During the decades preceding the Civil War, abolitionists bitterly debated whether the Constitution was a proslavery or antislavery document. Some opponents of slavery, such as William Lloyd Garrison (1805-1879), attacked the Constitution as a proslavery document on the grounds that it guaranteed that Congress could not interfere with the African slave trade until 1808; failed to recognize free blacks as citizens; provided for the return of fugitive slaves; and counted slaves as three-fifths of white persons in apportioning representation and taxation, and therefore augmented southern strength in the House of Representatives.
Other abolitionists, however, maintained that the Constitution had strong antislavery implications. They pointed to the provision that stated that Congress could not regulate the slave trade until 1808. They argued that this provision gave Congress the power to prohibit the movement of slaves into the territories or new states and after 1808 into the original states. Further, the Constitution did not bar states from closing off the slave trade. Portions of the Constitutional Convention discussion over the slave trade follow.
[August 21.] Mr. L[uther]. Martin [of Md.] proposed to vary article 7, sect. 4 so as to allow a prohibition or tax on the importation of slaves. First, as five slaves are to be counted as three freemen in the apportionment of representatives, such a clause would leave an encouragement to this traffic. Second, slaves [through danger of insurrection] weakened one part of the Union, which the other parts were bound to protect; the privilege of importing them was therefore unreasonable. Third it was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character, to have such a feature in the Constitution.
Mr. [John] Rutledge [of S.C.] did not see how the importation could be encouraged by this section [as now phrased]. He was not apprehensive of insurrections, and would readily exempt other states from the obligation to protect the Southern states against them. Religion and humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is whether the Southern states shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern states consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of slaves, which will increase the commodities of which they will become the carriers.
Mr. [Oliver] Ellsworth [of Conn.] was for leaving the clause as it stands. Let every state import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves. What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the states are the best judges of their particular interest. The old Confederation had not meddled with this point, and he did not see any greater necessity for bringing it within the policy of the new one.
Mr. [Charles C.] Pinckney [of S.C.]. South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave trade. In every proposed extension of the powers of Congress, that state has expressly and watchfully excepted that of meddling with the importation of Negroes. If the states be all left at liberty on this subject, South Carolina may perhaps, by degrees, do of herself what is wished, as Virginia and Maryland already have done....
Mr. [Roger] Sherman [of Conn.] was for leaving the clause as it stands. He disapproved of the slave trade; yet, as the states were now possessed of the right to import slaves, as the public good did not require it to be taken from them, and as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, he thought it best to leave the matter as we find it. He observed that the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the United States, and that the good sense of the several states would probably by degrees complete it....
Col. [George] Mason [of Va.]. This infernal trade originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing states alone, but the whole Union.... Maryland and Virginia, he said, had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling out for slaves for their new lands, and will fill that country with slaves, if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. He lamented that some of our Eastern [Northeastern] brethren had, from a lust of gain, embarked in this nefarious traffic....He held it essential, in every point of view, that the general government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.
Mr. Ellsworth [of Conn.], as he had never owned a slave, could not judge of the effects of slavery on character. He said, however, that it was to be considered in a moral light, we ought to go further, and free those already in the country. As slaves also multiply so fast in Virginia and Maryland that it is cheaper to raise than import them, whilst in the sickly rice swamps foreign supplies are necessary, if we go no further than is urged, we shall be unjust towards South Carolina and Georgia. Let us not intermeddle. As population increases, poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country....
Gen. [Charles C.] Pinckney [of S.C.] declared it to be his firm opinion that if himself and all his colleagues were to sign the Constitution, and use their personal influence, it would be of no avail towards obtaining the assent of their constituents [to a slave-trade prohibition]. South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves. As to Virginia, she will gain by stopping the importations. Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants. It would be unequal to require South Carolina and Georgia to confederate on such unequal terms....He contended that the importation of slaves would be for the interest of the whole Union. The more slaves, the more produce to employ the carrying trade; the more consumption also; and the more of this, the more revenue for the common treasury. He admitted it to be reasonable that slaves should be dutied like other imports; but should consider a rejection of the clause as an exclusion of South Carolina from the Union.
Max Farrand, ed., The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787 (1911), 364-5, 369-72