Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave who later became a model among abolitionists of bold originality, rhetoric and persuasion, called the United States Constitution “the glorious document of liberty.” That was long before the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified, or even proposed.
The original Constitution was part of a larger political drama, the American Founding, which was the largest anti-slavery movement in history.
Discovering the error of slavery
The sad story of human enslavement spans thousands of years and cultures. Few human practices are older or more common than slavery, which is why, over the millennia, few have questioned its moral legitimacy.
At the time of the American founding, slavery existed all over the world. Africans, in particular, were kidnapping and selling their fellow Africans, a total of more than 12 million, as part of the international slave trade, the “Middle Passage” of which was a nightmare hell on Earth on slave ships plying the Atlantic.
Then something amazing happened. The American founders discovered a universal, timeless moral truth: all human beings, everywhere, are “created equal” and possess “certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They proclaimed this truth while the world watched, like a beacon of justice.
Before the ink dried on the Declaration of Independence, American revolutionaries launched a political and cultural movement whose moral rationale required the abolition of slavery. After their outstanding break with the British Empire, and because of their revolutionary principles, increasing numbers of Americans were opening their eyes to the injustice of slavery and demanding its speedy end.
In just over four degrees and seven years, to use the famous Abraham Lincoln Dating at Gettysburg, after a terrible Civil War, Americans formally abolished slavery by constitutional amendment. The free United States we know today is the result of the movement started by the founders and ended by Lincoln.
Glorious Freedom Document
Frederick Douglass recognized that although the Constitution was adopted at a time when slavery was omnipresent and deeply rooted, it was designed for a future free of slavery. Douglas implored the Americans “Read its preamble, and think of its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gate? Is it in the Temple? It is not.”
Douglas noted: “Take the Constitution on its clear reading and I challenge the introduction of a single pro-slavery clause in it.” Instead, the constitution contains “principles and purposes absolutely inimical to the existence of slavery.”
Perhaps nothing reveals more clearly the freedom-oriented and anti-slavery end for which the Constitution was designed than the three clauses relating to slavery: the three-fifths clause (Article One, Section 2), the Import Clause (Article One, Section Two). 9), and the fugitive slave clause (Article IV, Section 2).
During the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, while debating proportional numbers from each state within the House of Representatives, no delegate argued that cattle should be considered part of the state’s population. But there has been much debate about whether slaves should be counted, because everyone knows that slaves are human beings.
The problem was that slave states treated slaves like farm animals. However, the slave states themselves wanted their slaves to be part of their population, because a larger state population would mean more representatives and more power in Congress.
Delegates opposed to slavery suggested that slave states should not be counted at all. If they wanted to count the slaves, some would turn back, free them first, give citizenship, recognize their right to vote and other civil rights, and and then Count them.
This dispute led to the settlement of three-fifths: the slave states could add to the total number of “free persons” three-fifths of “all other persons”, that is, slaves. In countries where there was no slavery, there were only “free people”, and they would all be counted.
The import clause stated that the importation of African slaves could not be prohibited until 1808 (twenty years after the ratification of the Constitution). President Thomas Jefferson signed the Slave Import Prohibition Act in 1807, which went into effect on January 1, 1808.
The requirement for fugitive slaves was another compromise offered under the threat of secession from the slave states. They wanted constitutional protections to recover fugitive slaves who had escaped to the free nations. The stipulation of the fugitive slaves stipulated that protection.
When all nations abolished slavery, and America truly became a land of freedom, there was no need to repeal or amend any of the slavery concessions in the Constitution because each one would become unworkable and irrelevant.
On this Constitution Day 2022, it is good to remember the constitutional insights presented by Frederick Douglass. The constitution was made for a nation born with slavery that would later rejoice in the abolition of slavery in maturity. He was right.