The Issue of Slavery in the American Constitution

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  • 0:01 The Issue of Slavery Itself
  • 0:51 The Drafting of the…
  • 4:36 Amending the Constitution
  • 6:04 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Slavery was a divisive issue in the United States from the beginning. In this lesson, we'll see how debate over slavery directly impacted the drafting and amending of the US Constitution.

The Issue of Slavery Itself

American politician Barry Goldwater once said that, 'Politics and governing demand compromise.' Well, no offense to Barry Goldwater, but in many cases I have found another quote to be true: 'Compromise is the art of neither side getting what they want.' Compromise is important in many situations, but there are times when it must be cautioned against, times when compromise delays action. Such was the case with slavery, the ownership of people as property and one of the most divisive issues in American history from the beginning. American citizens from the 18th century through the 19th century had very strong feelings about slavery, but when it came down to how this would affect the American Constitution, the result was almost always a compromise.

The Drafting of the Constitution

Let's start back at the beginning. By the time that the American colonists were ready to declare independence from Britain, slavery was already a hot topic. Slavery was prevalent in the colonies, but even many slave-owners, like Thomas Jefferson, had to acknowledge that the young nation's maintaining slavery while claiming to be the embodiment of freedom, liberty, and equality was hypocritical. As colonies declared themselves to be states, many abolished slavery in their state constitutions. After the Revolutionary War, many Northern citizens wanted slavery to be abolished on a national scale as well.

The problem was that the Southern states needed slavery in order to maintain their agricultural economy, based around cash crops like tobacco and rice. The Northerners didn't like this, but what could they do? After all, the Southern states were the richest ones in the nation, and economically weak United States really needed the Southern economy to stay afloat. So, the North and South reached a tacit agreement that slavery would remain a state, not a federal, issue. However, members of the constitutional convention began to realize already that this issue would divide the United States. James Madison famously wrote afterwards that the issue of slavery had drawn a line of discrimination across the nation, ideologically dividing the northern and southern states.

Slavery soon popped up again as an important topic when, in 1787, the states decided that they needed a national constitution. While drafting the US Constitution, the issue of slavery appeared three times, although in an effort to keep this mostly a state issue the word slavery is never actually used. The first issue was over population size. The delegates had decided that states would receive representation in the House of Representatives based on their population, and that the number of electoral votes received by each state would be based on population. If slaves were counted towards a state's population, then the Southern states would have much higher populations and therefore more political power. Northerners argued that this was unfair since slaves were not legally treated as free people or allowed to vote. So, they compromised. The Three-Fifths Compromise established that each slave would be counted as 3/5 of a person. That way, the Southern states got to count people in their borders towards their population, but they didn't receive too great of an advantage over the less-populous Northern states.

The next issue to be addressed in the Constitution was the slave trade, the international import and export of slaves. Slavery itself was already deemed to be a state issue, but Northerners wanted to at least ban the slave trade coming from the Caribbean, in the hope of gradually reducing slavery. The compromise reached here was that Congress could ban the international slave trade, but not until the year 1800. This was later extended to 1808, when Congress finally banned the slave trade.

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