The Myth of the Admirable Founders, Part 3

“the Constitution was meant to be, what is has always been esteemed, a compromise between slavery and freedom.”–Wendell Phillips

Before I begin the main part of today’s post, I should explain why I have not given much focus to the founders’ treatment of women and Native Americans. The reason is that while the founders’ behavior in these areas was inexcusable, it was not as incredibly heinous as their behavior when it came to slavery. The main focus of the third part of my series on the Founding Fathers is how the federalists drafted a proslavery Constitution. In Part 2, we learned how George Mason opposed the Constitution partly because he thought it could allow Congress to end slavery. Interestingly, however, some antifederalists in the North actually opposed the Constitution because it supported slavery. Benjamin Workman, a Quaker teacher from Philadelphia, lamented that the Constitution’s “very basis is despotism and slavery.” One part of the Constitution that would be a thorn in the side to abolitionists was Article 4, Section 4, which stipulated that, “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them against Invasion; and on Application of the Legislature, or of the Executive (when the Legislature cannot be convened) against domestic Violence.” Thus, when John Brown tried to start a slave rebellion in Virginia, federal troops were sent in. Yet much more nefarious was Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3, which stated that, “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.” This, in effect, meant that a slave who ran away from, say, Virginia to a free state like Massachusetts or Pennsylvania was required by federal law to be returned their their master. Every runaway slave and every person, black or white, who participated in the Underground Railroad or assisted fugitive slaves in any way—Frederick Douglass, Wendell Phillips, Harriet Tubman, Henry Bowditch, Thomas Wentworth Higginson—was flagrantly violating the Constitution. And they were heroes for doing so. Some pro-Constitution abolitionists tried to argue that this clause only referred to hired laborers who tried to run off without fulfilling their contracts. Yet the text says no such thing. Given the fact that legal slavery existed at the time that the Constitution was drafted, surely the framers would have specified that the clause did not apply to slaves if they did not intend to protect the “peculiar institution.” In the absence of any specific caveat, we must conclude that the framers intended to ensure that both runaway slaves and runaway servants were returned. Furthermore, the clause is written in such a way that, were it not for the Thirteenth Amendment added in 1865, there would be no way to oppose slavery without subverting the Constitution. As if the fugitive slave clause was not clear enough, we have proof of its intention from James Madison himself. John David Smith’s Dictionary of Afro-American Slavery describes how Madison urged Virginians to support the Constitution partly because of its strong support for slavery. The “Father of the Constitution” boasted that the document gave slave masters more security than they had possessed previously, thanks to the fugitive slave clause. In fact, Madison said, the clause was “expressly inserted to enable owners of slaves to reclaim them.” What more damning evidence could anyone ask for? It is no surprise that Wendell Phillips and many other abolitionists hated the Constitution. William Lloyd Garrison publicly burned the document on Independence Day. Largely because of this, they have been hated and demeaned to this day by conservatives. Frederick Douglass, who incorrectly argued that the Constitution was antislavery, is more revered by conservatives for this view than for any of his incredible heroism or his many achievements. Lucas E. Morel from the Claremont Institute writes of Wendell Phillips and John Brown that, “These so-called freedom-lovers sought to free Americans by preaching against the limitations of constitutional self-government and free elections. Bennett admits these and other abolitionists “inflame” public opinion and ‘create contempt’ for the Constitution, but he applauds them for it because of the purity of their motives.” Morel apparently does not respect Phillips’ and Brown’s principled, unpopular stand in favor of immediate emancipation and racial equality. Yet whether anyone likes it or not, the Constitution’s protection for slavery is perhaps more damaging to the reputation of the Founding Fathers than any other historical evidence. Were it not for the Constitution, we might be able to lionize framers like John Adams, who never owned slaves, or Benjamin Franklin, who freed his slaves and became involved in the antislavery movement. Yet every man who endorsed the final draft of the Constitution, from the staunchly proslavery Pierce Butler to the antislavery Benjamin Franklin, bears responsibility for the horrors inflicted on enslaved blacks in America for nearly eighty years after the Constitution was ratified.

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