Slavery In The U. S. Constitution
Abolitionists said the United States Constitution was a slave document created by slave owners. After 50 years of secrecy the deals made behind closed doors were exposed by James Madison’s newly published Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Many of the founding fathers who owned slaves had varying opinions about whether slavery should be abolished. In order to stabilize the nation politically and economically, the first two compromises with human life occurred:
- The 3/5’s Compromise enabled more masters to become lawmakers, even though the 3/5’s of the slave population counted, had no vote or voice in the democracy.
- The Slave Trade Compromise stopped slave imports after 1807 encouraging slave breeding within the United States and slave auctions throughout the south.
Most founding fathers believed slavery would eventually die out. However, they had not foreseen the impact of cotton gin technology which enabled cotton to become the king cash crop of the South. Before the device was created, one slave could pick and clean seeds from a hundred pound sack of field cotton in 100 days. After 1793 a slave could pick 100 pounds a day and pass the sack to another slave hand turning the crank of the new engine to clean quickly the 100 pounds in one day - even faster if the gin was turned by mule or waterpower. The gin constantly needed to be “fed” cotton from the slave field labor planting, weeding, and picking the crop. To increase their profits from sales to British and Northern textile manufacturers, plantation owners needed more slaves and land in order to produce more cotton.
The Industrial Revolution had changed every aspect of American life and the country’s borders spread westward with the addition of the Mexican Cession—opening new cotton fields. To maintain the original Constitutional balance of lawmaking power, Congress continued to play the compromise game in 1820 and 1850 to maintain an equal number of free and slave votes in the Senate (where every state had two votes). The great fear? A majority of free states might amend the Constitution to abolish slavery within the nation at great economic loss to the slave owners and textile manufacturers.
Even before the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the Confederation Congress had been forced to deal with the issue of slavery in the Northwest Territory, northwest of the Ohio River. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 forbade slavery in the territories and states that would be created (Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin). As a concession to the South, the ordinance included a Fugitive Slave Law to ensure runaway slaves would be returned to their owners if caught in the northwest.
In the mid 19th century, many states were rewriting their constitutions in the spirit of progress and reform brought about by the technological and economic changes. Most states eliminated the property requirement for voting and expanded public education to ensure an informed electorate. Political status of women and blacks was discussed, but too much prejudice still existed in most states. Indiana, settled largely by Tennesseans and Kentuckians, included Black Laws in the new state Constitution of 1850-1851.
Indiana’s Black Laws stated:
- No Negro or mulatto shall come into or settle in the state.
- Negro males are not allowed to vote.
- Any contract made with a Negro should be void.
- Any who employed or otherwise encouraged a Negro to remain in Indiana was subject to a fine. (Repealed in 1881)
The Compromise of 1850 necessitated by the Mexican Cession included a harsh new Fugitive Slave Law to appease the southern slave owners once more. It required:
- Return of the runaway property (i.e. the slave).
- Up to six months in jail, and/or up to $1000 fine for those aiding a slave's escape.
- Anyone successfully helping a slave escape could be forced to pay civil damages of up to $1000 to the slave master.
The next crises occurred on 30 May 1854:
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act took effect and the chance for popular sovereignty, or
- “squatters sovereignty”, opened years of guerilla warfare as settlers rushed into Kansas Territory to cast their votes for or against slavery in the soon-to-be state. Worcester’s Eli Thayer, founder of the Oread Institute (a college for women), led the New England Emigrant Aid Society to encourage about 3,000 “Free Soil” settlers to move to Kansas. Free Soilers worked to block the expansion of slavery into the new territories. Reverend Henry Ward Beecher shipped cases of rifles known as “Beecher’s Bibles” to arm the Free Soilers. Ironically, the same year most of the Native Americans in Indiana were forced to move to the Shawnee Reserve in Kansas Territory.
- Meanwhile back in Boston, Anthony Burns, a presser in a tailor shop, was being
- tried as a fugitive slave. Worcester’s Thomas Wentworth Higginson had unsuccessfully led an attempt to rescue Burns. In response, President Franklin Pierce telegraphed the U.S. commission in charge of carrying out the law to insist they enforce the Fugitive Slave Law despite local popular opinion to the contrary. After a three-day trial, Burns was ordered to return to his master in Virginia. At the time the New England Anti-Slavery and New England Woman’s Right Conventions were in session. Little work was accomplished as both groups adjourned to join the fifty thousand spectators lining the streets yelling “Shame!” as Burns was led on board a U.S. revenue cutter to go back to his master.
These events, and others, escalated negative sentiment against U. S. federal law and the Constitution. More time and bloodshed would occur before they would be amended.
Katz, William Loren. Eyewitness: the Negro in American History. New York: Pitman, 1968.
Scudder, Horace E., ed. American Commonwealths: Indiana. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1899.
Sterling, Dorothy. Ahead of Her Time: Abby Kelley and The Politics of Antislavery. New York: W.W. Norton, 1991.
Work Projects Administration. Indiana: A Guide to the Hoosier State. NY: Oxford University Press, 1941.