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II. From this general review of the relations of the National Government to Slavery, I pass to the consideration of the true Nature of the provision for the surrender of fugitives from service, embracing an examination of this provision in the Constitution, and especially of the recent act of Congress in pursuance thereof. And here, as I begin this discussion, let me bespeak anew your candor. Not in prejudice, but in the light of history and of reason, let us consider the subject. The way will then be easy and the conclusion certain. Much error arises from the exaggerated importance now attached to this provision, and from the assumptions with regard to its origin and primitive character. It is often asserted that it was suggested by some special difficulty, which had become practically and extensively felt, anterior to the Constitution. But this is one of the myths or fables with which the supporters of Slavery have surrounded their false god. In the Articles of Confederation, while provision is made for the surrender of fugitive criminals, nothing is said of fugitive slaves or servants; and there is no evidence in any quarter, until after the National Convention, of any hardship or solicitude on this account. No previous voice was heard to express desire for any provision on the subject. The story to the contrary is a modern fiction. I put aside as equally fabulous the common saying that this provision was one of the original compromises of the Constitution, and an essential condition of Union. Though sanctioned by eminent judicial [137] opinions, it will be found that this statement has been hastily made, without any support in the records of the Convention, the only authentic evidence of the compromises; nor will it be easy to find any authority for it in any contemporary document, speech, published letter or pamphlet of any kind. It is true that there were compromises at the formation of the Constitution, which were the subject of anxious debate; but this was not of them.

There was a compromise between the small and large States, by which equality was secured to all the States in the Senate. There was another compromise finally carried, under threats from the South, on the motion of a New England member, by which the Slave States were allowed Representatives according to the whole number of free persons, and ‘three-fifths of all other persons,’ thus securing political power on account of their slaves, in consideration that direct taxes should be apportioned in the same way. Direct taxes have been imposed at only four brief intervals. The political power has been constant, and, at this moment, sends twenty-one members to the other House.

There was a third compromise, which cannot be mentioned without shame. It was that hateful bargain by which Congress was restrained until 1808 from the prohibition of the foreign slave trade, thus securing, down to that period, toleration for crime. This was pertinaciously pressed by the South, even to the extent of an absolute restraint on Congress. John Rutledge said: ‘If the Convention thinks North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia will ever agree to this plan [the Federal Constitution] unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is vain. The people of those States will never be such fools as to give up so important an interest.’ Charles Pinckney said: ‘South Carolina can never receive the plan [of the Constitution] if it prohibits the slave trade.’ Charles Cotesworth Pinckney ‘thought himself bound to declare candidly, that he did not think South Carolina would stop her importation of slaves in any short time.’ The effrontery of the slave-masters was matched by the sordidness of the Eastern members, who yielded again. Luther Martin, the eminent member of the Convention, in his contemporary address to the Legislature of Maryland, has described the compromise. ‘I found,’ he says, ‘that the Eastern members, notwithstanding their aversion to slavery, were very willing to indulge the Southern States, at least with a temporary liberty to prosecute the slave trade, provided the Southern States would in their turn gratify them, by laying no restriction on navigation acts.’ The bargain was struck, and at this price the Southern States gained the [138] detestable indulgence. At a subsequent day, Congress branded the slave trade as piracy, and thus, by solemn legislative act, adjudged this compromise to be felonious and wicked.

Such are the three chief original compromises of the Constitution and essential conditions of Union. The case of fugitives from service is not of these. During the Convention, it was not in any way associated with these. Nor is there any evidence, from the records of this body, that the provision on this subject was regarded with any peculiar interest. As its absence from the articles of Confederation had not been the occasion of solicitude or desire, anterior to the National Convention, so it did not enter into any of the original plans of the Constitution. It was introduced tardily, at a late period of the Convention, and with very little and most casual discussion adopted. A few facts will show how utterly unfounded are the recent assumptions.

The National Convention was convoked to meet at Philadelphia, on the second Monday in May, 1787. Several members appeared at this time; but a majority of the States not being represented, those present adjourned from day to day until the 25th, when the Convention was organized by the choice of George Washington, as President. On the 28th, a few brief rules and orders were adopted. On the next day they commenced their great work.

On the same day, Edmund Randolph, of slaveholding Virginia, laid before the Convention a series of sixteen resolutions, containing his plan for the establishment of a New National Government. Here was no allusion to fugitive slaves.

On the same day, Charles Pinckney, of slaveholding South Carolina, laid before the Convention what is called ‘A draft of a Federal Government, to be agreed upon between the free and independent States of America,’ an elaborate paper, marked by considerable minuteness of detail. Here are provisions, borrowed from the Articles of Confederation, securing to citizens of each State equal privileges in the several States; giving faith to the public records of the States; and ordaining the surrender of fugitives from justice. But this draft, though from the flaming guardian of the slave interest, contained no allusion to fugitive slaves.

In the course of the Convention other plans were brought forward on the 15th June a series of eleven propositions by Mr. Patterson, of New Jersey, ‘so as to render the Federal Constitution adequate to the exigencies of Government, and the preservation of the Union;’ on the 18th June, eleven propositions by Mr. Hamilton of New York, ‘containing [139] his ideas of a suitable plan of Government for the United States;’ and on the 19th June, Mr. Randolph's resolutions, originally offered on the 29th May, ‘as altered, amended, and agreed to in Committee of the Whole House.’ On the 26th, twenty-three resolutions, already adopted on different days in the Convention, were referred to a ‘Committee of Detail,’ to be reduced to the form of a Constitution. On the 6th August this Committee reported the finished draft of a Constitution. And yet in all these resolutions, plans and drafts, seven in number, proceeding from eminent members and from able Committees, no allusion was made to fugitive slaves. For three months the Convention was in session, and not a word uttered on this subject.

At last, on the 28th August, as the Convention was drawing to a close, on the consideration of the article providing for the privileges of citizens in different States, we meet the first reference to this matter, in words. worthy of note: ‘Gen. [Charles Cotesworth] Pinckney was not satisfied with it. He seemed to wish some provision should be included in favor of property in slaves.’ But he made no proposition. Unwilling to shock the Convention, and uncertain in his own mind, he only seemed to wish such a provision. In this vague expression of a vague desire, this idea first appeared. In this modest, hesitating phrase is the germ of the audacious, unhesitating Slave Act. Here is the little vapor, which has since swollen, as in the Arabian tale, to the power and dimensions of a giant. The next article under discussion provided for the surrender of fugitives from justice. Mr. Butler and Mr. Charles Pinckney, both from South Carolina, now moved openly to require ‘fugitive slaves and servants to be delivered up like criminals.’ Here was no disguise. With Hamlet it was now said in spirit:

Seems, madam, nay, it is; I know not seems.

But the very boldness of the effort drew attention and opposition. Mr. Wilson, of Pennsylvania, at once objected: ‘This would oblige the Executive of the State to do it at the public expense.’ Mr. Sherman, of Connecticut, ‘saw no more propriety in the public seizing and surrendering a slave or servant, than a horse.’ Under the pressure of these objections, the offensive proposition was quietly withdrawn— never more to be renewed. The article for the surrender of criminals was then adopted. On the next day, 29th August, profiting by the suggestions already made, Mr. Butler moved a proposition—substantially like that now found in the Constitution—not for the surrender of ‘fugitive slaves,’ as originally proposed, but simply of ‘persons held [140] to service,’ which, without debate or opposition of any kind, was unanimously adopted.

Here palpably was no labor of compromise—no adjustment of conflicting interests; nor even any expression of solicitude. The clause finally adopted was vague and faint as the original suggestion. In its natural import it is not applicable to slaves. If supposed by some to be so applicable, it is clear that it was supposed by others to be inapplicable to them. It is now insisted that the term ‘persons held to service’ is an equivalent or synonym for ‘slaves.’ This interpretation is rebuked by an incident, to which reference has been already made, but which will bear repetition. On the 6th September—a little more than one brief week after the clause had been adopted, and when, if it was deemed to be of any significance, it could not have been forgotten—the very word ‘service’ came under debate, and received a fixed meaning. It was unanimously adopted as a substitute for ‘servitude’ in another part of the Constitution, for the reason that it ‘expressed the obligation of free persons,’ while the other expressed ‘the condition of Slaves.’ In the face of this authentic evidence of the sentiments of the Convention, reported by Mr. Madison, it is difficult to see how the term ‘persons held to service ’ can be deemed to express anything beyond ‘the obligations of free persons.’ Thus in the light of calm inquiry, does this exaggerated clause lose its importance.

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