The Constitution and Slavery

In a recent series called “The State Against Blacks” John Stossel interviewed Rep. Charles Rangel and made the case that big government had failed the black American family. Congressman Rangel, an unabashed proponent of big government, asked Stossel, “What do you want? No government?” Stossel held up a small booklet, a copy of the Constitution, and answered, “No. I want it this size again. The Constitution and the Declaration – great government right here.” To which Rangel responded, “No, that government will throw me back into slavery. You don’t want that government. Come on now. I mean they weren’t thinking about me when they wrote that book. I wasn’t even three fifths of a guy. So let’s pass that book and say that it was a good beginning and it’s there to improve order and that’s what we’ve done.”

Rangel’s argument was a non-sequitur. Stossel was making a size and scope of government argument. He had already demonstrated in earlier segments that since government began to grow beyond constitutional limitations under FDR, the damage done to black families by government programs has multiplied exponentially. By parrying with “the Constitution was an instrument of slavery” argument, Rangel sought to dismiss all of the evidence of government spawned family disintegration in black America, and he dismissed any further resort to the Constitution to heal the metastasizing problems that plague America.

Rep. Rangel ought to be asked to explain how limiting the size and scope of the federal government to Constitutional standards would throw him back into slavery. Perhaps he could also be asked if he really believes that the modern American electorate would have any tolerance for the idea of seeing black Americans being thrust back into slavery again. The idea is not only preposterous, it is insulting. And further, it might also be noted that the Founders were indeed thinking of him when they laid the foundations of this nation. Charles Rangel has been a powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives for forty years. Had the Founders not succeeded in establishing the American nation, Congressman Rangel’s prospects in this world might have been severely limited. Evidently, Rep. Rangel finds no cause for gratitude to the Founders for placing our nation on a path to ever increasing opportunity for all its citizens.

But Rangel’s argument is clearly one that liberals like. Liberals are terrified at the rise of serious talk in America about going back to the principles of the Constitution, and I believe we will see Rangel’s invidious argument trotted out again and again. Stossel was not really prepared to rebut Rangel’s deft demagoguery. After all, some of the Framers of the Constitution, including Jefferson, Franklin and Washington, were slave owners. And the three fifths compromise, not well understood by many Americans, is easily demagogued. But “the Constitution was an instrument of slavery” argument will be effective for the liberals only if we are ignorant of the truth.

It should be understood that if the Founders had failed to organize the states into a union, slavery would have continued unabated, certainly in the South, and perhaps in the North as well. One of the great obstacles to forming a union of the states under a constitution was the question of representation in Congress. How shall small states be unified with large states in a government that would be fair and equitable to both? The small states wanted one to one representation equal to the large states, while the large and more populous states wanted representation proportionate to the relative populations of each state. The impasse seemed insurmountable and had the potential to wreck all hope of union. But Roger Sherman of Connecticut provided the solution that ultimately satisfied the representatives at the convention: he proposed that Congress be composed of two houses. Representation in the House of Representatives would be apportioned by population, thereby satisfying the large states, while representation in the Senate would be one vote per state, thereby satisfying the small states.

Having made good progress on a formula for fair representation of large and small states, the question then became which “inhabitants” of each state would be counted for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives. The northern states, most of whom had some slaves but were not dependent upon them and whose representatives at the convention deplored slavery and desired to abolish it, insisted that only free citizens of each state be counted for purposes of apportionment. This would greatly limit the power and influence of the slave states in the Congress. The representatives of the states which were dependent on slavery, the southern states, wanted to garner as much power and influence in the new government as possible. Accordingly, they wanted all people within their borders, whether free or not, to be counted for purposes of apportionment.

This was yet another deadly serious impasse. It must be said, however, that many of those representatives at the convention who owned slaves recognized that slavery was a blot on the new nation and that it had to be ended. But it was also certain that if they tried to abolish slavery immediately with the Constitution, it would be rejected by the southern states and the union would fail. Two compromises were made. First, the southern states agreed that, for purposes of apportionment in the House of Representatives, they would give up their insistence on counting all inhabitants of their states, free or otherwise, and agree to counting three fifths of slaves. The northern states agreed to a clause prohibiting Congress from abolishing slavery for twenty years, until the year 1808.

Charles Rangel and many others argue that, in the Constitution, a black man’s worth was only three fifths of a white man. But the Constitution says no such thing. Article I, Section 2 reads (in part) “Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several states…according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons…three fifths of all other persons.” “All other persons” referred to slaves. In other words, only 60% of slaves could be counted for purposes of a state’s representation in the House. That’s a far cry from arguing that the Constitution valued black men at three fifths of a white man. And what would Rangel and others have preferred, that all slaves be counted in the House, thus increasing the power and influence of the slave states when the time came to vote to abolish slavery? The whole point of these compromises was to make a union possible while diminishing the power and influence of slave states and, in twenty years, to abolish slavery entirely. Isn’t that what Rep. Rangel would want? What if the Founders had allowed all slaves to be counted for purposes of representation in the House, thus eliminating the three fifths compromise that so offends Rep. Rangel and others? And then what if, because of increased slave state representation, the legislation to abolish slavery had failed in 1808? Is that what Rangel would have preferred? We may conclude, then, that Rep. Rangel’s antipathy toward the Constitution is ill-founded, and that he is either ill-informed or ill-intentioned.

The result of these compromises was that a major obstacle to a union of the states and the establishment of the nation of America was overcome, and slavery as it was known in early America was eventually abolished. It should also be pointed out that America, it’s obvious flaws and imperfections notwithstanding, has become a beacon of individual liberty to the whole world.

We modern Americans have a tendency to allow our heads to swell with self-congratulatory pride because we think we are morally superior to the Americans of the eighteenth century. But let’s consider what it is we so smugly condemn them for. What is slavery? Is not slavery that the fruit of a man’s labor is deemed not to be his own by the system of laws under which he is held in servitude, and that it is taken from him by those who have power and authority over him? When one adds up all the taxes – local, state, and federal – that Charles Rangel and many other like-minded persons of power and authority have gradually imposed on us, we have certainly become a nation of slaves. I don’t mean to suggest that there is equivalency between eighteenth century slavery and slavery today. The slavery of two hundred fifty years ago was a hard slavery, while today’s slavery is much more subtle. I would call it soft slavery. But it is slavery nonetheless. A large portion of the fruit of our labor today is taken from us by people like Charles Rangel who then use the fruits of our labor to purchase the votes of many who then keep them in power to rule and reign over us.

The eighteenth century slave master justified the hard enslavement of millions of Africans because their economy depended on it. In many cases, their own personal wealth and influence also depended on it. Charles Rangel and many other like-minded people have presided over the gradual imposition of a soft enslavement of millions of modern Americans. Their defense of today’s soft slavery is essentially the same as the slave masters of the eighteenth century: the economy depends upon it. But, in truth, their own personal wealth and influence also depend on it. In addition to legally confiscating large portions of the fruit of our labor, they control our compulsory education system. They tell us how much water we can use to flush a toilet; what kind of light bulbs we must use. They have shut down vast reserves of our nation’s natural resources which we require for our energy needs, intentionally driving up the cost of energy. They intend to disarm us. They intend to tell us what doctors we can see and when. They insult and demean us in our airports. They seek to divide and inflame us by race and by economic status. They intervene in every aspect of our personal and business lives. They are destroying the value of our currency. They have worked for fifty years to drive all vestiges of our religious founding from the public arena. They are the soft, but ever hardening, slave masters of the twenty first century. And sadly, most Americans seem to support this system. We are a generation who self-righteously condemns the eighteenth century American for the moat we see in his eye, but are largely blinded to the fact that we have a beam in our own eye.

The Constitution is a framework for a government which protects individual liberty – his life, his liberty, and his property – from the encroachments of his neighbor. Slave masters have no regard nor use for individual liberty. Liberty is an impediment to a slave master. Remember that the next time you hear Charles Rangel, or anyone else, dismissing the Constitution as the antidote to our national decline.

But all these things ultimately come back to the individual, so here’s my question to you. No doubt you are certain that if you had lived two hundred fifty years ago you would have been an abolitionist. Really? Where do you stand on the question the soft slavery of modern America? Do you support the current system because you’ve grown up with it and it’s our system and it benefits everybody?

As for this American, you can count me among the twenty-first century abolitionists.

Image: Erik CharltonCC BY 2.0


  1. I couldn’t agree more with this article or the book “Walking in Darkness…” As a member of the Church in the deep south, I often wonder if I am the one with wrong thinking. Many members here support current social programs, progressive taxation etc. This website is the one place I can come and find like minded members. Thanks

  2. A compromised approach to the issue of slavery in the constitutional convention led to the bloodiest war in American history. Justice is an inescapable slavemaster itself. The 20 year phase out obviously never happened because of the continued fragility of the agreement and it’s pointless to speculate over what would have happened had the north held true to their abolitionist convictions; although one should not assume that rushing to compromise was the only way to eventually end slavery. In fact, the 3/5 compromise didn’t work at all and eventually, following Lincoln, replaced states’ rights with a uber-federalized version of the original Constitution to the heavy consternation of those who value localized or individual governance as outlined in the 10th Amendment. The South dominated all three branches of the new government for most of the period preceding the Civil War. Hence, not settling the slavery question before ratification led to the shredding of the core values of the Constitution.

    This sounds a lot like a certain debt limit compromise whose benefits are wholly dependent on the actions of the next generation…kicking the can a little further down the road, building in contingencies to compromise that aren’t binding on future legislators while leaving untouched the heavy burden of debt…even magnifying it. Unfortunately, we fail to learn from the past and we’ll reap a similar whirlwind. This debt problem, like the unsettled slavery problem will come back to haunt us later.

    Some compromises just aren’t worth making.

  3. Missed in John Stossel’s interview of Charlie Rangel and unmentioned in John Green’s excellent article is the fact that Charles Rangel raised his hand and swore an oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and he has done so at least twenty times over the past forty years. Yet it is clear from the interview and Mr. Rangel’s prolonged terms in office that he has deliberately violated that oath and actively exploited his office and abused the power entrusted to him to destroy and replace the fundamental law of the land.

    What does it say about the character and personal agenda of Rep. Rangel as an elected official swore with an oath before God and men to preserve the government he has deliberately and insidiously sought to subvert for over four decades? What does it say of the electorate who have repeatedly returned him to Congress? What does it say of the scores and scores of like-minded Congressmen?

  4. I appreciate the purpose of this article to explain the reasons for the great compromise of slavery in the Constitution. I have found it easy for me to misjudge history since I lack historical knowledge, understanding of the founders intent and reasons for the compromise to form the Union. But in my research, I have found that it is clear that the organic philosophy of the U.S. Constitution, as presented in the Declaration of Independence, that what appears to be a conflict between the inspired rational philosophy that “all men are created equal” and the 3/5ths clause in the Constitution, is one of rationally inspired principles versus the need for a pragmatic compromise of the time. This would allow future generations to address the practice of slavery in its entirety if not possible at the time of the Constitution’s inception. I would not expect our founders to have to figure every problem for us since they had empowered us as a nation under the rule of law to be able to address these major moral and ethical issues within the same framework.

    The single most point I differ with the author is his comparison of the slavery of personal liberty to the slavery of one’s personal property. I believe the comparison should be distinguished further than stated as there is a stark difference between the two.

  5. Charles,

    I will kindly point out that the comparison of chattel slavery of history and of the slavery of one’s personal property are not different. In PRINCIPLE they are the same. The difference only lies in degree.

    Both forms use violence. Modern slavery’s violence is manifest in the threats to your life and liberty if you do not pay up. If you do not pay taxes, you will go to jail and if you resist, you could lose your life as they try to detain you. Ask anyone who has not paid their taxes what happens.

    The reason why so many people endorse and support today’s modern slavery is because they percieve society as better off for it. No different than history’s slaveholders.

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