Slavery and the Constitution

Even the framers of the constitution recognized that slavery was against the values of the American revolution. So why did most of the nation’s founding fathers own slaves? Judge Douglas Ginsburg sheds some light on the subject.

AIRED: 1/24/2020 | 00:03:12
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The Constitution of the United States was a constitution for mainly white men.

Of the 55 delegates at the convention in Philadelphia, almost half of them owned slaves at some point in their lives.

Although many had moral qualms about slavery, few freed their slaves.

Even the Founder who declared, all men are created equal, never freed a single slave in his lifetime.

Jefferson himself writes in the Notes in the State of Virginia that he doesn'''t believe enslaved African Americans to be capable of having art, of having love, of being equal to whites at all.

And so, these beliefs allowed them to dehumanize them.

Yeah, they dehumanized them with this institution.

The vast majority of members, even Southern slave owners, recognized that slavery is incompatible with the values the American Revolution claims to stand for.

It'''s a conundrum: They could write and speak eloquently and with insight about liberty and equality, but they seemed blind to the fact that their slaves were just as freedom-loving as they themselves.

They taught them Christianity, so they understood that their slaves had souls, but they never treated them as fully human.

I don'''t think I'''ll ever understand that.

In the late 18th century, you see Jefferson himself grappling with slavery.

Jefferson calls it a moral depravity.

In one instance, late in life around 1824, he writes that slavery is like having a wolf by the ears, where you see the danger of either holding or letting him go.

Jefferson may have fathered up to six children with his slave Sally Hemings.

Jefferson is so closely associated with America and American democracy and this exceptionalist view that many of us have of our country.

And that'''s why people study him because you can'''t figure him out.

He'''s always a puzzle.

The consensus was A., slavery was wrong, but B., it was going to die out of its own weight.

So the best thing to do, because they were not going to be able to get the deep southern states to go along with anything that would threaten slavery, was to kick the can down the road and let slavery die out on its own.

But the Framers can'''t see down the road.

In just five years, an invention will transform the economics of slavery.

They don'''t foresee the cotton gin.

They don'''t foresee the cotton kingdom.

Two things are true.

And it'''s hard to put them together.

One is that slavery is the epitome of America'''s original sin.

And the other is, if the Framers tried to end it in 1787, the Constitution would have never passed.

The people who were there thought that failing to reach this compromise and actually create this union would have been disastrous.

There never would have been a United States of America.