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Glance now at the earliest Congress under the Constitution. From various quarters came memorials to this body against Slavery. Among these was one from the Abolition Society of Virginia, wherein Slavery is pronounced ‘not only an odious degradation, but an outrageous violation of one of the most essential rights of human nature, and utterly repugnant to the precepts of the Gospel.’ Still another, of a more important character, proceeded from the Abolition Society of Pennsylvania, and was signed by Benjamin Franklin, as President. This venerable man, whose active life had been devoted to the welfare of mankind at home and abroad—who, both as philosopher and statesman, had arrested the admiration of the world—who had ravished the lightning from the skies and the sceptre from the tyrant—who, as a member of the Continental Congress, had set his name to the Declaration of Independence, and, as a member of the National Convention, had again set his name to the Constitution—in whom more, perhaps, than in any other person, was embodied the true spirit of American [132] institutions, at once practical and humane—than whom no one could be more familiar with the purposes and aspirations of the founders—this veteran, eighty-four years of age, within a few months of his death, now appeared by petition at the bar of that Congress, whose powers he had helped to define and establish. This was the last political act of his long life. Listen to the prayer of Franklin:

‘Your memorialists, particularly engaged in attending to the distresses arising from Slavery, believe it to be their indispensable duty to present this subject to your notice. They have observed with real satisfaction that many important and salutary powers are vested in you for promoting the welfare and securing the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States; and as they conceive that these blessings ought rightfully to be administered, without distinction of color to all descriptions of people, so they indulge themselves in the pleasing expectation, that nothing which can be done for the relief of the unhappy objects of their care, will be either omitted or delayed.’ ‘Under these impressions, they earnestly entreat your serious attention to the subject of Slavery; that you would be pleased to countenance the restoration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of Freedom, are degraded into perpetual bondage, and who, amidst the general joy of surrounding freemen, are groaning in servile subjection; that you will promote mercy and justice towards this distressed race, and that you will step to the very verge of the power vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men.’

Important words! in themselves a key-note of the times. From his grave Franklin seems still to call upon Congress to step to the very verge of the powers vested in it to Discourage Slavery; and, in making this prayer, he proclaims the true national policy of the Fathers. Not encouragement but discouragement of Slavery was their rule.

Sir, enough has been said to show the sentiment which, like a vital air, surrounded the National Government as it stepped into being. In the face of this history, and in the absence of any positive sanction, it is absurd to suppose that Slavery, which under the Confederation was merely sectional, was now constituted a national institution. Our fathers did not say with the apostate angel, ‘Evil be thou my good!’ In a different spirit they cried out to Slavery, ‘Get thee behind me, Satan!’

But there is yet another link in the argument. In the discussions which took place in the local conventions on the adoption of the Constitution, a sensitive desire was manifested to surround all persons under the Constitution with additional safeguards. Fears were expressed, from the supposed indefiniteness of some of the powers conceded [133] to the National Government, and also from the absence of a Bill of Rights. Massachusetts, on ratifying the Constitution, proposed a series of amendments, at the head of which was this, characterized by Samuel Adams, in the Convention, as ‘A summary of a Bill of Rights:’

‘That it be explicitly declared, that all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several States, to be by them exercised.’ Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, with minorities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, united in this proposition. In pursuance of these recommendations, the first Congress presented for adoption the following article, which, being ratified by a proper number of States, became part of the Constitution, as the 10th amendment:

‘The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.’

Stronger words could not be employed to limit the power under the Constitution, and to protect the people from all assumptions of the National Government, particularly in derogation of Freedom. Its guardian character commended it to the sagacious mind of Jefferson, who said: ‘I consider the foundation corner-stone of the Constitution of the United States to be laid upon the tenth article of the amendments.’ And Samuel Adams, ever watchful for Freedom, said: ‘It removes a doubt which many have entertained respecting the matter, gives assurance that, if any law made by the Federal Government shall be extended beyond the power granted by the Constitution, and inconsistent with the Constitution of this State, it will be an error, and adjudged by the courts of law to be void.’

Beyond all question, the National Government, ordained by the Constitution, is not general or universal; but special and particular. It is a Government of limited powers. It has no power which is not delegated. Especially is this clear with regard to an institution like Slavery. The Constitution contains no power to make a King or to support kingly rule. With similar reason it may be said, that it contains no power to make a slave, or to support a system of Slavery. The absence of all such power is hardly more clear in one case than in the other. But if there be no such power, all national legislation upholding Slavery must be unconstitutional and void. The stream cannot be higher than the fountain-head. Nay more, nothing can come out of [134] nothing; the stream cannot exist, if there be no springs from which it is fed.

At the risk of repetition, but for the sake of clearness, review now this argument, and gather it together. Considering that Slavery is of such an offensive character that it can find sanction only in ‘positive law,’ and that it has no such ‘positive’ sanction in the Constitution; that the Constitution, according to its Preamble, was ordained ‘to establish justice’ and ‘secure the blessings of liberty;’ that, in the Convention which framed it, and also elsewhere at the time, it was declared not to sanction Slavery; that, according to the Declaration of Independence and the Address of the Continental Congress, the Nation was dedicated to ‘liberty’ and the ‘rights of human nature;’ that, according to the principles of the common law, the Constitution must be interpreted openly, actively, and perpetually, for Freedom; that, according to the decision of the Supreme Court, it acts upon slaves, not as property , but as persons; that, at the first organization of the National Government under Washington, Slavery had no national favor, existed nowhere on the national territory, beneath the national flag, but was openly condemned by the Nation, the Church, the Colleges and Literature of the time; and, finally, that according to an Amendment of the Constitution, the National Government can only exercise powers delegated to it, among which there is none to support Slavery; considering these things, sir, it is impossible to avoid the single conclusion that Slavery is in no respect a national institution, and that the Constitution nowhere upholds property in man.

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