Of Slavery and the Constitution

Photo by Jen Theodore on Unsplash

Slavery in America was doomed under the Constitution, and the slavocrats knew it.  For more than four score years they had been fighting and steadily losing ground to preserve slavery.  When Abraham Lincoln was elected President, the slavocrats understood that things would not get better for them.  They saw getting out as the only way to continue slavery.

They pushed their states to leave after the election of 1860 not because they disputed the results.  They recognized that Lincoln had been duly elected.  What the slavocrats feared was that under his administration and his support in Congress their ability to preserve slavery would be irreparably eroded and eventually ended.  They sought to exit the Union before that happened.

By necessity, forming a “more perfect union” under the Constitution required compromise to accommodate diverse peoples and experiences.  The miracle of the Founders was to bring all the states in.  Compromise and accommodation are at the heart of a republic. 

There is an art to compromise.  I saw that during the days of the Reagan administration.  President Reagan was a highly principled man, yet he often compromised.  I marveled how, in his compromising, he resisted compromise of principle.  Again and again he advanced his principles while accommodating on details.   

The Founders establishing a Constitution sought to preserve essential principles by which a government of liberty would act.  A key example was the slave trade.  Some vociferously argued for its end.  Slave state representatives argued for the matter to be left to individual states.  The Constitution enshrined the national principle that the slave trade must end.  Placing regulation of trade in general with Congress, the compromise set 1808 for the complete end of the slave trade.

A similarly important example where compromise embraced the principle was the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives.  The number of a state’s representatives was based on population.  Representatives from slave states wanted to count slaves.  Others objected that if your state treats these people as property, then they should not be counted any more than other property.  The principle in the compromise was to recognize the humanity of people held in slavery, but to count a person only as three-fifths for congressional apportionment so long as he was held in slavery, reducing southern congressional representation.

With these two compromises, resting on anti-slavery principles, all the states came into the union, accepting a Constitution that would progressively lead to abolition.  As the reality of that became abundantly clear to the leadership of eleven of the states, they tried to renege on the deal and leave.  The slavocrats failed.  Rather than let the Constitution end slavery peacefully, they forced a horrid war that ended it all the sooner, but at the cost of more than 600,000 dead, greater than the total of Americans killed in both World Wars I and II. 

The power of the principles of the Constitution continued its work.  Amidst a Civil War that, in the words of Lincoln, tested “whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure,” elections were held.  The voters chose liberty and the nation endured.

The American Founders were sober people, sobered by a long and difficult war of Independence followed by several years of economic and social confusion.  They understood that people were flawed and make mistakes.  They believed that people are also good, who can and do make good decisions.  The Constitution on which they established the United States recognizes and is designed to offset the bad and allow good to succeed, which it more often than not does.  

Tested by myriad difficulties and unparalleled prosperity, the Constitution has worked better than any other system of government on earth.  That is why enemies of freedom hate it and why so many people want to come here to live.

About Wayne Abernathy
I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I am the husband of one wife, the father of 5 children, and grandfather of 15 (and counting). In my career I have served on the staff of the U.S. Senate for some 20 years, including as staff director of the Senate Banking Committee. For just over 2 years I was the Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Financial Institutions. Just recently, I retired from the American Bankers Association, where for 15 years I was an Executive Vice President, for financial institutions policy and regulatory affairs. I am most comfortable at home, where I like to read and write.

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