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Debates Over Slavery
In 1787, delegates arrived in Philadelphia to begin work on revising the Articles of Confederation. Most states agreed that the Articles had not provided the country with the type of guidelines that it needed to run smoothly. There were many things missing, and many issues that needed further consideration. One of the most controversial topics at the Constitutional Convention was figuring out the country’s policy towards slavery. When all was said and done, slavery was still legal after the Convention because the southern economy depended on it and because most people decided that this was an issue that should be decided by each individual state, rather than the country as a whole.
The issue of slavery was taken very seriously at the Convention, and there were many different sides to the issue that were debated. Although the southern state’s economies depended on slaves immensely, the northern states believed that the US could not in good will allow slavery because of the moral repercussions that go along with it. The US was founded in the first place because they felt that they were their own country, a separate entity from England. Now, nearly seven years later they were going to sign a document that would give Americans the right to hold people against their will and force them to work for free. This seems like a large contradiction to everything the US stands for, especially since they had just earned their own freedom a few years ago. Luther Martin of Maryland brought up this point at the Convention by saying, “?it is inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the Constitution” (Peters 164).
Many people viewed slavery as an economic issue, and not a moral issue at all. John Rutledge of South Carolina said, “Religion and humanity have nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations. The true question at present is whether the Southern states shall or shall not be parties to the Union” (Peters 164). Many people agreed with Rutledge, because the entire southern economy depended on slavery at that time. They believed each individual state should be able to decide for themselves how they feel about slavery. A northern man may oppose slavery because of its moral effects, but he wouldn’t know what it was like to run a large plantation and then lose his entire work force. This is why the south demanded that it be left up to each state.
Some southern states, such as Virginia and Maryland had already begun to change their laws dealing with slavery. They made laws preventing the import of more slaves into their states, and North Carolina was in the process of discussing the same thing. Many people opposed this idea, because if two or three states oppose the importation of slavery, but two or three allow it, then the law of the other two states is useless. This seeming contradiction caused many people to reaffirm the idea that this was a national issue. This brought about one of the first tests of federalism.
Once the Convention heard all the arguments and voted on all the clauses contained about slavery, the delegates concluded that slavery should still be legal. There are a few reasons why they decided this. The first major reason was that the southern economy depended on slavery to operate their plantations. If slavery were abolished, then they would lose their entire work force and would be forced to find white people to work for them instead. This is a major problem, however, since poor white people felt that they were a step up from the African slaves. They didn’t want to be doing a job that was normally done by the blacks (It’s important to realize that most southern people at that time felt that blacks were an inferior race, and should be treated as such). Many supporters of slavery, such as Charles Pinckney even argued that “In all ages, one-half of mankind have been slaves” (Peters 167).
Since the north depended on factories and other industries to drive its economy, most people had no need for slaves and most believed that it was generally immoral. However, the south was very different from this since it relied heavily on plantations as a means of driving the economy. By immediately taking away their work force, there would be no one left to pick the cotton, their main crop at the time. Without cotton, the northern factories would have nothing to produce their textiles from. This chain reaction would basically collapse the entire US economy, so they proposed many different ideas, such as slowly getting rid of slavery and not dealing with the issue again until 1808 (Edel 24). This is exactly what the Convention finally agreed on.
The next reason why slavery was not abolished during the Constitutional Convention was because many people saw slavery as an issue that should be decided by individual states, rather than the national government. Oliver Ellsworth argued at the Convention by saying, “Let every state import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves. What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the states are the best judges of their particular interest” (Peters 165). Before his death in 1790, Benjamin Franklin wrote a memorial to Congress asking for the abolition of slavery. Congress responded by saying that they could not “interfere in the internal affairs of the states” (Peters 241). People such as Roger Sherman pointed out that abolition of slavery was slowly happening in the United States any ways, so there was no need for the national government to intercede.
The other issue involved with the slaves was that many people saw the Union as an entity made up of large and small states. Others believed the Union was divided into slave-owning states and non-slave-owning states. This caused a lot of confusion between larger states up north who sympathized with larger states down south, and vice versa. Other issues such as suffrage and representation in Congress became interrelated with the slavery issue (Edel 24-5). Small states wanted equal representation in Congress, so they would agree with other smaller states on representation issues, but then disagree with the northern states about slavery. This caused many disputes among the states and prolonged the process of finishing the Constitution, as well as coming up with a conclusion about the slavery issue.
At the completion of the Convention, the delegates had voted to let slavery remain legal until they discussed it again in 1808. Due to the South’s dependence on slaves and the popular belief that slavery is an issue that should be dealt with by each state individually, the slaves were not freed in 1787. Many other issues became entangled in this argument, but those were the major causes of the Convention’s decision.
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