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The following chapter contains all the debates on the subject of slavery, in the Conventions of the several States to ratify the Constitution, that have been preserved. Of the Conventions of Vermont, Delaware, Maryland, and Georgia, none were reported, or, if reported, have never been published. In Pennsylvania, the only speeches preserved are those of James Wilson, a member of the Federal Convention, and Thomas McKean. The only allusion in these speeches to the question of slavery was by Mr. Wilson, expressing his gratification that, after twenty years, Congress would have power to prohibit the slave trade, and that thus slavery would finally die out of itself. No debates were preserved of the New Hampshire Convention, save a mere fragment of a speech by Joshua Atherton, reprobating the slave trade. It does not appear, however, whether he opposed the Constitution on that ground, or supported it because it provided a way for its final extinction. We therefore do not copy it.

In some States the debates are voluminous, and yet very little, comparatively, on the subject of slavery. We have aimed to give all that was said, pro and con, leaving the reader to form his own opinions.


February 4, 1788. Rev. Mr. Backus said—Mr. President, I have said very little in this honorable Convention; but I now beg leave to offer a few thoughts upon some points in the Constitution proposed to us, and I shall begin with the exclusion of the religious test. Many appear to be much concerned about it; but nothing is more evident, both in reason and the Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals; and therefore no man or men can impose any religious test, without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ. Ministers first assumed this power under the Christian name; and then Constantine approved of the practice, when be adopted the profession of Christianity, as an engine of State policy. And let the history of all nations be searched from that day to this, and it will appear that the imposing of religious tests hath been the greatest engine of tyranny in the world. And I rejoice to see so many gentlemen who are now giving in their rights of conscience in this great and important matter. Some serious minds discover a concern lest, if all religious tests should be excluded, the Congress would hereafter establish Popery, or some other tyrannical way of worship. But it is most certain that no such way of worship can be established without any religious test.

Much, sir, hath been said about the importation of slaves into this country.

I believe that, according to my capacity, no man abhors that wicked practice more than I do; I would gladly make use of all lawful means toward the abolition of slavery in all parts of the land.

But let us consider where we are and what we are doing. In the Articles of Confederation, no provision was made to hinder the importation of slaves into any of these States; but a door is now open hereafter to do it, and each State is at liberty now to abolish slavery as soon as they please. And let ns remember our former connection with Great Britain, from whom many in our own land think we ought not to have revolted. How did they carry on the slave trade? I know that the Bishop of Gloucester, in an annual sermon in London, in February, 1776, endeavored to justify their tyrannical claims of power over us by casting the reproach of the slave trade upon the Americans.

But at the close of the war, the Bishop of Chester, in an annual sermon, in February, 1783, ingenuously owned that their nation is the most deeply involved in the guilt of that trade of any nation in the world; and, also, that they have treated their slaves in the West Indies worse than the French or Spaniards have done theirs.

Thus slavery grows more odious through the world; and as an honorable gentleman said, some days ago, "Though we cannot say that slavery is struck with an apoplexy, yet we may hope it will die with consumption."

Mr. Dawes said he was sorry to hear so many objections raised against the paragraph under consideration. He thought them wholly unfounded; that the black inhabitants of the Southern States must be considered either as slaves, and as so much property, or in the character of so many freemen; if the former, why should they not be wholly represented? Our own State laws and Constitutions would lead us to consider these blacks as freemen, and to indeed, would our own ideas of natural justice. If, then, they are freemen, they might form an equal basis for representation as though they were all white inhabitants.

In either view, therefore, he could not see that the Northern States would suffer, but directly to the contrary. He thought, however, that gentlemen would do well to connect the passage in dispute with another article in the Constitution, that permits Congress, in the year 1808, wholly to prohibit the importation of slaves, and in the mean time to impose a duty of ten dollars a head on such blacks as should be imported before that period. Besides, by the new Constitution, every particular State is left to its own option totally to prohibit the introduction of slaves into its own territories. What could the Convention do more? The members of the Southern States, like ourselves, have their prejudices. It would not do to abolish slavery, by an Act of Congress, in a moment, and so destroy what our Southern brethren consider as property.

But we may say, that although slavery is not smitten by apoplexy, yet it has received a mortal wound, and will die of consumption.

Gen. Heath said, the paragraph respecting the migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, &c., is one of those considered during my absence, and I have heard nothing on the subject, save what has been mentioned this morning; but I think the gentlemen who have spoken have carried the matter rather too far on both sides. ■

I apprehend that it is not in our power to do any thing for or against those who are in slavery in the Southern States.

No gentleman within these walls detests every idea of slavery more than I do: it is generally detested by the people of this commonwealth; and I ardently hope that the time will soon come when our brethren in the Southern States will view it as we do, and put a stop to it; but to this we have no right to compel them. Two questions naturally arise. If we ratify the Constitution, shall we do anything by our act to hold the blacks in slavery? Or shall we become partakers of other men's sins? I think, neither of them. Each State is sovereign and independent to a certain degree, and the States have a right, and they will regulate their own internal affairs as to themselves appears proper; and shall we refuse to eat, or to drink, or to be united, with those who do not think, or act, just as we do? Surely not. We are not, in this case, partakers of other men's sins; for in nothing do we voluntarily encourage

the slavery of our fellow man.


Mr. President: After a long and painful investigation of the Federal Constitution, by paragraphs, this honorable Convention is drawing nigh to the ultimate question—a question as momentous as ever invited the attention of man. We are soon to decide on a system of government, digested, not for the people of the commonwealth of Massachusetts only—not for the present people of the United States only—but, in addition to these, for all those States which may hereafter rise into existence within the jurisdiction of the United States, and for millions of people yet unborn; a system of government, not for a nation of slaves, but for a people as free and virtuous as any on earth; not for a conquered nation, subdued to our will, but for a people who have fought, who have bled, and who have conquered; who under the smiles of Heaven, have established their independence and sovereignty, and have taken equal rank among the nations of the earth.

In short, sir, it is a system of government for ourselves and for our children, for all that is near and dear to us in life; and on the decision of the question is suspended our political prosperity or infelicity, perhaps our existence as a nation. What can be more solemn? What can be more interesting? Everything depends on our union. I know that some have supposed, that although the union should be broken, particular States may retain their importance; but this cannot be.

The strongest nerved State, even the right arm, if separated from the body, must wither. If the great union be broken, our country, as a nation, perishes; and if our country so perishes, it will be as impossible to save a particular State as to preserve one of the fingers of a mortified hand.

By one of the paragraphs of the system, it is declared that the ratifications of the Conventions of nine States" shall be sufficient for the establishment of the Constitution between

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