How the nation's Founders wrote the Constitution to put the US on a path to end slavery

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When critics attack the nation’s founders as irredeemably racist, they ignore the Constitution’s anti-slavery time bomb.

While disparaging that document’s accommodations to slavery, detractors also forget the hammer-blow against the evil institution delivered just weeks before the fateful gathering in Philadelphia to establish a new government.

Rather than treating slavery as an essential, enduring element of the Republic they designed, the leaders of the founding generation shared Lincoln’s hope, expressed 71 years later, that “the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction.”

History behind stopping the importation of slaves

During the eight years of Revolutionary struggle (1775-83), all thirteen colonies made a significant start along that path by legally and separately banning the transatlantic slave trade. Following the American victory and the resulting treaty with Britain, three states (South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia) resumed the importation of captives from Africa. At the Constitutional convention, most delegates denounced “the infernal traffic” (George Mason of Virginia) as “a nefarious institution” and “the curse of heaven” (Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania), but South Carolina threatened to exclude itself from the new nation unless the other states agreed not to interfere with the commerce in slaves for a set period of time.

The resulting compromise (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1) declares that the despised commerce “should not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year one thousand eight hundred and eight…” – twenty years after ratification. James Madison initially deemed this concession to be “dishonorable” but later, in Federalist 42, hailed it as “great point gained in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years may terminate forever with these states … the unnatural traffic” that was “the barbarism of modern policy.”

To their everlasting credit, the founders’ time bomb went off, right on schedule, ending America’s involvement in the international slave trade on the earliest day Constitutionally permitted: January 1, 1808. President Thomas Jefferson signed the bill proudly, having argued for it in his annual message to Congress at the end of 1806.

“I congratulate you, fellow citizens, on the approach of the period at which you may interpose your authority constitutionally, to withdraw the citizens of the United States from all further participation in those violations of human rights which have been so long continued on the unoffending inhabitants of Africa, and which the morality, the reputation, and the best interests of our country, have long been eager to proscribe.”

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Of course, it’s easy to sneer at Jefferson’s hypocrisy – owning slaves even while he repeatedly denounced the very institution that sustained his private wealth – but his role in the public sphere left no doubt that he sought the “ultimate extinction” of human bondage, as President Lincoln put it.

The third president also played a role in the other anti-slavery milestone that marked the Constitutional year of 1787. On May 13, the day before the delegates assembled in Philadelphia to begin drafting their new charter of liberty, the Confederation Congress in New York City, operating under the soon-to-be-replaced Articles of Confederation, passed the most significant piece of legislation in the history of North America to that date.

Years earlier, Jefferson had drafted early versions of the Northwest Ordinance, which provided the basis for organizing new states in the vast territory ceded by Britain at the end of the Revolution. This region later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota, and Article 6 of the ordinance unequivocally affirmed: “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory….”

The Founders launched the country in the right direction

In other words, this fateful prohibition on what Madison decried as “property in men” meant that the slave system never took root in six future states, thereby assuring that America would develop a decisive anti-slavery majority. That result in turn contributed significantly to the outcome of the War Between the States and the emancipation many founders had explicitly desired.

Remarkably, this legislative victory for human rights won unanimous approval in the Confederation Congress, where each of the 13 states got a single vote, and the objection of any one of them would have blocked the Northwest Ordinance. In contrast to the “fire eaters” who glorified slavery and later took over leadership of most of the South, the statesmen of 1787, from every corner of the country, worked together to keep the vast, promising territory around Great Lakes forever free of inhuman bondage.

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It’s true that the enlightened achievements of the organizers of the new government didn’t eliminate the manifold horrors of enslavement that afflicted millions for more than two generations after the United States began. But the statesmen of our founding still deserve our gratitude for launching the Republic in a direction that eventually delivered Lincoln’s “new birth of freedom”, and justified its status as “the last, best hope of earth.”

Michael Medved, a member of USA Today’s Board of Contributors, hosts a daily, syndicated talk radio show and is author, most recently, of "God's Hand On America: Divine Providence in the Modern Era." Follow him on Twitter: @MedvedSHOW

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: An anti-slavery compromise Founders wrote into the Constitution worked

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