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Slavery, the American Revolution, and the Constitution

African American soldiers served with valor at the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. In November 1775, however, Congress decided to 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.

African 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.

The 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.

Both 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 but 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 loyalists.

Meanwhile, 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

On 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."

The 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 slave insurrections.

The 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."

Of the 55 Convention delegates, about 25 owned slaves. Many of the framers harbored moral qualms about slavery. Some, including Benjamin Franklin (a former slave owner) and Alexander Hamilton (who was born in a slave colony in the British West Indies) became members of antislavery societies.

On 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."

John 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."

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut accused slave holders from Maryland and 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 region, since the demand for slaves in other parts of the South was increase the price of slaves once the external supply was cut off.

The 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.

Was the Constitution a pro-slavery document, as abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison claimed when he burned the document in 1854 and 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?

In 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 to the Constitutional 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 blood."

Franklin 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."

In 1790 Franklin did send a petition to Congress on behalf of the Society asking for 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."

The 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 Congress from 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.

That mankind are all formed by the same Almighty being, alike objects of his Care & equally designed for the enjoyment of Happiness the Christian religion teaches us to believe, & the Political Creed of America fully coincides with the Position. Your memorialists, particularly engaged in attending to the Distresses arising from Slavery believe it is their indispensible Duty to present this Subject to your notice -

Petition from the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, signed by Benjamin Franklin, President of the Pennsylvania Society,
February 3, 1790, Records of the United States Senate, Center for Legislative Archives.

Inquiry Questions: Speaking Out Against Slavery

1. Why do you think that antislavery northern delegates like Franklin were reluctant to speak out openly against slavery at the Constitutional Convention?

2. Why, in contrast, were slave owners, like George Mason of Virginia and Luther Martin of Maryland, more willing to speak out against the Atlantic slave trade?

3. 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 Ends Slavery

 

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