The Constitutional Basis for Slavery

That the framers of the American constitution avoided making any definitive proclamation regarding the institution of slavery is generally regarded to  have been facilitated by the infamous “Three-fifths Compromise,” which is acknowledged by most constitutional scholars as one of the most significant aspects of the constitutional convention and the ultimate implementation of the American form of representational democracy. The “Three-fifths Compromise,”  while only indirectly related to the issue of slavery on the surface, actually had its roots in the economic and political interests of geographical regions of the United States, namely the agrarian South and the industrial North.

The South, which held less populated states, also included a large number of slaves; under the “Three-fifths Compromise,” slaves were to be counted, not an entire populace, but in three-fifths of their true numbers:Northerners argued that slaves should not be counted at all to determine a state’s representation in Congress; many Southerners took the opposite view to increase their        representatives. The compromise reached was to count only three-fifths of the number of      slaves (referred to euphemistically as “other Persons”) for representation and taxation.Naturally, the agrarian South sought a constitutional basis for slavery, or — at the very least a constitution which did not overtly prohibit the slave-labor and slave-trade that comprisedthe bulk of Southern productivity and economic profit. Although it was suggested the blacks be rated as equals with whites during the constitutional convention,””The ratio recommended in 1788 was, of course, the three-fifths ratio. An amendment to have the blacks rated equally with the whites was voted down by eight states against two” (Farrand 104).

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Many people probably find it hard to understand how a document such as the American constitution with its eloquent preservation of individual liberty and freedom, could fail to prohibit human slavery.Again, economic interests, particularly those centered around the Southern plantation-owners,  prevailed: “the south was a producing section. It had to have markets for its raw materials and it therefore needed free intercourse with the outside world[…

] The influence of the southern members in the work of the committee of detail has already been referred to in the provisions, that there should be no tax on exports nor on “such persons as the several States shall think proper to admit,” and that navigation acts should require a two-thirds vote of both houses (Farrand, 1913, p. 148). Here, subtly, is a direct reference in the constitution to slavery since “such persons” in the above-quoted clause undoubtedly refers to slaves.Despite the oblique angle by which the South found a way to continue its slave-trade and slave-labor under the auspices of the new constitution, the constitution itself refers to the prohibition of slavery:ARTICLE XIII. 6 SECTION 1.

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a     punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within      the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.Stated plainly: only the South truly desired the continuation of slavery. They were able to use the perceived threat of their inflated populace as political leverage to facilitate the “Three-fifths Compromise” which, while diminishing their overall number of delegates also included the provision that: “In return, the Southern states conceded that the importation of slaves would cease in the year 1808” (Hoar, 2005, p. 42).

So, while the “Three-fifths Compromise” was not a direct provision regarding slavery, the Southern “victory” in having three-fifths of their slaves counted toward proportional representation was off-set by the Southern “defeat” of conceding an eventual end of slavery. The 1808 deadline provided a loophole through the Constitution for the continuation of slavery in America.ReferencesFarrand, M. (1913).

The Framing of the Constitution of the United States. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Hoar, W. P.

(2005, June 27). “Three-Fifths of a Man”. The New American, 21, 42.;



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