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RELATIONS OF THE FEDERAL CONSTITU TI O N TO S L A V E R Y.
No one can be surprised at the intense excitement which has attended the late agitation of the subject of slavery in this country. Nor is it surprising, that in the midst of this heat, untenable positions should have been taken both by the assailants and the defenders of the institution. The time for calm inquiry has at length come. The citizens of the free states, with many in the southern sections of the confederacy, are disposed to learn their duty on a subject of more fearful interest to the nation than any other. In view of this state of feeling, it is of some importance, to know how far federal legislation may go without violating the Constitution, in the way of abolishing, restricting or crippling the system. It is, we believe, universally held, that the federal government has no control whatever over slavery as it exists in the several states—except in a single contingency, the event of a war—in which the emancipation of the slaves should become a necessary measure of public safety. But inasmuch as the Constitution gives to Congress exclusive jurisdiction over the District of Columbia and the Territories, and the exclusive right to regulate commerce with foreign nations and between the several states, it is contended by the North, that Congress is competent to abolish slavery within these limits, and to prohibit the inter-state slave trade. This is denied by the slave interest, on what ground it may be difficult to state explicitly. The ground taken seems to be that the Federal Constitution is the result of compromise between free and slave labor, and that at the adoption of the Constitution, it was understood that the national government should not in any way legislate to the peril of the slave system.
Express guaranties to this effect can not, it is admitted, be found in the Constitution; yet this, it is claimed, is the spirit in which the instrument was framed and adopted, in which it should be interpreted, and in which good faith requires it to be administered. To meet this view of the subject, it is in vain to appeal to the Constitution itself, and, by a particular criticism of every article and section relating to slavery, show that no obligation of the kind claimed by the South is imposed. We must show from the history of the times, that no such tacit understanding as we have referred to was ever entertained, but that on the contrary it was then expected that slavery would soon cease to exist throughout the Union ; and that this event would be brought about in part by the action of the general government. This is the design of this paper. We shall endeavor to show that the age which produced the Federal Constitution, was distinguished by an anti-slavery spirit, and animated by a joyful expectation of the early removal of the incongruous element from our social system. This we shall do by reference to several acts which indicate the policy of the day, by citations from speeches made in the state conventions for ratifying the Constitution, and more especially from the expressed opinions of the most distinguished statesmen of those times, some of them framers of the Constitution, and citizens of the southern States. The anti-slavery spirit of the age is clearly indicated by acts of public policy. During their colonial dependence, slaveholding existed in all the states. But the very able discussions which were elicited by the difficulties between the colonies and the mother country. brought into very general recognition the doctrine of inalienable rights. Between the years 1774 and 1789, an undivided opposition to slavery was manifested by the people of this country, as represented in the national assembly, by whatever name it was called, whether general convention or Congress. On the 20th October, 1774, the first general convention, or as it is sometimes styled, Continental Congress, passed the following resolution. “We for ourselves and the inhabitants of the several colonies whom we represent, firmly agree and associate. under the sacred ties of virtue, honor and love of country, as follows: we will neither import nor purchase any slaves imported after the first day of December next, after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave-trade. and we will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels, nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it.” In 1775, the same Congress solemnly denied that “the divine Author of our existence intended a part of the human race to hold an absolute property in, and unbounded power over others.” “In the Congress of 1776, the Declaration of Independence was published—commending itself to the liberal minded every where, by asserting in opposition to the theory and practice of all existing governments, that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The national policy was indicated in a very striking manner, by an act of the Congress of 1787. An ordinance was passed, for the government of all the territory northwest of the river Ohio. This was enacted, as it asserts, among other things, to establish “certain articles of compact between the original
states and the people and states in the territory, to remain forever unalterable, unless by common consent.” One of these articles of compact declared, that there should be neither slavery, nor involuntary servitude in the territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes. This ordinance was adopted by the unanimous vote of all the states, there being but a single negative, and that given by a member from New York. And it does not appear that the prohibition of slavery occasioned this negative. Let it be remembered that the votes of Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia were unanimously given for the positive exclusion of slavery from all the vast region now by Ohio. Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. There is in this, certainly no indication of compromise. And we can account for such unanimity only on the ground, that it was then the settled policy of the country to restrict slavery to the original states, L to exclude it from all the national territory, and from all the new states. These acts all preceded the formation of the existing Constitution. The ordinance of 87 was passed, and published by the Continental Congress, at the very time the Constitution convention was in session. With these facts in mind, we readily anticipate what would be the principles and spirit of the Constitution itself. Nor are we disappointed in finding its very first sentence in remarkable accordance with these previous declarations and enactments. The preamble specifies the great objects to be secured by it. These are “to form a more perfect union, establish justice, ensure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” It would indeed be a singular inconsistency, if, after such an enumeration, an effort was made in a subsequent part of the same document, to perpetuate oppression. But examining it to its close, we nowhere find the terms “slave,” “slavery,” or “slaveholding.” There is much significancy in this fact. The plain solution of it is, that the founders of our government never once thought that slavery would be a permanent institution. The slave trade being its chief support, it was supposed that with its abolition in 1808, slavery would receive its death-blow, and would speedily die:* they did not, therefore, wish to use terms that would soon become obsolete, or that would be unknown to the laws. This view is confirmed by the interesting fact, that “on motion of Mr. Randolph the word ‘servitude' was stricken out (by the convention from Art. 4, sec. 2) and ‘service' unanimously inserted, the former being thought to express the condition of the slaves, and the latter the obligation of free persons.”f Great honor is reflected upon our fathers by the fact, that if now not a vestige of slavery remained, the Constitution which they framed
would be suited, without alteration, to a nation of freemen. That the spirit of the age was antislavery, we learn from opinions expressed in conventions of the states, held for ratifying the Constitution. hen the Constitution had been agreed upon by the national convention, it was of course sent to the states for their approval. In the debates there were many allusions to the connection of the Constitution with slavery. From these we may learn what was the general sentiment, in respect to the manner in which the former would affect the latter. Before quoting these opinions, however, we may refer to the fact, as very significant of public opinion, that measures for emancipation had been adopted by nearly all the northern states before the United States Constitution was framed. Vermont abolished slavery by Constitution in 1777; Massachusetts in 1780; New Hampshire in 1784. Pennsylvania passed an act of abolition in 1780; Connecticut in 1784; Rhode Island, 1784; New York, 1799; and New Jersey in 1804." In the Virginia convention of ’87, Gov. Randolph said: “They insist that the abolition of slavery will result from this Constitution. I hope there is no one here who will advance an objection so dishonorable to Virginia. I hope that at the moment they are securing the rights of their citizens, an objection will not be started that those unfortunate men now held in bondage by the operation of the general government, may be made free.”
* The expectation would in all probability have o realized, had it not been for the invention of the cotton-gin, in '93, by Mr. Whitney. This at once gave extraordinary value to land in that part of the country where alone cotton could be raised ; and to slaves because it was the almost universal impression, that the cultivation of the South could be carried on only by slaves. Thus it was that Mr. W.'s invention was the innocent occasion of greatly magnifying the importance of slavery.
“In the year 1793, there were but 5,000,000 pounds of cotton produced in the United States, and but 500,000 exported. The old method of preparing it was too tedious to make it very valuable. By hand-picking, or by a process strictly manual, the cultivator could not prepare for market during the year, more than from 200 to 300 pounds. By the aid of the machine, the labor of a thousand hands was performed by one. Seven years af. ter the invention, 35,000,000 pounds were raised, and 17,800,000 exported. In 1834, 460,000,000 were raised—384,750,000 ex
t Madison Papers.
* It may be added, that in the convention that formed the Constitution of Kentucky in 1780, the effort to prohibit slavery was nearly successful. It is stated, upon good authority, that some of the members of that convention have been heard to say, that a decided majority of that body would have voted for its exclusion, but for the great efforts and influence of two large slaveholders—men of commanding talents and sway—Messrs. Breckenridge and Nicholas.
In the same convention Mr. Mason, author of the Virginia Constitution, said: “The augmentation of slaves weakens the states, and such a trade is diabolical in itself and disgraceful to mankind. As much as I value the union of all the states, I would not admit the southern states [i. e. South Carolina and Georgia] into the union, unless they agree to the discontinuance of this disgraceful traffick.” Patrick Henry, arguing the power of Congress under the U. S. Constitution to abolish slavery in the states, said on the same occasion : “another thing will contribute to bring this event [the abolition of slavery] about. Slavery is detested; we feel its effects; we deplore it with all the pity of humanity.” In the North Carolina convention, Mr. Galloway said: “I wish to see this abominable trade put an end to. I apprehend the clause [touching the slave trade] means to bring forward manumission.” In the same convention Mr. Iredell, afterwards a Judge of the U. S. Supreme Court, said: “When the entire abolition of slavery takes place, it will be an event which must be pleasing to every generous mind and friend of human nature.” In the Maryland convention, Luther Martin, who had also been a member of the convention that formed the U. S. Constitution, said: “We ought to authorize the general government to make such regulations, as shall be thought most advantageous for the gradual abolition of slavery, and the emancipation of the slaves which are already in the states.” Judge Wilson of Pennsylvania, also one of the framers of the U. S. Constitution, said in the Pennsylvania convention of '89, “I consider this [the clause relative to the slavetrade] as laying the foundation for banishing slavery out of this coun
try. It will produce the same kind of gradual change which was produced in Pennsylvania: the new states which are to be formed will be under the control of Congress in this particular, and slaves will never be introduced among them. It presents us with a pleasing prospect that the rights of mankind will be acknowledged and established throughout the Union;” * * * “yet the lapse of a few years and Congress will have power to exterminate slavery within our borders.” In the Massachusetts convention of '88, Judge Hawes said: “Although slavery is not smitten by an apoplexy, yet it has received a mortal wound and will die of consumption.” At the same time and place Gov. Heath said, “that slavery was confined to the states now existing ; it could not be extended. By this ordinance Congress had declared that the new states should be republican states and have no slavery.”f Would that this meaning of “republican” had practically prevailed. Then might the guaranty, “that every state in the Union should have a republican form of government,” have been something beside a “rhetorical flourish.” We infer, also, from the avowed sentiments of the most distinguished statesmen, that the spirit of the age was anti-slavery. WASHINGTon has not left posterity ignorant of his views on this subject. We might quote them at great length, but one or two extracts will answer our purpose. In a letter to Robert Morris, dated April 12, 1786, he says: “There is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to see a plan adopted for the abolition of slavery ; but there is only one proper and effectual mode by which it can be accomplished, and that is by legislative authority.” The same sentiment he expressed in a letter to Lafayette, dated May 10, 1786. In
a letter to John Fenton Mercer, Sept. 9, 1786, he says: “It is among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by which slavery in this country may be abolished by law.” Of Mr. Jefferson’s sentiments we need hardly speak, they are so well known. All are aware that the Declaration of Independence is attributed to his pen. In his Notes on Virginia, he said: “I think a change is already perceptible since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave is rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing under the auspices of heaven for a total emancipation.” On another occasion, he said: “Nobody wishes more ardently than I to see an abolition not only of the trade but of the condition of slavery ; and certainly nobody will be more willing to encounter every sacrifice for that object.” Mr. Madison on the floor of the convention “thought it wrong to admit into the Constitution the idea that there could be property in man.” John Jay, afterwards Chief Justice of the United States, during the war of the Revolution held this memorable language: “Till America come into this measure [the abolition of slavery] her prayers to heaven will be impious.” When addressing the Legislature of New York, then a slave state, he told them that “the slaves though held in bondage by the laws of men were free by the laws of God.” These words were a part of a petition which was also signed by Alexander Hamilton, Robert R. Livingston, afterwards Secretary of Foreign Affairs and Chancellor of the state of New York, and other prominent men. Franklin united with Jay and Rush in 1787, in an abolition society, “to extend the blessings of freedom to every part of our race.” Mr. Gerry said in the convention,
that “ it ought to be careful not to give any sanction to slavery.” In 1794 Dr. Rush declared :“Domestic slavery is repugnant to the principles of Christianity. It prostrates every benevolent and just principle of action in the human heart. It is rebellion against the authority of a common Father,” &c. Patrick Henry in a letter, dated Jan. 18, 1773, to Robert Pleasants, afterwards president of the Virginia Abolition Society, says: “Believe me, I shall honor the Quakers for their noble efforts to abolish slavery. It is a debt we owe to the purity of our religion to show that it is at variance with that law that warrants slavery. 1 exhort you to persevere in so worthy a resolution.” The celebrated Wm. Pinkney, in a speech before the Maryland House of Delegates, 1789, on the emancipation of slaves, said: “Sir, by the eternal principles of natural justice no master in the state has a right to hold his slave in bondage for a single hour.” If after such declarations against slavery, on the part of the nation, of states, and of distinguished statesmen, it was intended by the framers of the Constitution and the states which adopted it, to perpetuate slavery, then is there no truth in history or in language. With this ... evidence of their opinions, it is slandering the character of our fathers to assert that there was a tacit understanding among them, to build up a permanent system of oppression in our republic. When they entered upon the work of framing a Constitution for the people of this nation, they had scarcely wiped from their brows the dust and sweat of the Revolutionary struggle. Would they then be so false to their principles as to rivet upon the limbs of others, the fetters that they had just thrown off from themselves 2 Certainly not, if they were deserving of the least respect. With a knowledge of their sentiments what