The Debate Over Slavery

The word "slavery" does not appear in the U.S. Constitution, but the document gave indirect sanction to the institution. The delegates to the Continental Congress provided that three-fifths of "all other Persons" would be counted in determining the number of congressmen each state could elect to the House of Representatives. The Constitution then required the return to their owners of fugitive slaves ("persons held to Service or Labour") crossing state lines. And it set the date for ending the slave trade ("the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit") at 1808, 20 years after ratification.

Each of these provisions was hotly debated at the Convention, and each was finally accepted in a spirit of compromise. Even members of Northern antislavery societies, such as Alexander Hamilton, opposed pursuing the issue, arguing that such an effort would irrevocably divide the states and endanger the more urgent goal of a strong national government. Compromise was urged also by such prominent Southerners as George Washington and James Madison, who detested slavery but believed it would disappear once the Union was confirmed.

The moral issue, however, was raised passionately at the Convention on several occasions. Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania denounced slavery as a "nefarious institution, the curse of heaven on the states where it prevailed." He contrasted the prosperity and human dignity of free regions with "the misery and poverty" of slave states. Ironically, the most eloquent attack on slavery at the Convention was voiced by Virginian George Mason, whom Jefferson called "the wisest man of his generation." Slavery, Mason said, "produces the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant.... Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when they see it performed by slaves.... I hold it essential ... that the general government should have the power to prevent the increase of slavery." In the coming years, the abolitionist movement would use the same arguments and bring to bear the same sense of moral outrage; but for the moment the issue of slavery was evaded, both as a word and as a moral challenge. It would ultimately take the tragic conflagration of the Civil War (1861-1865) to end human bondage in the United States and start the country along the difficult path to full racial equality.