The Importance of Getting History Right, Part 4

The Pervasive Myth of Maniacal Racism Among America’s Founders

If I assume the “truth” to be negotiable based on whether or not it serves my agenda, then my agenda has become my “truth.” And the “truth” of the matter is, when I do this I’ve chosen to take a treacherous path through some very deep woods where neither path nor woods exist.
Craig D. Lounsbrough

History as well as life itself is complicated—neither life nor history is an enterprise for those who seek simplicity and consistency.
Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed

Part 3 is available here.

In early 2013, Dr. James Wagner, president of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, wrote an article in the university’s magazine about compromise. In it, he cited the Three-Fifths Compromise at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as a positive example.

One instance of constitutional compromise was the agreement to count three-fifths of the slave population for purposes of state representation in Congress. Southern delegates wanted to count the whole slave population, which would have given the South greater influence over national policy. Northern delegates argued that slaves should not be counted at all, because they had no vote. As the price for achieving the ultimate aim of the Constitution—“to form a more perfect union”—the two sides compromised on this immediate issue of how to count slaves in the new nation. Pragmatic half-victories kept in view the higher aspiration of drawing the country more closely together.

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

A furor erupted. At minimum, President Wagner, unwisely, had praised the Three-Fifths Compromise without sufficiently clarifying or qualifying his statements (even though he offered a more thorough explanation of the background of the compromise than usually is given). Wagner also made a mistake when he used the phrase “to form a more perfect union” as he discussed the decision that gave Southern slave states more political clout than the North initially said they should have. This left a negative impression as well. All of this notwithstanding, history records that the Three-Fifths Compromise was indeed a compromise. Because of it, Southern states’ influence in the House of Representatives was less than their delegates originally wanted.

President Wagner apologized. An update posted Sunday, February 24, 2013 on Emory Magazine’s website carried his statement:

A number of people have raised questions regarding part of my essay in the most recent issue of Emory Magazine.  Certainly, I do not consider slavery anything but heinous, repulsive, repugnant, and inhuman. I should have stated that fact clearly in my essay. I am sorry for the hurt caused by not communicating more clearly my own beliefs. To those hurt or confused by my clumsiness and insensitivity, please forgive me.

On February 23—the day prior—Emory history professor Leslie Harris appeared on NPR News, Weekend Edition, to discuss the issue. Dr. Harris’ full title is associate professor of history and African American Studies. President Wagner already had apologized at this point, but the controversy still was raging. Don Gonyea, the host, interviewed Harris. When he asked Dr. Harris about her reaction when she initially read the president’s article, Harris said,

My first response was that it was a misreading of the three-fifths compromise and of what a successful compromise could be. In addition to the sort of strict historical interpretation of that compromise, the way that popular culture, and particularly African-Americans- see that compromise is that it is a way of counting African-Americans as three-fifths of a person, three-fifths of a human being. So, I knew that even if the historical interpretation of popular culture was wrong, it would strike a very bad chord among African-Americans and among others. I mean, I want to emphasize that this is something that is not an idea that’s simply bound by race. But I knew that in terms of African-Americans, it would be particularly striking that he use that as an example of compromise.

With all due respect to Dr. Harris, she did very little in the interview to help people understand what the Three-Fifths Compromise, and the Three-Fifths Clause, actually did. Here is a history professor who was given a ripe opportunity to open people’s eyes about a widely misunderstood historical matter, yet she bypassed that favorable moment to reinforce perspectives formed largely by emotional impressions shaped in a 21st-century American culture. “Clear thinking,” writes A. J. Hoover, “involves many things, but one of the most important things it involves is learning to control your emotions.”1

This is not to say that President Wagner’s article warranted no criticism. Even so, Dr. Harris could have offered appropriate, constructive criticism while also explaining some of the realities of the world of 1787 and some of the tough challenges confronting the new nation.

I suspect Dr. Harris responded as she did because, apparently, she sees the Three-Fifths Compromise as increasing the South’s power to officially strengthen and maintain slavery. A few moments earlier in the interview, Dr. Harris had said, “[B]y keeping slavery in the Constitution, by protecting slavery through the three-fifths compromise, in fact, we held onto slavery, which ultimately led us into civil war with the bloodiest loss of life.”

This ignores several important and undeniable realities.

  • First, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention had not gathered in Philadelphia to deal with the issue of slavery, but to create a document that would serve as a foundation for the new nation’s government.
  • Second, if delegates from the North had told their Southern counterparts, “We will eliminate slavery in the new nation, and on this issue we will not compromise,” Southern states would have formed their own country with a government that fully sanctioned the practice.
  • Third, it would have been to the slaves’ advantage not to be counted in the census at all (as the North wanted), and to their disadvantage to be fully counted (as the South wanted). Why? Because the larger the population count in a state, the more representatives that state would have in the House of Representatives. Southern delegates were all too eager to fully count slaves, who would not be allowed to vote, to boost the pro-slavery forces in the House.
  • Finally, the Three-Fifths Compromise was a compromise; neither the North nor the South got all it wanted. Specifically, from the perspective of Southern state delegates, the South got fewer representatives than it would have had slaves been numbered one for one. Remember that Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), an African-American whom we studied last week, was born into slavery. He experienced it firsthand. He escaped from bondage and eventually became a national leader and statesman. He also became a staunch defender of the US Constitution. Douglass said of the Three-Fifths Clause, “It is a downright disability laid upon the slaveholding States; one which deprives those States of two-fifths of their natural basis of representation. A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States…[Thus,] taking it at its worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”


It therefore is misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst, to point—directly or indirectly—to the Three-Fifths Compromise as evidence the Framers saw individual slaves or blacks as less than a complete human being. This misconception, even in 2016, is having a devastating effect. As we said in our initial post in this series, “A great deal is at stake here. The belief that the Framers…wanted slavery to continue forever understandably will make it harder for blacks to trust governmental authorities, including police. Yet, if we dig deeper and come to understand many of the relevant historical details, we just might discover truths that can help ease some of today’s racial tensions and conflicts.”

It is misleading at best, and an outright lie at worst, to point—directly or indirectly—to the Three-Fifths Compromise as evidence the Framers saw individual slaves or blacks as less than a complete human being.

Unfortunately, not only does the myth of rabid racism on the part of the Founders persist; it’s also extremely pervasive—especially in the black community. Furthermore, it’s constantly reinforced. For proof, all one needs to do is to conduct an Internet search using the phrase “Black Lives Matter Three-Fifths.” Here is a sampling of the results of such a search, from most recent to earliest. Emphases, reflected in bold face type, have been added.

Warren J. Blumenfeld at The Huffington Post, August 6, 2016

The “founding fathers” of the United States…wrote into the U.S. Constitution the so-called “three-fifths clause” counting enslaved Africans as equivalent to three-fifths of a full human being for census purposes. As we can see, then, black lives certainly did not matter.

S. Davis in an article titled “Black Lives Matter” August 4, 2016

In addition to blacks being owned in this land of the free they had the glory of being counted as three-fifths of a person in the U.S. Constitution of 1787 (Article I, section 2). Over time the clause has been misinterpreted to mean that blacks were counted as three-fifths of a person or three-fifths of a complete citizen of the country—although I clearly see why anyone could make that argument. I won’t even dispute them. The clause was written to count enslaved blacks as three-fifths of their white counterparts for direct representation in Congress. Even with the correct explanation of the clause a simple question of, “Why aren’t all lives equal on a one-to-one basis?” can easily be posed. This is another instance of black lives being devalued.

John Fountain at the Chicago Sun Times, July 22, 2016

All lives matter!

But here in America, “black” life historically has meant less than “white” life—from slavery, to once being deemed by the U.S. Constitution as three-fifths of a person, to Jim Crow. And now, amid the illusion of a post-racial America, comes the declaration: “Black lives matter!”

Kevin Ressler at Lancaster Online, July 19, 2016

In 1776, in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers of this nation declared that “all men are created equal.”

And they did mean only men because women were seen as property and the Constitution made clear that blacks and other nonwhite persons were valued at three-fifths of a man.

Nat Chioke Williams at Funders for Justice, 2015

One of the most blatant and significant political enshrinements of Black lives mattering less than White lives is found in  Article 1, Section 2, Paragraph 3 of the United States Constitution, commonly known as the “three-fifths compromise” that defined the value or worth of those in bondage (largely enslaved Blacks) as only three fifths of free people (almost entirely White).

Paul Street at, June 12, 2015

…another unpleasant historical parallel is with the U.S. Constitution’s notorious Three-Fifths Clause (whereby three-fifths of the South’s slaves population counted towards the congressional representation of the Slave states).

James A. Wynn, Jr. at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, December 4, 2015

Although the word “slave” appeared nowhere in the document, the original Constitution nevertheless accommodated slavery. Indeed, the Constitution based representation in the House of Representatives on the population of “free Persons” and three-fifths “of all other Persons” in each state. In other words, despite the Declaration of Independence’s majestic pronouncement that “all men are created equal,” the original Constitution took a very different view. The 13th Amendment righted that wrong and made clear that black lives do matter, and matter equally.

Todd S. Purdum at Politico, September/October 2015

Civil rights has arguably been the American story, in a country where the Declaration of Independence proclaims that “all men are created equal,” yet the original Constitution counted slaves as three-fifths of a person and denied women the vote. “It is possible to read the history of this country as one long struggle to extend the liberties established in our Constitution to everyone in America,” the late writer Molly Ivins once put it.

Patrisse Cullors at The Washington Post, August 18, 2015

Our relationship to this country as Black folks has been playing the role of currency, property and resource. The three-fifths compromise during the 1787 United States Constitutional Convention was a political debate focused squarely on determining the worth of our humanity for the purposes of taxation and congressional representation. The intrinsic belief that we were property was not up for discussion, rather [what was was (sic) up for discussion was] how much we as property were worth to White men. Our worth has always been in question in this country.  No presidential candidate has ever centered their agenda around the worth of Black lives. We are committed to redefining our worth as Black people and holding our country’s representatives accountable.

Julianne Malvenus, NNPA Columnist, at the Westside Gazette, July 30, 2015

Asserting that Black Lives Matter is to rebut the inherent supposition that Black lives do not matter. Black lives have been devalued since the development of our Constitution when it counted enslaved people as three-fifths of a person. To proclaim that Black Lives Matter is to rebut this constitutional flaw. We still live with the legacy of enslavement, when Black folks were other people’s property. Black folks aren’t property now (unless they are the much-exploited convict laborers), but unequal treatment is not just historical—it still happens. That’s why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important.

Posted by David Love at Atlanta Blackstar, July 22, 2015

The Declaration of Independence declared that “all men are created equal” at a time when Africans were held in bondage.  In that seminal document, “all lives mattered” in theory, or at least on paper, but Black lives really did not matter. In practice, the American experiment has been built on the affirmation of white lives, bolstered by the legal system and reinforced in every corner of society, at the expense of Black lives.  The Constitution made us three-fifths of a person, a part of the badge of slavery that rendered us a criminal element in the eyes of white America, by heredity and in perpetuity.

And Black people find themselves in the same predicament today, viewed as less than human.  Due to white supremacy, we are paid less and die younger, and not unlike the days of slavery and Jim Crow, navigate through life under the constant threat of death.  #BlackLivesMatter is a struggle against the violence Black people face, but it also is an attempt to place the Black narrative on the front burner.

Gary Younge at The Guardian, June 1, 2015

As long as there have been black people in America, the issue of how much black lives matter, and why, has always been contested. Under slavery, you could literally count the value of black life in dollars and cents, while black black [sic] slaves were constitutionally quantified as three fifths of a person. Abolition got rid of the institution but did little to change the rationale that underpinned it.

Professor Everett Hoagland, quoted by Michael Gange at The Herald News, February 26, 2015

Those who participated [in the Black Lives Matter rally] also read the names of people who, according to [rally organizer Benjamin] Evans, died at the hands of police since 1975.

As they recited those names, [Everett] Hoagland [professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and New Bedford’s poet laureate emeritus,] added a name that wasn’t on the list: Morris Pina, a New Bedford man who died in a city police cell in 1990. Pina’s family eventually won a wrongful death suit against the New Bedford Police Department after a multi-year fight, Hoagland said.

“It starts systematically in this country way back in the 1780s, with the Constitution, when in the country African-Americans were considered three-fifths of a human being. Their lives don’t matter as fully as privileged white lives,” Hoagland said.

Khalil Coleman, founder and executive director of the Milwaukee-based Changing Lives Through Literature, and history professor Robert Smith University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, at a Black Lives Matter forum on January 30, 2015, as reported by Media Trackers on February 4, 2015


…[T]he reason why black lives don’t matter in America is because still to this day in the United States Constitution there is a three-fifths clause that says that if you are a black life still to this day in 2015 you are still considered to be three-fifths a person by the United States Constitution.

Smith, a history professor, does not correct Coleman’s error about the three-fifths clause’s still being in effect, nor does he provide any information about the historical context of the clause:

And that in fact what makes us particularly unique as a nation is that we have the capability we have the voices and we have the means and we have the constitutional protection to, to stand up and resist and exercise your right and as brother Khalil mentioned the constitution does include the three-fifths clause…

Robert Parry at, January 26, 2013

The Three-Fifths Compromise was included in Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution counting African-American slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation in Congress. The infamous provision was rescinded by constitutional amendments that ended slavery after the Civil War, ironically pushed by the Republican Party.

Jesse Jackson, Jr., as a US congressman, on the floor of the US House of Representatives, speaking about the reading of the Constitution in the House and objecting to the exclusion of portions that had been superseded by amendments, including the Three-Fifths Clause, in a video uploaded January 6, 2011

To be fair, we should point out that in several of the examples cited above, the writer or speaker acknowledges that the Three-Fifths Clause dealt with representation and taxation. While accurate, this information alone does not give readers and listeners all the information they need to understand that the clause was in no way about individual worth or that not counting slaves at all would have been even more advantageous to them than counting them as the clause directed.

These examples surely represent the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps these writers, speakers, and leaders are taking their cue from Jesse Jackson, Sr., president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition. In 2015 Jackson wrote,

When the Founders wrote the Constitution, Blacks were considered three-fifths human. In a compromise at the constitutional convention, the Constitution was written to allow slave states to count each slave as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of the census and for elections. Slaves couldn’t vote, but they could increase the population and thus the representation of slave states.

The sentence we’ve emphasized in the quote from Rev. Jackson is more than misleading. It is blatantly false, because race wasn’t mentioned in the Constitution at all.

Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan is another possible source for some of the writers and speakers cited above. Even if he isn’t a source, the theme of racism among the Founders is common ground. Before watching this YouTube video of Farrakhan, be forewarned that it contains inappropriate language. Viewer/listener discretion is advised.

The question arises, Why would black leaders, journalists, educators, and others want to perpetuate the myth that the Three-Fifths Clause proves the Founders saw slaves or blacks as less than human? While some who spread this idea may be ignorant of the truth, surely not everyone is. History professors and black leaders, in particular, have no excuses. What are they thinking? We’ll examine this question to some extent next week, but for now, recall with me these words from Walter Williams, a conservative African-American journalist and columnist. We quoted Williams at the end of part 3 of this series. He observed,

Ignorance of our history, coupled with an inability to think critically, has provided considerable ammunition for those who want to divide us in pursuit of their agenda. Their agenda is to undermine the legitimacy of our Constitution in order to gain greater control over our lives. Their main targets are the nation’s youths. The teaching establishment, at our public schools and colleges, is being used to undermine American values.

Remember, there is a great deal at stake when we seek to interpret these historical events. It’s vital that we get them right!


Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Part 5 is available here.


1A. J. Hoover, Don’t You Believe It! Poking Holes in Faulty Logic, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1982), 67.

Top image credit: Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson working on the Declaration of Independence by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, created in 1900


The Importance of Getting History Right, Part 3

Years After the Constitutional Convention of 1787, in the Throes of the Civil War, America’s Leaders Look to the Founders—and the Constitution—to Guide the Nation out of Slavery

It is often said that the Constitution is “a bundle of compromises,” implying that those who wrote the document abandoned principle in favor of cutting eighteenth-century backroom deals whenever possible to protect their own interests.…But the presence of compromise—often simply splitting the difference—does not necessarily prove the principle was thrown by the wayside.…In some cases, accepting compromise might be the wise course in order to preserve principles that might be fully achieved only with the passage of time. Which is to say that any compromise must be understood in light of the larger principles at issue.
Matthew Spalding1

Part 2 is available here.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is “perhaps the most famous speech ever—and it took two minutes.” Yet many do not know the details about the ceremony at which Lincoln spoke. They are worthy of our consideration today. We begin with background information about the two Civil War battles that led up to that ceremony.

Stonewall_Jackson_by_Routzahn,_1862On July 1–3, 1863, Union and Confederate troops engaged in a conflict that resulted in the highest number of casualties of any of the battles of the American Civil War. Fighting occurred in and near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia against Union troops commanded by Major General George Meade. Lee hoped to capitalize on the success Confederate forces had seen at Chancellorsville, in northern Virginia, on April 30–May 6. That victory had come at the cost of heavy casualties, however. Robert_Edward_LeeOn the Confederate side, 10,746 troops were killed or wounded, and on the Union side, 11,368. Significantly for the South, Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson was fatally shot on May 2 by friendly fire at Chancellorsville. Jackson died several days later, on May 10. While Lee was encouraged by the victory at Chancellorsville, Jackson’s death was a severe blow. Lee described the loss as being akin to his losing his right arm.

Following the Battle of Chancellorsville, in the latter part of June, General Lee resolved to go on the offensive, and he led army into south-central Pennsylvania. On Wednesday, 800px-George_G._Meade_StandingJuly 1, the advancing Confederates clashed with the Union’s Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George G. Meade, at the crossroads town of Gettysburg. The next day saw even heavier fighting, as the Confederates attacked the Federals on both left and right. On July 3, Lee ordered an attack by fewer than 15,000 troops on the enemy’s center at Cemetery Ridge. The assault, known as “Pickett’s Charge,” [pictured at the top] managed to pierce the Union lines but eventually failed, at the cost of thousands of rebel casualties, and Lee was forced to withdraw his battered army toward Virginia on July 4.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a turning point in the American Civil War. Combined casualties—the dead and wounded on both sides—numbered from 46,000 to 51,000.

Dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg

Just over four months after the pivotal battle, in a public ceremony on the afternoon of November 19, 1863, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg was dedicated. A month earlier, efforts had begun to relocate the bodies of slain soldiers from the battlefield, where they had been buried initially, to the cemetery. David Wills, representing the committee in charge of the ceremony, invited President Lincoln to speak. Wills wrote, “It is the desire, that, after the Oration, you, as Chief Executive of the nation, formally set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks.”

Edward_Everett_daguerreotype“The oration” was to be delivered by featured speaker Edward Everett. Well known, eloquent, and very articulate, Everett had served in numerous public leadership positions, including governor of Massachusetts, Minister to Great Britain, a US Representative, a US Senator, and US Secretary of State. Lengthy speeches were typical at dedication ceremonies during this time period, and Everett’s speech on this occasion was no exception. He crafted and delivered from memory an oration “full of beautiful language and logic, that explained the significance and the tragedy of the Battle of Gettysburg, the standoff during the Civil War with the most causalities, often [now] thought of as a turning point.” Everett talked for two hours. You can read his complete speech here. The featured speaker concluded with these words.

Surely I would do no injustice to the other noble achievements of the war, which have reflected such honor on both arms of the service, and have entitled the armies and the navy of the United States, their officers and men, to the warmest thanks and the richest rewards which a grateful people can pay. But they, I am sure, will join us in saying, as we bid farewell to the dust of these martyr-heroes, that wheresoever throughout the civilized world the accounts of this great warfare are read, and down to the latest period of recorded time, in the glorious annals of our common country, there will be no brighter page than that which relates The Battles of Gettysburg.

After Everett finished speaking, the Baltimore Glee Club sang a hymn. Then President Lincoln rose and spoke very briefly. Delivering what we now know as his “Gettysburg Address,” the president wasted no time in honing in on the purpose for which the nation had been founded “four score and seven years” earlier: The Founders “brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln highlighted a similar theme as he concluded his brief remarks, challenging his hearers “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”


Lincoln (highlighted in sepia) at Gettysburg. This is one of two confirmed photos of the president on this occasion.

Among those deeply moved by Lincoln’s remarks was Edward Everett himself. The next day, he wrote to the president and said, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

Echoing the Nation’s Founders

In two minutes and with words that we still remember today, Lincoln reunited in Americans’ minds the war effort and the principles upon on the nation had been founded. He reaffirmed “liberty…and…the proposition that all men [—people—] are created equal.” And although the Founders did not use these words in the founding documents, Lincoln upheld their ideal of government “of the people, by the people, [and] for the people.” Eleven months earlier, commensurate with these principles, the president issued the Emancipation Proclamation which, with “a single stroke,…changed the federal legal status of more than 3 million enslaved people in the designated areas of the South from ‘slave’ to ‘free.’”

Meet Frederick Douglass

President Lincoln wasn’t alone in affirming the founding principles of America as the nation moved to end the scourge of slavery, but perhaps no one became a more articulate defender of the US Constitution than  Frederick Douglass.


We present a brief summary of Douglass’s early years here to demonstrate that he knew all about slavery, for he experienced it firsthand. He was no mere observer or bystander. His insights on slavery and racism in relation to the Constitution, therefore, need to be appreciated and heeded in our day. In fact, I believe they need to be rediscovered and showcased for everyone to hear and understand.

Born into Slavery

On a plantation in Talbot County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in February, 1818—we’re uncertain of the exact day—as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. It was rumored that his father was his master, but he was unable to verify the rumor. Young Frederick never knew his mother, for he was separated from her early on, and she died when Frederick was ten. He lived with his maternal grandmother for several years, then at age seven was separated from her.

Frederick was moved several times in during his childhood and finally was sent to Baltimore to serve Hugh and Sophia Auld in that city. Sophia began to teach 12-year old Frederick the alphabet, but Hugh disapproved and eventually convinced his wife slaves ought not to be educated. Fortunately, it was too late! Frederick now knew the alphabet, and he worked to teach himself to read and write. By observing both children and adults and by practicing reading whenever he could, he was able to master these skills. As he read newspapers, books, brochures, the Bible, and other literature, the young man was able to formulate his own perspectives on slavery and other issues. He later said that The Columbian Orator, a textbook for school children published in 1797, heavily influenced his thinking. 

At thirteen, Frederick learned from a white Methodist preacher that God loved him in a personal and life-changing way. Later, Frederick recalled,

He thought that all men, great and small, bond and free, were sinners in the sight of God; that they were by nature rebels against his government; and that they must repent of their sins, and be reconciled to God through Christ.

He also described the change that took place in his own heart.

Though for weeks I was a poor broken-hearted mourner traveling through doubts and fears, I finally found my burden lightened, and my heart relieved. I loved all mankind, slaveholders not excepted, though I abhorred slavery more than ever. I saw the world in a new light and my great concern was to have everybody converted. My desire to learn increased, and especially did I want a thorough acquaintance with the contents of the Bible.

Still a slave, Frederick was sent to work for William Freeland. On Feeeland’s plantation, Frederick taught his fellow slaves to read the New Testament at weekly Sunday Bible study. The class grew to more than 40. Mr. Freeland did not resist Frederick’s effort, but plantation owners nearby became uneasy and even angry over the idea of educating slaves. They raided Frederick’s class and put an end to the Bible and reading lessons the young slave was giving.

In 1833 Frederick turned 15. He was placed under the authority and in the service of Edward Covey, a man with a reputation of treating slaves harshly. Soon Frederick turned 16, and Mr. Covey was using his “slave-breaking” approach against Frederick with abandon. He routinely whipped and beat the teenager, who almost gave up in despair. Frederick began to resist physically, though, and Covey stopped beating him after Frederick overpowered him in a fight.


On several occasions, Frederick attempted to escape to freedom. He was unsuccessful until September 3, 1838. In less than a full day, he made his way to New York City and freedom. Later he would describe the feelings he had when he arrived on free soil. His statement, a portion of which we present below, showcases his expert communication skills.

My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a FREE MAN—one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway. Though dazzled with the wonders which met me on every hand, my thoughts could not be much withdrawn from my strange situation. For the moment, the dreams of my youth and the hopes of my manhood were completely fulfilled. The bonds that had held me to “old master” were broken. No man now had a right to call me his slave or assert mastery over me. I was in the rough and tumble of an outdoor world, to take my chance with the rest of its busy number. I have often been asked how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath and the “quick round of blood,” I lived more in that one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: “I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.” Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.

Anna_Murray-DouglassIn 1837, several months before arriving in New York, Frederick had met a free black woman in Baltimore. Anna Murray captivated his heart. He sent for her after obtaining his freedom, and the two were married just days later, on September 15, 1838. Their marriage would last until her death nearly 44 years later. To avoid being caught, the couple initially used the surname Johnson. Soon they would arrive and settle in New Bedford, Massachusetts and would stay for a while with an abolitionist couple named Nathan and Mary Johnson. It was then they began introducing themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Douglass.

Advocate for Liberty

In 1841, Douglass met William Lloyd Garrison and John A. Collins—two prominent abolitionists—at an anti-slavery convention. Collins suggested Douglass become a paid speaker for the anti-slavery cause, and Douglass agreed to do so for three months. He was so well-received by audiences that the arrangement lasted for four years!

In many speeches, Douglass told of his life as a slave. In 1845 he used those presentations as the starting point for an autobiography of his life. In both America and Europe, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave was wildly popular, but many challenged the idea that a former slave could become such an excellent writer—especially without formal training. According to, “Some thought that the text was a clever counterfeit document produced by abolitionists and passed off as Douglass’s writing. In fact, Douglass was so frequently confronted by such skeptics in the North that he had to finally demonstrate his oratory skills in order to prove his intellectual capacity.” summarizes Douglass’s life as an advocate for freedom this way:

Frederick Douglass (1818-95) was a prominent American abolitionist, author and orator. Born a slave, Douglass escaped at age 20 and went on to become a world-renowned anti-slavery activist. His three autobiographies are considered important works of the slave narrative tradition as well as classics of American autobiography. Douglass’s work as a reformer ranged from his abolitionist activities in the early 1840s to his attacks on Jim Crow and lynching in the 1890s. For 16 years he edited an influential black newspaper and achieved international fame as an inspiring and persuasive speaker and writer. In thousands of speeches and editorials, he levied a powerful indictment against slavery and racism, provided an indomitable voice of hope for his people, embraced antislavery politics and preached his own brand of American ideals.

Defender of the Constitution

Indeed, Douglass was a powerful force for the cause of freedom and liberty for all. Yet we must understand that his “own brand of American ideals” did not represent a departure from the principles the founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. This point is at the heart of this article.

Douglass’s “own brand of American ideals” did not represent a departure from the principles the founders enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution. In fact, it affirmed them.

It was widely known that abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison believed the Constitution upheld and sanctioned slavery in the United States: “Calling the Constitution a ‘covenant with death’ and ‘an agreement with Hell,’ he refused to participate in American electoral politics because to do so meant supporting ‘the pro-slavery, war sanctioning Constitution of the United States.’ Instead, under the slogan ‘No Union with Slaveholders,’ the Garrisonians repeatedly argued for a dissolution of the Union.”

Initially Douglass agreed with these abolitionists because of the compromises on slavery the Framers of the Constitution had forged when they met in 1787. Eventually, though, he studied the matter for himself and was compelled to break with the Garrisonians. He concluded the Constitution actually was an anti-slavery document. In his 1855 autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, Douglass recalled,

[W]hen I escaped from slavery, into contact with a class of abolitionists regarding the constitution as a slaveholding instrument, and finding their views supported by the united and entire history of every department of the government, it is not strange that I assumed the constitution to be just what their interpretation made it. I was bound, not only by their superior knowledge, to take their opinions as the true ones, in respect to the subject, but also because I had no means of showing their unsoundness. But for the responsibility of conducting a public journal, and the necessity imposed upon me of meeting opposite views from abolitionists in this state, I should in all probability have remained as firm in my disunion views as any other disciple of William Lloyd Garrison.

My new circumstances compelled me to re-think the whole subject, and to study, with some care, not only the just and proper rules of legal interpretation, but the origin, design, nature, rights, powers, and duties of civil government, and also the relations which human beings sustain to it. By such a course of thought and reading, I was conducted to the conclusion that the constitution of the United States—inaugurated “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessing of liberty”—could not well have been designed at the same time to maintain and perpetuate a system of rapine and murder, like slavery; especially, as not one word can be found in the constitution to authorize such a belief. Then, again, if the declared purposes of an instrument are to govern the meaning of all its parts and details, as they clearly should, the constitution of our country is our warrant for the abolition of slavery in every state in the American Union.

Historian David Barton recounts Douglass’s quest and affirms his conclusions.

As we have seen, Douglass understood a great deal more than the background behind the Three-Fifths Clause; he understood the Constitution as a whole, and he sought to make his findings known to all Americans. Here are a few more of his insights.

  • Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single pro-slavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.
  • Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered. It was purposely so framed as to give no claim, no sanction to the claim, of property in man. If in its origin slavery had any relation to the government, it was only as the scaffolding to the magnificent structure, to be removed as soon as the building was completed.
  • The Constitution of the United States knows no distinction between citizens on account of color. Neither does it know any difference between a citizen of a state and a citizen of the United States.
  • Interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the constitution is a Glorious Liberty Document!
  • There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.

Frederick Douglass’s Legacy

As this last statement from Frederick Douglass attests, Americans have not always lived up to the principles upon which their country was founded or to the US Constitution. Dr. Martin Luther King said as much at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963 in his famous “I Have a Dream” speech:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note, insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

What If?

While Dr. King was right to point out that white Americans had failed to treat blacks as their equals, he also was right in echoing Frederick Douglass’s confidence in the Founders of America and in the Constitution they drafted. The principles on which this country was founded and the US Constitution continue to pull us back to our obligation to fulfill the promise to let every individual, regardless of race, live as a free individual in an ordered society. It’s true that a great Civil War should not have had to occur to end slavery; and it’s equally true that blacks should not have had to endure the struggles they faced during the Civil Rights era just to be treated fairly. Yet it is not true that slaves automatically would have been better off if the anti-slavery delegates at the Constitutional Convention had drawn a line in the sand and refused to budge on the issue of slavery. Progressives are wont to imply anti-slavery delegates at the convention ought to be blamed for allowing slavery to continue because they did not give the pro-slavery delegates an ultimatum. Walter Williams writes,


A question that we might ask those academic hustlers who use slavery to attack and criticize the legitimacy of our founding is: Would black Americans, yesteryear and today, have been better off if the Constitution had not been ratified—with the Northern states having gone their way and the Southern states having gone theirs—and, as a consequence, no union had been created? I think not.

It is clear that like Mr. Williams, Frederick Douglass keenly understood that preservation of the Union under the provisions of the Constitution eventually would make slaves infinitely better off. With freedom they were afforded equality and rights, at least as far as the founding documents were concerned. And there was no better place to start than with the founding principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—the supreme law of the land.

Preservation of the Union under the provisions of the Constitution eventually would make slaves infinitely better off. 

This video not only provides a review of our excursion into history in this series thus far; it also helps us understand the harsh realities the Framers knew they would face if the colonies, now independent states, did not remain united.2

I conclude with these additional insights from Walter Williams.

Ignorance of our history, coupled with an inability to think critically, has provided considerable ammunition for those who want to divide us in pursuit of their agenda. Their agenda is to undermine the legitimacy of our Constitution in order to gain greater control over our lives. Their main targets are the nation’s youths. The teaching establishment, at our public schools and colleges, is being used to undermine American values.

To counter this misinformation, we must teach our children and their peers the truth about leaders who understood both the value and the price of authentic liberty.

Men like Frederick Douglass.



Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Part 4 is available here.


1Matthew Spalding, We Still Hold These Truths: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future, (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2009), 130.

2I noticed one error in this presentation. At 6 minutes, 50 seconds in, the host of the program, Dan Willoughby, states, “Two provisions were put into the Constitution that might lend a hand to the abolitionists’ cause. First was a clause that would not allow slave importation into the states after a period of 20 years, and the other tied federal taxation to population in the same way representation was linked.” The underlined portion is not entirely correct. While the Slave Trade Clause prohibited Congress from ending the slave trade until 1808 (and permitted it to do so as of January 1 of that year), the clause itself did not end it, nor did it require Congress to end it. On March 2, 1807, Congress passed, and president Jefferson signed into law, a provision to end the trade effective January 1, 1808.

Links to websites are provided for information purposes only. No citation should be construed as an endorsement.





The Importance of Getting History Right, Part 2

Examining the Evidence: Do Racist and Pro-Slavery Elements Exist in the Constitution of 1787?

I do not expect to get near the worth of him; but cannot think of punishing him by transportation merely for coveting that liberty for which we have paid the price of so much blood, and have proclaimed so often to be the right, & worthy the pursuit, of every human being.
James Madison, a Founding Father and a slaveholder, in a letter to his father, obviously troubled about the institution of slavery as he explained he would have to sell the slave who had been accompanying him—

Man is either governed by his own laws—freedom—or the laws of another—slavery. Are you willing to become slaves? Will you give up your freedom, your life and your property without a single struggle? No man has a right to rule over his fellow creatures.
Alexander Hamilton, a Founding Father and a non-slaveholder

Part 1 is available here.

On May 25, 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention began their deliberations. Charged with crafting a governing document for the then 11-year old nation, they knew the task before them would be formidable. They met at the Pennsylvania State House, which later became known as Independence Hall. The Convention lasted from May 25 to September 17, 1787. The delegates from the states talked, shared ideas, argued, debated, compromised, and in the end were able to draft a document that, indeed, would serve as the foundation for governing a stable and free nation for more than two hundred years. The US Constitution is “the oldest written constitution still in use today.”


Much has been written about the compromises forged during those hot months in Philadelphia in 1787. Probably no issue was more contentious than slavery. In the end, the Constitution that emerged permitted it—but did it condone it? This and numerous other related questions are at the heart of this post.

Last time, we considered one of the compromises relating to slavery—the Three-Fifths Clause. This week we’ll give further consideration to this clause and will examine two others. We’ll also discuss other issues relating to slavery in the United States in the late eighteenth century and the delegates’ perspectives on the institution’s future. Fasten your seat belts! Here goes!

The Three-Fifths Clause read

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.

(Read the clause in context here.)


To determine the number of representatives a state would have in the House of Representatives, as well as the amount of money a state would pay in taxes to the federal government, the population of that state (and of every other state) had to be determined. The Three-Fifths Clause established that this number would be derived by adding

  • the total number of free persons in a state, plus
  • the total number servants who performed their duties on a contract basis, plus
  • three-fifths of “all other persons.”

Indians, who were not taxed, were excluded entirely from the count. Nor were their number reflected in a state’s representation in the House.

The phrase “all other persons” was a reference to slaves. The fact that the Three-Fifths Clause mentions other classes of people specifically—free individuals, bondservants, and Indians—and does not explicitly mention slaves “proves the reluctance of the Founders to include slavery in the Constitution.” More on this a bit later.

Delegates from the South wanted to include slaves in their states’ population counts to strengthen their influence in the House of Representatives, but delegates from the North wanted slaves not to be counted at all, to minimize Southern states’ influence in the House. The two sides compromised; each state’s population number included three-fifths of its slaves.


Slaves in 17th-century Virginia working the tobacco crop


The delegates to the Constitutional Convention addressed other issues related to slavery as well. Near the end of the Convention, the Framers dealt with the issue of fugitive slaves, although, again, they avoided using the word “slave” or “slaves” in the resulting provision. States that permitted slavery

wanted other states to return escaped slaves. The Articles of Confederation had not guaranteed this. But when Congress adopted the Northwest Ordinance [on July 13 of 1787], it [included] a clause promising that slaves who escaped to the Northwest Territories would be returned to their owners. The delegates placed a similar fugitive slave clause in the Constitution. This was part of a deal with New England states. In exchange for the fugitive slave clause, the New England states got concessions on shipping and trade.


The clause read:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

(Read the clause in context here.)

The Heritage Foundation’s Matthew Spalding explains,

In Dred Scott v. Sandford [decided on March 6, 1957], Chief Justice Roger B. Taney attempted to use this clause, along with the so-called Slave Trade Clause (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1), as evidence that slaves were not citizens but were to be considered property according to the Constitution. By this clause, Taney argued, “the States pledge themselves to each other to maintain the right of property of the master, by delivering up to him any slave who may have escaped from his service.”

The more generally accepted interpretation, however, is that this clause did not speak to the issue of citizenship at all, but was a necessary accommodation to existing slavery interests in particular states, required for the sake of establishing the Constitution…. This point is underscored by the fact that, although slavery was abolished by constitutional amendment (see the Thirteenth Amendment), not one word of the original text had to be amended or deleted.


Delegates also dealt with the slave trade. Earlier in their deliberations—even before hammering out the Fugitive Slave Clause—the Framers had agreed “that Congress would not be able to prohibit the importation of slaves before 1808,” but that it could levy taxes on such importation. Article I, section 9 carried this provision. Here is the wording.

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

(Read the clause in context here.)

You may remember that this 20-year reprieve for the slave trade was mentioned in this quote at the end of last week’s article1: “Sadly, the new nation’s founding document sanctioned slavery: at the insistence of Southern states, the Constitution specifically prohibited Congress from passing any laws that abolished or restricted the slave trade until 1808.”2  Actually, it wasn’t entirely true that Congress had no way to restrict the trade, since the Slave Trade Clause permitted Congress to tax “such Importation” in the amount of up to “ten dollars for each Person.” Taxation certainly can be considered a form of restriction.


Still, putting this point aside for the moment, we are prompted to ask, Does the Constitution’s slave trade provision, as well as the other clauses addressing slavery, really indicate that “the new nation’s founding document sanctioned” it?

Did the Framers of the Constitution and the document they produced really sanction slavery?

It isn’t hard to find articles on the Internet that make the case that they did. Here is a small sampling of quotes.

Despite these perspectives, as we said last week, the fact that slavery continued in America for many years beyond the ratification of the Constitution may not tell the whole story. To find out more, we need to reach beyond a surface understanding of what happened in Philadelphia in 1787.


The founders were born into a world where slavery was a part of the fabric of life. The evil of slavery came to America nearly 200 years before the Founders lived, so they cannot be held responsible for introducing it to America. While some of the Founders indeed were slaveholders, not all were, and many—even some of those who owned slaves—were troubled by the injustices of the institution. (Consider the James Madison quote cited at the top.) In fact, a majority opposed it: “It is clear that all but a tiny few of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention morally disapproved of slavery.”3 Some expressed their opposition in more than words; John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, and Benjamin Franklin lent their support to the growing effort to end the practice.

John Jay became the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. He observed that before the American Revolution and the establishment of a stable government for the independent states, very little had been done to pry the institution of slavery from American life.


John Jay

It’s significant that in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson included this grievance against King George III.

He [the King] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people, who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

This item was replaced in the final draft of the Declaration: “Decades later Jefferson blamed the removal of the passage on delegates from South Carolina and Georgia and Northern delegates who represented merchants who were at the time actively involved in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade.” Still, it reflects a perspective on slavery that was quite evident among numerous delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

Many would call some of the Founders hypocrites for owning slaves, and they might even call all of them hypocrites for upholding the ideals of equality and liberty for everyone without working harder to eliminate the glaring evil around them. While I recognize the tension between belief and practice, I also believe we need to appreciate the Framers’ opposition to slavery in a world where the institution was a part of the normal course of life.

Prying away an institution from the fabric of society and getting rid of it is a process, not an overnight event. The same can be said of certain personal bad habits, as well.

Prying away an institution from the fabric of society and getting rid of it is a process, not an overnight event. (The same can be said of certain bad personal habits, as well.) Moreover, while eliminating slavery and the slave trade was a concern at the Constitutional Convention, it wasn’t the core purpose for which the delegates had gathered. We need to appreciate their efforts to at least forge a Constitution that, on balance, would not hinder anti-slavery efforts—one that even could pave the way for slavery’s demise.


It’s true that the Constitution of 1787 did not immediately terminate slavery in the United States, and it even allowed it to continue for the time being—but did it did not endorse slavery, either. For one thing, “not a word of the Constitution would have to be changed if the states continued to emancipate the slaves on their own.”4

There’s even more evidence along these lines. Let’s take a look. The evidence falls into several different categories, some of which we’ve already discussed. 

(Read the clause in context here.)

Consider these points:

First, any state genuinely interested in increasing its influence in the House of Representatives and in the electoral college could bolster it because of the Three-Fifths Clause. States that freed their slaves would increase their political strength; former slaves—individuals who now were free—would be fully counted.

Second, progressives can write and talk forever about how the Three-Fifths Clause strengthened the South’s representation in the House of Representatives and how it thus enhanced its ability to preserve slavery. One writer says outright, “The three-fifths compromise increased the South’s representation in Congress and the Electoral College.” (Go here for another example).

Here’s the problem. Their point is valid only if the representation afforded the South by the Three-Fifths Clause is contrasted to what the slave states’ influence would have been had slaves not been numbered in population counts at all, as delegates from the North had wished. The Three-Fifths Compromise saddled the states in the South with a weaker presence in the House of Representatives than they wanted. Gary DeMar writes,

If none of the slaves had been included in the population count for representation, as Northern delegates wanted, the slave states would have had only 41 percent of the seats in the House. If all the slaves had been included, as the pro-slave states wanted, the slave states would have had 50 percent of the seats. By agreeing to count slaves as three-fifths of a person for representation purposes, the slaveholding states ended up with a minority voting position—47 percent.

For another balanced assessment, go here.

Third, While the phrase “all other Persons” refers to slaves, it is noteworthy that their race is not mentioned. Free blacks—“and there were many, North as well as South”—were considered to be, and were numbered as, “free Persons.” Michael Sabo writes,

Nowhere does the Declaration or the Constitution, for that matter, classify human beings according to the color of their skin.

Far from the principle of equality being a product of racism, it actually struck at the heart of slavery. By making equality the defining principle of the nation, the Founders hoped to put slavery on the course of its ultimate extinction.

While some of the Founders held slaves, they knew that blacks were human beings.

In a rough draft of the Declaration, Jefferson charged King George III with waging “cruel war against human nature itself” by keeping “open a market where men should be bought & sold.” [Earlier we cited the larger quote of which these phrases are a part.] By calling slaves men, Jefferson clearly recognized their humanity.

Not only did the Founders think that blacks were human beings, but they also acknowledged the wrongness of slavery in principle.

The Constitution—and, for that matter, the Declaration of Independence—are not racist documents.

Fourth, the three-fifths formula was not pulled out of thin air. Here’s the background.

It was derived from a mechanism adopted in 1783 to apportion requisitions (the national government’s only revenue source under the Articles of Confederation) among the states. That rule was intended to provide rough equality between the North and the South, and when the idea first appeared at the Convention, no one suggested that another fraction would be more appropriate. 

(Read the clause in context here.)


Eastman Johnson, A Ride for Liberty—The Fugitive Slaves, painted about 1862

People need to know the background of the final draft of this provision. The clause ensured

the return upon claim of any “Person held to Service or Labour” in one state who had escaped to another state. At the last minute, the phrase “Person legally held to Service or Labour in one state” was amended to read “Person held to Service or Labour in one state, under the Laws thereof.” This revision emphasized that slaves were held according to the laws of individual states and, as the historian Don Fehrenbacher has noted, “made it impossible to infer from the passage that the Constitution itself legally sanctioned slavery.” Indeed, none of these clauses recognized slavery as having any legitimacy from the point of view of federal law.

The wording of the Fugitive Slave Clause was carefully crafted to make it clear that slaveholding states—not the federal government—authorized slavery.

(Read the clause in context here.)

Consider these points.

First, however terrible the 20-year reprieve for the slave trade was, it had a benefit; it established a date when Congress could act to end it. You may know that the Federalist Papers were written by several of America’s Founders to promote the ratification of the Constitution. In Federalist #38 James Madison defended this stipulation with these words: “Is the importation of slaves permitted by the new Constitution for twenty years? By the old [the Articles of Confederation], it is permitted forever.”

Matthew Spalding writes, “Although protection of the slave trade was a major concession demanded by pro-slavery delegates, the final clause was only a temporary exemption from a recognized federal power for the existing states.” Furthermore, while it was true that the provision did not require Congress to pass legislation eliminating the slave trade in 1808 but permitted it to do so, on March 2, 1807, Congress did just that, and President Thomas Jefferson signed it into law. The act took effect on January 1, 1808.

Second, while the constitutional restriction prohibited Congress from eliminating the slave trade for a 20-year period, individual states were free to put an end to the trade, and many already had.

Third, we should note that the final version of this guideline “limits the Congressional prohibition to the existing States thus inviting the future restriction of slavery in the territories. In this regard, it is important to note that the Confederation Congress restricted slavery in the Northwest Territories in exchange for the return of fugitive slaves. The delegates adopt this Ordinance solution as part of Article IV.” This provision read, “The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.” See Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2 in context.


Consider these points.

First, it is noteworthy

that the words “slave” and “slavery” were kept out of the Constitution. Madison recorded in his notes that the delegates “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” This seemingly minor distinction of insisting on the use of the word “person” rather than “property” was not a euphemism to hide the hypocrisy of slavery but was of the utmost importance. Madison explained this in Federalist No. 54:


But we must deny the fact, that slaves are considered merely as property, and in no respect whatever as persons. The true state of the case is, that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property. In being compelled to labor, not for himself, but for a master; in being vendible by one master to another master; and in being subject at all times to be restrained in his liberty and chastised in his body, by the capricious will of another—the slave may appear to be degraded from the human rank, and classed with those irrational animals which fall under the legal denomination of property. In being protected, on the other hand, in his life and in his limbs, against the violence of all others, even the master of his labor and his liberty; and in being punishable himself for all violence committed against others—the slave is no less evidently regarded by the law as a member of the society, not as a part of the irrational creation; as a moral person, not as a mere article of property.

Second, it is disingenuous to claim the delegates to the Convention didn’t explicitly mention slaves or slavery in the Constitution because they were trying to preserve the practice. It is equally disingenuous to call this approach “damage control,” as one writer has.

One effect of the refusal of the delegates to explicitly mention slaves was that the Constitution referred to them as “persons,” not even as Negroes or blacks. An essay from the Heritage Foundation about the Three-Fifths Clause observes, “Even though slaves were property under the laws of the Southern states, the Constitution itself acknowledged that they were persons. In addition, by tying both representation and direct taxation to apportionment, the Framers removed any sectional benefit, and thus any proslavery taint, from the special counting rule.”


It is unrealistic to assume that the Southern states would have joined the Union if delegates from Northern states had had refused to compromise and had demanded a total end to slavery in the new nation. Thus, demanding an end to slavery in the year that produced the Declaration would have put an end to the Revolution, and demanding an end to it in the year that gave rise to the Constitution would have derailed efforts to establish a unified nation. It likely would have thwarted efforts to form a nation at all. When the delegates to the Convention adjourned in September, they had reached a consensus on most of the pressing concerns. Despite their differences, they had managed to work together to complete the task they’d gathered to accomplish. No one got everything he wanted, but everyone, on occasion, got something.5 “The framers were highly focused only on Republic building, acting on the assumption that the Union was the highest good, and that ultimately all problems, including slavery, would be resolved if they could keep the country together long enough.”6


Remember too that the delegates, who now had spent months meeting at what we now know as Independence Hall, were well aware that their deliberations were only the first step in a long, difficult process. If they succeeded in offering a proposal to the states, the new nation might be established, but if the train didn’t even leave the station, so to speak, the United States of America was certain to splinter and die.

What would have been the prospects for ending slavery in the South then?

This question is among those we will consider next week.


Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.

Part 3 is available here.


1Go here for the entire quote in context.

2The editors of Time, The Making of America, (New York: Time, Inc., 2005), 83.

3William Bennett, America, the Last Best Hope: Volume 1: From the Age of Discovery to a World at War, (Nashville: Nelson, 2006), 123.


5Most of the unquoted statements in this paragraph comprise a paraphrase of statements in Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen, A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the War on Terror, (New York: Sentinel, 2004), 116.


Websites in this article have been cited for information purposes only. No citation should be construed as an endorsement.

The Importance of Getting History Right, Part 1

Defog Your Rearview Mirror

Understanding the Historical Context Is Essential to Understanding the Historical Event, and Understanding the Event Is Essential to Rightly Interpreting the Present and Navigating the Future

One of the saddest lessons of history is this: If we’ve been bamboozled long enough, we tend to reject any evidence of the bamboozle. We’re no longer interested in finding out the truth. The bamboozle has captured us. It’s simply too painful to acknowledge, even to ourselves, that we’ve been taken. Once you give a charlatan power over you, you almost never get it back.
Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons that history has to teach.”
Aldous Huxley Collected Essays

“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
George Orwell

On Monday, May 14, 1804, a group of more than thirty volunteers who became known as the Corps of Discovery departed in three boats from Camp Dubois in Indiana Territory for St. Charles, Missouri. There they would join Captain Meriwether Lewis, the leader of the expedition of which they had agreed to be a part. Second-in-command was Second Lieutenant William Clark.


Meriwether Lewis and William Clark

On May 21, the group headed west by following the Missouri River. Their mission was to explore the vast area of land the United States had acquired through the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. This investment is considered one of President Thomas Jefferson’s greatest accomplishments.


The Lewis and Clark Expedition ended 28 months after it began—on September 23, 1806, when the men returned to St. Louis. From that city, Lewis, Clark, and their companions had journeyed up the Missouri River, “across the Rocky Mountains, and down the Columbia River to the Pacific Ocean.” When travel on the water was too dangerous, the explorers carried their boats on land. Sacajawea, a Native American woman they met on their journey, helped them by serving as a guide. During the expedition, the explorers and observers recorded their findings. They kept journals, drew maps, and collected samples of various plants, all of which helped to make the effort a resounding success. Having walked, hiked, ridden horses, and rowed boats, the pioneers traveled about 8,000 miles. The painting at the top was painted by by Charles Marion Russell (1864-1926) and is titled Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia.

The Lewis and Clark Expedition is all the more fascinating because it really happened. Yet suppose I told you that after they’d collected several unusual plant samples, Lewis and Clark sent them back to President Jefferson by Federal Express. Ridiculous? Absolutely! Even so, such an idea is no less ridiculous than some modern interpretations of past events that fail to consider the contexts of those events—the social and cultural climates of the times. It’s too bad the ridiculous nature of many modern interpretations usually is subtle, almost to the point of being undetectable. Were it more blatant, fewer people would be duped.

Many modern interpretations of historical events are just as ridiculous as the suggestion that Lewis and Clark were able, on their expedition, to send plant samples back to President Jefferson by Federal Express.

Quite often, as sloppy historians interpret the past through the lens of modern perspectives on everything from medicine to the economy to social status, they also make a multitude of unwarranted and often condescending judgments. H. L. Mencken, a writer known for his own brand of sensationalism, once said that a historian is “an unsuccessful novelist.” Unfortunately, he was all too accurate. Note as well the quotes showcased at the top of this article. As much as I disagree with Carl Sagan on a host of issues, he was absolutely right about being bamboozled. We need to realize people are bamboozled by sloppy and agenda-driven historians as well as politicians.

When studying history, follow these important guidelines: Learn all you can, not just about what happened, but also about what led up to it. Seek to understand the thinking of the times. Do not blame the people of a past era for not knowing pertinent information we know today, especially information they had no way to learn. Remember that we have hindsight, and they did not. Some even possessed a lot more foresight than we tend to believe. Look beyond surface meanings and consider implications and repercussions. Consider the worldview perspectives of historical subjects. Don’t just observe what people did, but also what they didn’t do. If we will seek to do these things, the lessons we derive from history’s vaults will be far more accurate than they otherwise would.

When studying history, learn all you can, not just about what happened, but also about what led up to it. Seek to understand the thinking of the times. Do not blame the people of a past era for not knowing pertinent information we know today, especially information they had no way to learn. Remember that we have hindsight, and they did not. Some even possessed a lot more foresight than we tend to believe. Look beyond surface meanings and consider implications and repercussions. Consider the worldview perspectives of historical subjects. Don’t just observe what people did, but also what they didn’t do.

In this post and the next (and possibly other posts as well) I want to consider the issue of slavery in the United States—specifically the approach the architects of the US Constitution took in dealing with this divisive and sensitive issue. I do this in part because of the recent escalation of racial tensions and incidents of violence in our country. Did our Founders intend to perpetuate slavery based on race, or did they in fact set the stage for it eventually to be eradicated? Is the Constitution a racist document, or does it reflect the Declaration’s core principles that “all men [persons, human beings] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”?

Obviously, slavery continued in America for many years after the Constitution took effect, but this fact alone may not tell the entire story. A great deal is at stake here. The belief that the Framers of the Constitution wanted slavery to continue forever understandably will make it harder for blacks to trust governmental authorities, including police. Yet, if we dig deeper and come to understand many of the relevant historical details, we just might discover truths that can help ease some of today’s racial tensions and conflicts.

We alluded to the issues of slavery and its relationship to the Constitution in a previous post but did not have opportunity to explore it in any significant detail. Perhaps no provision in the Constitution as it was originally drafted is more misunderstood than the “Three-Fifths Clause,” which resulted from the “Three-Fifths Compromise.” While it is technically correct to say the Constitution originally authorized counting each slave as three-fifths of a person, this leaves the erroneous impression that the delegates to the Constitutional Convention and the Founders of America believed that a slave was less than a human being.

I first want to debunk the myth that the Constitution’s Three-Fifths Cause, in and of itself, is clear evidence that the Constitution’s Framers considered a black man or woman as less than a person. Then we’ll examine the Three-Fifths Clause in some detail, as well as the context in which it was adopted. I believe you’ll find our historical discoveries extremely enlightening. They will bolster your faith in the founding of our country, and in the Constitution as well.

Here’s a portion of what we said earlier about the dawn of the US government under the Constitution (not all original citations have been included here).

After the American Revolution, the thirteen states rejoiced over their independence, but they still were thirteen individual states, each of which, in many ways, acted as an individual country. Previously the war against Great Britain had united these Virginians, New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, Marylanders, and the residents of the other states, but now other matters confronted the new nation. How could the states work together? Could they establish a central government that would acknowledge states’ sovereignty, yet unify the states to address the issues that would confront them all?

An attempt was made in the Articles of Confederation. This document was drafted under the authority of the Second Continental Congress, which appointed a committee to begin the work on July 12, 1776. In the latter part of 1777, a document was sent to the states for ratification. All the states had approved it in the early part of 1781. The states now had a new central government, but it wasn’t long before problems arose. The national government was too weak. It had no executive authority and no judiciary. Too high a hurdle had been established for the passage of laws. Furthermore, the states had their own monetary systems, so understandably, buying and selling across state lines became difficult. Without free trade between the states, the national economy was severely hindered.…

Accordingly, the states were asked to send their representatives to Philadelphia in May of 1787. This meeting become the Constitutional Convention. Delegates soon realized they shouldn’t try to fix the Articles of Confederation but needed to replace it altogether. The Convention met from May 25 to September 17, 1787.

According to Article VII of the proposed Constitution, the document would become binding on all thirteen states after it had been ratified by nine. New Hampshire became the ninth state to ratify on Saturday, June 21, 1788. The remaining states followed, but after New Hampshire’s decisive vote it was “agreed that government under the U.S. Constitution would begin on March 4, 1789.” Thus, the last two states to ratify, North Carolina and Rhode Island, did so after the Constitution already had taken effect. On November 21, 1789, North Carolina officially embraced the Constitution, and on May 29, 1790, by just two votes, Rhode Island joined the rest of the original colonies, making it unanimous.


Signing of the Constitution by Thomas P. Rossiter (1818-1871)

When the Constitution was being drafted in 1787, however, ratification of the thirteenth of thirteen states was three years and a great many debates away. As they hammered out the details, delegates crafted a Constitution that differed from the Articles of Confederation in a large number of ways. One of these related to the legislative body. Some delegates, principally those from small states, felt each state should have an equal share of lawmakers. Others, mainly those from the larger states, believed that representation in the legislative body should reflect each state’s population. The Articles of Confederation had set up just one legislative body, but the new Constitution established two—the Senate and the House of Representatives. This arrangement affirmed both perspectives. In the Senate, each state, regardless of size, would have two Senators. In the House, the number of representatives from each state would be determined by that state’s population. Thus, in the House, the larger states would have more representatives than the smaller ones. For a bill to become law, it would have to pass both houses of Congress. This truly was was a brilliant approach.

Having agreed to this model, the delegates then had to adopt a formula for determining the number of representatives each state would have in the House. Delegates resolved that each state would get one Representative for every 30,000 people. Even though only men could vote, women and children were counted along with them. But how should slaves be counted? Gary DeMar writes, “The Northern states did not want to count slaves. The Southern states hoped to include slaves in the population statistics in order to acquire additional representation in Congress to advance their political [pro-slavery] position.” In the end, it was agreed that in slave states, a Representative would be added for every 50,000 slaves rather than 30,000. In mathematical terms, this effectively meant that that every five slaves would count as three persons for representation purposes, so each individual slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person. This same count also was used to determine amounts states would pay in taxes as well.

As insensitive and as cruel as this may sound in our day, this was not at all about the worth of a slave as a person. Had the Southern states gotten what they wanted, every slave would have been counted as one individual. This would have resulted in a stronger pro-slavery contingent in the House. Had the Northern states gotten their way, no slaves would have been counted at all, and the anti-slavery position in the House of Representatives would have been strengthened to the greatest degree possible. Neither side prevailed. A compromise was reached.

The Three-Fifths Clause read,

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.


So, contrary to first impressions, the pro-slavery position was to count slaves as full individuals, and the abolitionist position was to not count them at all! Again, the decision to number slaves in the manner described in the Three-Fifths Clause had absolutely nothing to do with the worth of a slave as a person, but with taxation and with representation of slave states in the House of Representatives.

The pro-slavery position was to count slaves as full individuals, and the abolitionist position was to not count them at all! The Three-Fifths Clause had absolutely nothing to do with the worth of a slave as a person, but with taxation and with representation of slave states in the House of Representatives.

Overcoming the impression one gets when he or she hears that the Constitution authorized counting each slave as three-fifths of a person is difficult enough, but even many of the sources that acknowledge the Three-Fifths Clause was about counting slaves for representative and taxation purposes don’t explain what this actually meant in practical terms (as we have here). Moreover, the sources often go on to condemn, either directly or by implication, the Founders for refusing to draw a line in the sand to end slavery altogether. Consider this description of the Three-Fifths Compromise in “The Making of America: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of a Nation.”


The Southern states insisted that their slave populations would be counted when assigning seats in the House of Representatives, even though no one seriously considered giving the right to vote to anyone other than white men. This resulted in the “Three-Fifths Compromise,” in which 60% of a state’s slave population would be added to its free population when assigning seats in the House. Sadly, the new nation’s founding document sanctioned slavery: at the insistence of Southern states, the Constitution specifically prohibited Congress from passing any laws that abolished or restricted the slave trade until 1808.1

This makes it sound as if the Southern states got everything they wanted, but, in fact (as we already have said), they did not. Next week, we’ll learn even more about slavery and the Constitution at the founding of America. Among other things, we’ll consider why the anti-slavery delegates at the Constitutional Convention didn’t give their pro-slavery counterparts an ultimatum.

I venture to say that anyone who gives our discussion a fair hearing will find it enlightening and eye-opening. Stay tuned.

Part 2 is available here.


Copyright © 2016 by B. Nathaniel Sullivan. All Rights Reserved.


1The editors of Time, The Making of America, (New York: Time, Inc., 2005), 83.

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