Part I: The Problem

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The Silence on Slavery:
Four part narrative by Philip Nicolosi based on Joseph Ellis’ “The Silence.”
Full version of “The Silence” appears in:
Ellis, Joseph J. Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Vintage, 2002.
Part I: The Problem
On February 11, 1790, 2 Quaker delegations (one from New York and one from Philadelphia)
submitted a petition to the United States House of Representatives calling for the federal government to put an
immediate end to the African slave trade. The petition was disturbing in the fact that it not only interrupted
the debate on Alexander Hamilton’s assumption plan, but it inflamed many from the south.
James Jackson, an outspoken representative from Georgia, rose from his seat and immediately
questioned the merits of the debating the slavery issue. He questioned the Quaker motives behind the petition,
which he saw as a sneaky way of trying to ban slavery. He even called into question their Revolutionary
credentials and their eccentric piety. Without verbally attacking the Quakers, South Carolina representative
William Loughton Smith seconded Jackson’s concerns about the motives, but added that the Constitution
(Article I, section 9 paragraph 1) did not allow the slave trade issue to be addressed until 1808.
James Madison, attempting to play the levelheaded statesman, sought to cool this heated issue by
suggesting that the petition be referred to a committee “as a matter of course” and let it pass quietly. Madison
warned that if Jackson continued to fuss, the issue would get more attention.
Madison’s plans for making the petition vanish met with a serious problem the next day. The
Pennsylvania Abolition Society submitted a petition calling for Congress to not only end the slave trade, but to
put an end to slavery as well. The Pennsylvania Abolitionists cited the fact that the institution of slavery was
incompatible with the values of the American Revolution. They also claimed that Constitution’s “general
welfare” clause and the “necessary and proper” clause could be used to bypass the 1808 restriction. To add to
the problem, this petition could not be buried in committee, as Madison wanted to do with the Quaker
petition, because it contained Ben Franklin’s signature. Due to Franklin’s respected status, the Madison plan
would not work and the previously held “silence” on slavery would need to end.
Part II: The Reaction
Breaking the silence did not take long. James Jackson launched into a speech that cited Biblical
evidence that slavery was “God’s will” and that slavery was an economic necessity for the south. At times,
Jackson even became incomprehensible as his argument became more emotional. Smith also joined the proslavery argument, but steered clear of the religious justifications for slavery. Smith approached the argument
from the economic necessity standpoint, but added that the Constitution was ratified by southerners because it
protected slavery.
Many northerners rose in opposition to Jackson’s Biblical justification of the institution claiming that
slavery was incompatible with Christian beliefs. Many also challenged how slavery could be compatible with
the ideals and values of the American Revolution and republicanism. Elbridge Gerry from Massachusetts tried
to appease the southern delegation by arguing that slavery was the fault of the first settlers, not their generation.
However, Gerry added that the Quaker argument was legitimate, but not feasible. He even derived a dollar
amount that could be used to compensate slave owners for their loss if slaves were to be emancipated. Even
with a low estimate of $10 million, many saw that plan as being nearly impossible and impractical.
The Virginia representatives presented yet another problem with this debate. Virginia, holding the
most slaves, feared that word of this debate would find its way to the slave quarters throughout the south and
lead to slave uprisings. Despite being one of Virginia’s representatives, Madison argued that the Constitution
did not prohibit a discussion on this topic. By a vote of 43-11, the petitions were sent to committee with 7 of
the 11 dissenting votes coming from South Carolina and Georgia.
Part III: The Roots of the Debate:
Why such controversy with these petitions and this debate? The core elements seemed to be the
interpretation of the Constitution and the fulfillment of the Revolutionary ideals embodied in the Declaration
of Independence. Because the Founders never used the word “slavery” in the text of the Constitution, many
believe it to be silent on the issue. The debate at the Convention was not silent – it just wasn’t public. At the
Convention, many delegates from the New England and Mid-Atlantic States believed slavery to be
incompatible with the ideals of the American Revolution and republican values. Some termed slavery an
“odious bargain with sin” and a “curse.” The Deep South, specifically Georgia and South Carolina, argued that
that southern economy made slavery a necessity. Preservation of the institution was essential. Room for
compromise on the subject seemed limited.
Even before the Constitution was ratified, compromise was needed. While the Northwest Ordinance
of 1787 forbade slavery in the Ohio territory, many pro slavery advocates insinuated that it allowed slavery to
exist in the south. At the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, neither side achieved exactly what it
wanted. For example, the 1808 slave trade clause did not immediately end the slave trade as anti-slavery
advocates wanted, but it did leave the door open to ending the slave trade in the future. Pro-slavery supporters
could convince their states that the slave trade could not be touched for 20 years.
Even the ratification debates in many states like Virginia revolved around whether the new
government protected or hampered the institution. With the ratification of the Constitution, the real
compromise on slavery surfaced. Slavery, while inconsistent with republican ideals, was a reality that would
exist side by side with Jefferson’s self-evident truths.
While this debate raged in the House in 1790, the first census was being prepared. The Census of
1790 verified that slavery was, indeed, a sectional issue with an overwhelming number of the slaves living in the
south. Because the census confirmed that the slave population was actually increasing, hopes for slavery dying
a slow death seemed improbable. Because no model for a biracial society existed and no feasible proposals for
gradual emancipation or compensation to slaveholders emerged, emancipation seemed to be an impossible task
for this founding generation.
Part IV: The Solution
On March 8, the committee that addressed the petitions was ready to give its report. James Jackson,
once again, rose to protest. Jackson launched into the most ardent pro-slavery tirade yet. Over two hours
long, his argument would serve as the foundation for the pro-slavery cause for the next 70 years. Citing
evidence from the Bible, Jackson justified slavery on religious grounds. Using examples of Africans enslaving
other Africans, he argued that slavery in the United States was more humane. Stressing economics, Jackson
claimed the south’s economy would fall if slavery did not exist. Jackson even cited Jefferson’s Notes on the State
of Virginia and the problem of what to do with a large newly emancipated slave population. William Loughton
Smith echoed Jackson’s sentiments in his two-hour speech elaborating that the emancipation of slaves could
even lead to the extinction of the white race. With Jackson and Smith, it seemed that the southern delegation’s
dominance on the floor controlled this debate.
Outside the House chambers, an anti-slavery advocate spoke. Ben Franklin’s status as a true
revolutionary, his “been there, done that” persona, and national and international fame gave him the credentials
to not only have the petition issue addressed, but also have the power to critique the responses of the likes of
Jackson and Smith. Because of his age and failing health, Franklin did not address the House of
Representatives in person. In typical Franklin fashion, he went to the press. He published a parody of
Jackson’s speech under the pseudonym Historicus. A powerful critique poking fun at Jackson’s absurd
arguments, the parody reached many northern readers. Franklin’s essay, however, was not published in a
single newspaper south of the Potomac. Three weeks after the publication of this essay, Franklin passed away.
It would take more than Franklin’s writing to put this issue to rest.
On March 23 when the committee report came up for a vote, Madison’s behind the scenes work
would become evident. Feeling that the entire issue was out of hand, many Representatives wanted to table the
report. However, by a vote of 29 to 25, the committee report was accepted. Madison did not object. It was at
this time that Madison essentially did what the Supreme Court was supposed to do – interpret the Constitution.
Because the Supreme Court was a woefully weak branch in 1790, Madison was able to interpret the
Constitution without resistance.
The original report basically applied the 1808 compromise to emancipation. The problem would be
prolonged. Madison apparently wanted to do more than just prolong the problem. The House went into
Committee of the Whole and, with Madison’s guidance, revised the language of the committee report. The
language was changed to drop the tax on the slave trade and to define the role of Congress on emancipation.
The revised language read that Congress shall have “no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves, or
in the treatment of them within any of the states; it [remained] with the several states alone to provide any
regulation therein…” Only the states alone could deal with emancipation. With this revision, Madison and the
House of Representatives interpreted the Constitution and deemed it unconstitutional for Congress to deal
with emancipation. Emancipation was now a state issue. George Washington noted that “the slave business
has at last [been] put to rest and will scarce awake.” The “silence” on slavery was restored.
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