Our Constitution and Trading in Slaves

The Founding Fathers are often called “demi-Gods,” mostly because of the document they produced and signed this week (Sept. 17) in 1787, the U.S. Constitution.

But there is a reason for the “demi.”  They were far from perfect, as evidenced by two shameful provisions in this Constitution  — the fugitive slave clause, which forced northern states to return runaway slaves to their owners in southern states, and Article I, Section 9, Paragraph 1, which extended for eight years, until 1808, the time period in which Congress was forbidden to interfere with the slave trade.

I have written before of the embarrassment our Founders must have felt in protecting slavery in this sacred document, even using the euphemism “Persons” to describe slaves so that they could keep the word “slavery” out of the Constitution (while keeping the institution of slavery in it).

But the language protecting the importation of slaves until 1808 — which meant importing an additional 40,000 slaves into America — is an even more astonishing example of euphemism and obfuscation.  Here the Founders’ embarrassment knew no bounds.

The passage reads:  “The Migration or Importation of such Persons [slaves] as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight … ”

Does anyone think that even one of those 40,000 slaves migrated to America?  Were they like certain birds who, not liking the hot weather in Africa, decided to migrate to the milder temperatures in the slave states of America’s South?

Further, is it not curious that the Founders made the claim that, when they thought it “proper,” they were “admitting” these slaves into their country, as if 40,000 Africans would petition to be let into America so that they could be chained, whipped and worked to death?   And which slaves did the Founders think were not “proper to admit” — other than those who were old, infirm or near death thanks to the horrifying conditions they endured in the slave ships that carried them across the ocean to America?

There is not a more shameful passage in the Constitution, but there is one irony — the inclusion of the seemingly innocuous phrase “as any of the States now existing …”   That suggested that the Founders meant to protect slavery only in those states that existed when the Constitution was signed.   Abe Lincoln would point to that language as proof that the Founders never intended for slavery to spread to the new territories — later the new states — that would enter the Union.

Disagreement on that very point was the main cause of the Civil War — a war that finally ended slavery forever and everywhere in America.