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Slavery and the Constitution

In 1788, the U.S. Constitution was ratified. Today, many think of the Constitution as a document guaranteeing, at least in theory, equality of opportunity to all American citizens, regardless of race. At the time of its implementation, however, the U.S. Constitution featured a number of clauses that directly contradicted this idea.

The U.S. Constitution, as ratified in 1788 …

  • Forbade Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves for the following 20 years.
Obstacles and Opportunities

In 1793, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law to enforce the U.S. Constitution's demand that runaway slaves be returned to their masters; the law permitted those who owned slaves to cross state lines in order to regain physical control of their escaped “property.” Some Northern legislatures passed laws ensuring pursued slaves the right to trial by jury and the right to give testimony in court in these disputes.

  • Mandated that a “person held to service or labor” in one state be “delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor shall be due.”
  • Enacted an uneasy compromise designed to end a long debate over whether to count slaves in population totals that would affect taxes and representation in Congress. Slaves, who had no rights whatsoever under the Constitution, were each counted as three fifths of a person for the purpose of these totals. The clause was the first of a long line of uneasy official compromises between white southerners and white northerners regarding slavery.

Excluded from “We the People”

In short, the American Constitution as initially written and ratified gave enslaved men and women no reason to rejoice in the newly organized nation's founding principles.

As the American Civil Liberties Union has noted in its article “The Birth of the Bill of Rights,” by Ira Glasser, there were chasms of inequality from the very first days of the American Constitutional system. “For the first 78 years after it was ratified,” the ACLU notes,

  • … the Constitution protected slavery and legalized racial subordination. Instead of constitutional rights, slaves were governed by “slave codes” that controlled every aspect of their lives. They had no access to the rule of law; they could not go to court, make contracts, or own any property. They could be whipped, branded, imprisoned without trial, and hanged.
  • —“The Birth of the Bill of Rights,” Visions of Liberty, Ira Glasser, Arcade Publishing, 1991.

End of the American Slave Ship but Not of Slavery

Congress finally put an end to the practice of importing slaves in 1807, with the ban taking effect the following year. However, the choice to make international traffic in human beings illegal did nothing to stem the nation's domestic trade in slaves in states where slavery persisted.

In the North, opposition to slavery was growing louder, thanks in part to the efforts of the Quakers, a pacifist religious group who had fought hard to outlaw slavery on moral grounds in Britain and took the same stand in the United States.


Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to African-American History © 2003 by Melba J. Duncan. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.

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