Slavery was a horrific practice. But there has been much interesting conversation lately concerning the early U.S. Constitution and slavery, So I decided to research the matter by reading the early accounts rather than recent interpretations, and here is what I discovered.
It is widely said that Article I Section 2 refers to "slaves as three fifths of a person". That is not exactly true: the Constitution does not use the word slave at all. It uses the words "other persons" in Article I Section 2, and there is a reason for that.
At first glance one can easily make some false conclusions unless they know the history which I share with you here. During the creation of the Constitution, Article I (Section 2) was not about slavery. Check it out: it is all about State's representation in the House of Representatives. Slavery only entered the discussion as a result of an attempted power grab. Each State wanted to make sure they had ample voting powers.
The non-slavery States were in a very heated discussion with the slave holding States. The latter insisted on a representation strictly according to the number of inhabitants, whether they were slaves or free persons. It was the non-slave holding States that wanted representation according to the number of free persons only (slaves not to be counted at all).
As one can see, the former version would have given the slave holding States a big advantage, and encouraged more slavery. By simply importing more slaves, a State could have easily increased their representation, and power in the House Of Representatives. The disagreement was so volatile that it nearly ended the creation of the Constitution of these United States.
After much discussion, a compromise was reached which was that three fifths of the slaves were counted as part of the number of free persons, as the basis of the appointment of Representatives. Interesting note: They purposely did not use the word slaves for reasons to be explained below. But it was well understood that "other persons" referred to the slave population.
Note: The word slavery was never used in the original Constitution for a reason. The framers did not want the Constitution to enforce or endorse slavery. In fact; George Mason, said: [Slavery is a] slow Poison, which is daily contaminating the Minds & Morals of our People. Every Gentleman here is born a petty Tyrant…. And in such an infernal School are to be educated our future Legislators & Rulers.
Article I Section 9: "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."
"James Madison, who is known as the architect of the Constitution said, "Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution"
Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story, in his book "The Familiar Exposition Of The American Constitution", writes "This clause as is manifest from its language, was designed solely to reserve to the Southern states, for a limited period, the right to import slaves. It is to the honor of America, that she should have set the first example on interdicting and abolishing the slave trade, in modern times." (pg 185).
He further writes (on page 186): "And it ought be considered as a great point gained, in favor of humanity, that a period of twenty years should enable Congress to terminate, in America (as Congress in fact has terminated the African slave trade) a traffic, which has so long and so loudly upbraided the morals and justice of modern nations." It is interesting to note that his book was written well before the Civil War.
The video below explains even more, and tells you what Frederick Douglas, who was a scholarly black man, and himself once a slave, had to say about the Constitution and slavery.
Now one can easily understand why the slave owners did not want blacks taught to read. They would have understand what Martin Luther King revealed in his "I Have A Dream Speech" in which he says the following: "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... America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked 'insufficient funds.'"
- “I Have a Dream”, August 28, 1963
We have been educated to believe that the Supreme Court is the “Keeper of the Constitution”. However Supreme Court Justice Story warned, “our cherished freedoms and Constitutional government might perish in an hour, by the folly, or corruption, or negligence of its only keepers, THE PEOPLE. if the people did not trouble to learn the history, purpose, and meaning of their own Constitution.”
Note: Visiting a black college had a profound effect on Ben Franklin. Several years later he joined an abolition Society. Franklin came to believe that slavery should be ended, and eventually freed his own two slaves.
American history is not perfect. We had Founding Fathers who practiced slavery. But why do we no longer hear about those who opposed it, and participated in the "Underground Railroad" to free the slaves? Why do public schools no longer teach the Constitution?