Review Essay #4
The United States Constitution can be looked at today as a document that was in a way, pro-slavery and anti-slavery. What made this so, was that the Constitution favored ideas such as the Three-Fifths Clause, as well as the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act, which was first established in 1793, gave slave masters the right to retrieve run away slaves. Slave masters could then regain custody of the slave(s) once they had been caught. The Three-Fifths Clause declared that black Americans would only be counted as three-fifths of actual representation compared to the white population. (Hine, p. 97). The Constitution was first brought about through the concerns of wealthy, American men. They believed that the Confederation Congress was not adequately protecting their affairs. Because of the Shay Rebellion that took place in 1787 and the restriction of controlling the western territories, the United States Constitution was born.
Southern slave masters wanted more freedom concerning their property, and parts of the Constitution catered to pro-slavery views. This was at a time where the Transatlantic Slave Trade was being questioned by those who saw slavery as an immoral sin and believed that slavery should be abolished. Unfortunately, southern states had relied too heavily on slavery, as crop production had become quite profitable and more free human labor was needed in order to reach the profits that so many slave masters desired. “Convention delegates from South Carolina and Georgia maintained that their states had an acute labor shortage. They threatened to oppose a central government that could stop their citizens from importing slaves” (Hine, p. 97). In order to avoid any further conflicts, the Confederation Congress made the decision to include a particular portion within the United States Constitution that would prevent Congress from abolishing the slave trade until 1808.
The Constitution also gave the authority to suppress slave rebellions should they occur. However, the Constitution was also anti-slavery in the sense that it alluded to the fact that slaves “were not mere property, but were indeed people” (Boyd, 1995). Going back to the Three-Fifths Clause, it may at first be believed that slaves were only considered as three-fifths of a human being, but they were actually considered only three-fifths of the population when it came to the sense of representation and taxation. Because of this, many southern slave holders were able to gain a solid foothold politically. The good part about the Constitution is that it did not view slaves as property, but as a means of producing profit for plantation owners, which is why the Constitution is viewed as both pro and anti-slavery (Boyd, 1995).
It may seem that the United States Constitution was only pro-slavery, but it appears that although it did give slave holders an upper hand in keeping slavery alive and well in some parts of the country, the Constitution also must be read in such a way as to see that when it was referring to slaves, wording was unique. There is also the fact of dealing with the issue of slavery at that time, in which it had to be approached carefully. Today, it is known that white slave owners were given a specific advantage in keeping slavery thriving in parts of the United States, but it is also important to remember that slavery did not last forever and eventually, slave owners gradually began to lose power over the years and slavery was eventually abolished. Because America is still run under the same Constitution that was created in the late 18th century, Americans can look back and see that although the beginnings of the Constitution did not necessarily have the rights of slaves in mind as Americans, parts of it that have no place in American law today can be looked upon as an important part of history.
Boyd, Susan. “A Look Into the Constitutional Understanding of Slavery.” Ashbrook, Res Publica, 1995, ashbrook.org/publications/respub-v6n1-boyd/.
Hine, D.C., Hine, W.C. & Harrold, S. (2014). African Americans: A Concise History (5th ed. Combined Volume). New York: Pearson.