The immediate topic is the several clauses of the Constitution that bear on slavery, and how to interpret them. Those are the barbarous clauses—the clause that distinguishes between “persons” who are “free,” and “persons” who are not, with the latter to be tabulated as three-fifths of the former; the clause mandating that any “person” who is “held to service or labor” in one state and escapes to another state shall be returned; and, among other stipulations, the clause forbidding Congress for 20 years from interfering, except in a small way by taxation, with the “Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit”—which was a delicate reference to the African slave trade.
The clauses were approved at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787, principally on the demand of pro-slavery zealots from the Lower South. And the dispute over how to interpret them began at once, with the pro-slavery zealots taking an expansive view. The clauses, in their interpretation, signified a larger constitutional endorsement of slavery, which rested on respect for slavery’s underlying principle, which was a right to an extreme version of private property, with property deemed to extend to the ownership of human beings.
Wilentz tells us that, after the convention, the pro-slavery zealots launched something of a campaign to sell the world on their interpretation. And the campaign had successes. The leaders of the white South as a whole came to insist on those particular understandings, and Federal judges ended up accepting the interpretation. Eventually the Supreme Court itself agreed and, in the Dred Scottdecision in 1857, imposed a broadly pro-slavery interpretation of the Constitution on America as a whole, and not just on the slave states, as if branding a giant S on America’s forehead.
Nor was it only slavery’s proponents who accepted these views. The intransigents of the abolitionist cause were known as the “immediatists,” and they, too, ended up subscribing to the same interpretation, except in an upside-down version, which led them to reason that, if the Constitution legitimated slavery, slavery must surely delegitimate the Constitution. The immediatists responded by disavowing the Constitution in toto, and disavowing the government that came out of the Constitution, and disavowing the government’s procedures, too, such as voting.
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