previous next

XI. Slavery in the War — Emancipation.

the Federal Constitution was framed in General Convention, and carried in the several State Conventions, by the aid of adroit and politic evasions and reserves on the part of its framers and champions. The existing necessity for a stronger central authority, which had been developed during the painful experiences of our preceding years of independence, were most keenly felt by the mercantile and mechanical or manufacturing classes, who were consequently zealous advocates of a “more perfect Union.” The rural districts, on the other hand, were far less seriously affected by commercial embarrassment and currency dilapidation, and were naturally jealous of a distant and unfamiliar power. Hence the reticence, if not ambiguity, of the text with regard to what has recently been termed “coercion,” or the right of the Federal Government to subdue by arms the forcible resistance of a State, or of several States, to its legitimate authority — a reticence which was imitated by the most prominent advocates of ratification, whether in The Federalist or in the several State Conventions. So with regard to Slavery as well. It is plain that the General Convention would have utterly and instantly prohibited the Foreign Slave-Trade, but for the proclaimed fact that this would insure the rejection of their handiwork by the still slave-hungry States of South Carolina and Georgia, if not of North Carolina also; though Virginia was among the most earnest advocates of the prohibition. Hence, when the State Conventions were assembled to ratify or reject it, with such eminent Revolutionary patriots as Patrick Henry, John Hancock, Samuel Adams, George Clinton, and Luther Martin, leading in the opposition, the clauses affecting Slavery were vigilantly, and not unsuccessfully, scrutinized for grounds of attack — the provision concerning the African Slave-Trade being assailed in some States from the side of Slavery, in others from that of anti-Slavery, with vigor and effect. In the North, these assaults were parried by pointing to the power conferred on Congress to abolish the traffic after twenty years, as so much clear gain: to reject the Constitution would not arrest the traffic now, but would destroy the power to prohibit it hereafter. On the other hand, the Federalists in the Southern Conventions met their adversaries by pointing to the privilege secured to the slave-holders of hunting their fugitive chattels in other States than their own — a privilege hitherto non-existent — and asked them what was to be gained by rejecting that. In fact, the Constitution was essentially a matter of compromise and mutual concession — a proceeding wherein Thrift is apt to gain at the cost of Principle. Perhaps the majority in no State obtained exactly what they wanted, but were satisfied that, on the whole, they were better with the Constitution than without it.

Patrick Henry alone, in opposing

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide Places (automatically extracted)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: