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Did The Constitution Support Slavery?: The Story of America [Ep. 11]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
October 26, 2023 3:01 am

Did The Constitution Support Slavery?: The Story of America [Ep. 11]

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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October 26, 2023 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, our Constitution is the oldest in the world—but did it outwardly support slavery? Dr. Bill McClay, author of Land of Hope, answers this important question which is as relevant today as it was in the time of the framers.

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Talk to your doctor and visit And we return to Our American Stories. Up next, another installment of our series about us, the Story of America series with Hillsdale College professor and author of the fantastic book, Land of Hope, Dr. Bill McClay. When the framers finished their masterpiece, the Constitution, they knew the impact it would have upon the world. Many thought it would decide the fate of Republican government for all of eternity. But that document wasn't without controversy. Let's get into the story.

Here's Bill McClay. So the Constitution, the handiwork of this secretive convention gathered in Philadelphia in the summer, the hot muggy summer of 1787, was finally completed and signed on September 17, 1787. It's worth stepping back to contemplate what an achievement this was. Without getting into the details of the Constitution, just make one point. We've lived ever since then under the same Constitution, the same set of rules and principles that were being debated and discussed all the way back in the late 1800s.

That's remarkable. We are the oldest Constitution in the world, the oldest functioning Constitution in the world. A lot of people think of America as a young country, in many ways we are, but our Constitution is venerable. It's shown its ability to stand the test of time.

It's taken a licking and keeps on ticking. It says a lot about us that this is the case. To dispense with our Constitution, as occasionally is advocated, is something that would be very, very troubling because it's always been a part of us.

It's always been a part of the way we have lived together. We've altered it, we've amended it, sometimes misunderstood parts of it, but it's there, and we go back to it again and again and again. It's like Scripture in that way. It's a big country. It's become even bigger than it was in 1787. It's got profound differences.

It did then, it does now. That's why the Constitution's framework is so compelling. It's also why, I think, why you don't see the kind of differences that we see in the Constitution. It's also why, I think, why you don't see the kind of soaring language in the Constitution that you do in the Declaration. The Declaration is a beautiful document.

It's a work of literature. The Constitution doesn't have the soaring literary lift of Jefferson's beautiful words. It doesn't make a lofty pronouncement about human nature or high ideals or low ideals. For that matter, it doesn't do that.

It's not what it's for. The Constitution is a different kind of document, more like a rule book. It defines, with a lot of room, it tries to define what the different parts of government did, what they didn't do. But there was, to our eyes and to the eyes of many at the time, one gaping omission, the issue of slavery. Slavery has a long history, and in the New World, the Western Hemisphere, it's, I think, true to say that the existence of slavery has been more the rule than the exception in human history.

It's been, sadly, a part of most developed societies. The pioneers of slavery in Europe were the Spanish and the Portuguese. They got a head start on the colonization of the Western Hemisphere and introduced slavery along with it.

The English followed. In America, slavery was preceded by an institution called indentured servitude, and this was a system of forced labor that in many ways could resemble slavery. An indentured servant would get free passage to the New World in exchange for essentially being like a slave in some instances, not always, but to be, to exist as a coerced form of labor for whatever the term of the indenture was, five years, seven years.

And then at the end of that time, the indenture would be over, the person would be released to be a free person. It was a harsh deal, but it was one way of getting to the New World for people who had no money. Indentured servitude was much more common, and it was actually the form in which coerced labor first really makes its way in America. It's a dismal subject, but at any rate, Africans who came to the British part of North America were treated as indentured servants at first. But as the number of Africans grew, discrimination, according to race, began to show its ugly face. This discrimination, this race prejudice, anti-black racism, hardened over time into the form of laws that were passed by representative assemblies that relegated Africans and their children to the status of permanent slaves, that is, to be chattel slaves, to being the legal property of the slave owners, just the same as a horse, as a house, as land, as farm implements, the same way they were considered property, human beings as property. Economics drove some of this. The demand for agricultural workers grew at the very same time that the flow of white indentured servants from England slowed. And over time, the economy of certain states like Virginia, like South Carolina, became dependent on slaves.

These economies were almost entirely dependent. Over 50 percent of the population of Virginia in the year 1750 was enslaved. In South Carolina, it was 67 percent.

In a city like Charleston, the percentages approached 90 percent. By the time the founders got to Philadelphia in 1787, slavery was a fundamental, inescapable part of the American economy. And yet, slavery stood in clear violation of the fundamental notions of liberty and equality that were enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. The man who wrote that, Thomas Jefferson himself, owned slaves. So did the man who chaired the Constitutional Convention, George Washington. How could these men square their stated claims and loyalty to reverence for our founding documents with these aspects of their own lives? This is a very important question to us today. Are we to look back at the founders with admiration?

And if so, how do we understand that? Historical context has to be taken into account. And you've been listening to Professor Bill Maclay of Hillsdale College tell the story of our Constitution. It's not the oldest country, he pointed out, America, but it is the oldest Constitution, and we've altered it, amended it, but there it is.

We go back to it again and again, Professor Maclay said, like scripture. And then there was slavery, haunting the founders, in some ways haunting us today. Fifty percent of the Virginia population, slaves. Sixty-seven percent of South Carolina, slaves. Ninety percent of the residents of Charleston, slaves.

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Here again is Professor McClay. Each of us is born into a world that we didn't make. We don't make its rules. We don't make its expectations. We don't create its infrastructure.

We're born into it and we make our way in it and through it. These men lived in their times, not ours. And yet there is a contradiction that you can't get away from, that they had stated ideals that were difficult to reconcile with their lives. Now Washington would end up freeing his slaves when he died. Jefferson, who wrote beautifully of the injustice and horror of slavery, disagreed with the practice, to put it mildly, and later came to see it as a sin. He wrote, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.

The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. That's Thomas Jefferson, owner of slaves, a man of his times. Many of the framers, the men who were involved in writing the Constitution, were convinced, sincerely convinced that slavery was on the path to eventual extinction, that it would just disappear. And they also believed that compromise in the short term was necessary to get the Constitution enacted. Roger Sherman, so important in the fashioning of the Great Compromise, said this, I disapprove of the slave trade, yet as the states were now possessed of the right to import slaves, as the public good did not require it to be taken from them, and as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, I think it best to leave the matter as we find it. The abolition of slavery seems to be going on in the U.S., and the good sense of the several states were probably by degrees completed.

I urge on the convention the necessity of dispatching its business. Those are rather cold and antiseptic words, but what Sherman seems to realize is that if the nation were split asunder at its very beginning, that it was chances for success as a nation-state in a world of aggressive nation-states to pursue abolition of slavery in the United States at the time of the Constitutional Convention would be suicidal for the nation's future. Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia had already indicated, and they were not fooling around about it, that it would be the case that if slavery were to be abolished, they wouldn't be a party to the Constitution.

They simply would not sign on. So the United States of America would begin its life as a disunited States of America. So the defenders of slavery prevailed and won concessions to protect slavery. The importation of slaves was extended for another 20 years, and then there could be a vote on the banning of further importation, which did occur and under the administration of President Thomas Jefferson. On the issue of representation, there was the three-fifths compromise, which I think has been misunderstood. It doesn't mean that slaves were to be counted as three-fifths of a human being. The three-fifths compromise came about because there were states that wanted for slaves to be counted at a hundred percent for taxation purposes, that is part of the general population, but zero percent for representation purposes.

So the three-fifths compromise was a way of trying to balance the representation of slaves for both purposes. There's a clause in the Constitution requiring that fugitive slaves, slaves that run away from their masters, that requires those who find the slaves to return them to their masters. This is a protection for slavery, there's no doubt about it. But one of the things that Madison did that I think is very important is he saw to it that the language of the Constitution never mentions the word slavery.

There's no protection for the institution itself. The way he put it was that there would be no property in man underwritten by the Constitution, no property in man. He did not want anything to slip in that would seem to provide a constitutional basis for the existence of slavery as constitutionally guaranteed. So he was leaving the door open for the Constitution to become an entirely anti-slavery document. And as I've said, in 1808, when the grace period ran out, the legal importation of slaves ended.

But slavery not only continued, but it grew. So what do we conclude about this today? Well, I think we conclude that the Constitution was an imperfect document created by imperfect men to deal in the most prudential way possible, the most prudent way possible, with a difficult situation. Many political problems cannot be solved in one swoop.

They can be managed in the short term and steered towards a good long-term goal. Political necessity dictated the internal contradictions of a Constitution that allowed slavery in some areas while permitting it to be forbidden in others. Remember the Northwest Ordinance explicitly aband slavery from the Northwest Territories and the states that would be made up from it. So the stain of slavery, the tragedy of slavery, the moral outrage of slavery would not be eliminated in one swoop. Even in Lincoln's time, Lincoln was not an advocate of immediate abolition.

He felt that the most important thing as the Civil War began was to preserve the Union. So there was an understanding from very early on that if you didn't have a cohesive, coherent, effective Constitution, the liberty that would result from abolition would not matter for much if the nation itself couldn't hold together. So it's wrong to say, and I say this emphatically, it's wrong to say that the nation, the American nation, was founded on slavery.

It's wrong to say that. There are some things that are right about it. It is true the nation was founded with a toleration of the existence of slavery in places where it was already established, was already completely legal. It's easy in retrospect to wish that they had, but I think to think historically about it, you have to come to terms with the fact that there might not have been an American nation at all without the Constitution, without the compromises that made the Constitution possible. And the way that Madison ended up drafting and crafting the text of the Constitution made it clear to no less of an observer than the great black abolitionist Frederick Douglass that the Constitution was a glorious liberty document, a glorious liberty document, a glorious freedom document that did not have a pro-slavery taint to it.

It permitted slavery, it tolerated slavery, but it doesn't endorse slavery. That's, I think, the right way to see it. And a terrific job with the production, editing, and storytelling by our own Monty Montgomery, himself a Hillsdale College graduate. And a special thanks to Hillsdale College professor, Dr. Bill McClay, author of the fantastic book, Land of Hope, and the Young Readers Edition. By the way, our own Greg Hengler reads the Young Readers Edition to his seven daughters every night.

I own the book, You Too Should, Go to Amazon, or the Usual Suspects, Pick Up Land of Hope and the Young Readers Edition. And a special thanks, of course, to Hillsdale College, and they sponsor all of our history stories. It's a terrific place to go and learn about your country. Their online courses are free. They teach all the things that are good and beautiful in life. Go to and listen to their terrific and free online courses.

The Story of America series with Professor Bill McClay, here on Our American Stories. Real sense of independence. You can follow their entire route on a live tracking map. Your teen will get assigned the top-rated drivers. Thank you.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-10-26 04:33:00 / 2023-10-26 04:41:24 / 8

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