked the first Congress,
then meeting in New York City, to "devise means for
removing the Inconsistency from the Character of the American
People," and to "promote mercy and justice toward
this distressed Race."
petition was denounced by pro-slavery congressmen
and sparked a heated debate in both the House and the Senate.
The Senate took no action on the petition, and the House
referred it to a select committee for further consideration.
The committee claimed that the Constitution restrains
prohibiting the importation or emancipation of slaves until
1808 and then tabled the petition. On April 17, 1790, just
two months later, Franklin died in Philadelphia at the
age of 84.
from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery,
signed by Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvania
February 3, 1790, Records of the United States Senate,
Center for Legislative Archives.
Questions: Speaking Out Against Slavery
Why do you think that antislavery northern delegates like Franklin
were reluctant to speak out openly against slavery at the Constitutional
Why, in contrast, were slave owners, like George Mason of
and Luther Martin of Maryland, more willing to speak out
against the Atlantic slave trade?
Why did delegates feel that they had to placate South Carolina
and Georgia at a time when those states were faced by a serious
military threat from the Spanish in Florida and from the powerful
Creek Indian confederacy?
Additional Activity: Analyzing a Primary Source - Pennsylvania