The American Revolution
For slaves, the Revolution was not as much a struggle for the right to cast a vote or have only fair taxes levied, but the right to live as truly free. The African American Registry has noted, “that men fought not only for the idea of political liberty, but also for personal liberty” (“Blacks barred from continental army,” 2005). Consequently, many slaves sought to escape and join the fight on the side of “whichever army promised them personal liberty” (“The Revolutionary War,” n.d.). The British were only too willing to recruit runaway slaves into their ranks. George Washington initially banned the recruitment of blacks, free or slaves, into the Continental Army, but as times worsened and manpower grew short, he rescinded the order and blacks were recruited. In an ironic twist, the Revolution would be the last time the United States would field an integrated army until after World War II. There were those in the Patriot camp who saw service in the army as a gate to emancipation—and a way to fill the depleting ranks. As Ellis (2004) has pointed out, “John Laurens proposed arming 3,000 slaves in South Carolina and offering emancipation in return for service to the end of the war” (p. 162). This measure was voted down, but over the course of the war about 5,000 blacks served the American cause, slave and free. Arsenault (n.d.) has noted that their reasons for joining varied significantly:
Initially, many masters forced their slaves into service. Others joined later upon the promise of freedom in exchange for service. Many free blacks chose to serve for the same reasons that the German and Irish did—the promise of food and wages when steady employment was scarce. Still others rallied to the American cause attracted by the rhetoric of freedom and equality. They fought, in part, so that those ideas would have to expand to include them, too.
Sadly, many slaves seeking the freedom the Declaration had claimed was for all men ended up back in shackles after the war. Ellis (2004) has stated that after the war Washington “insisted on the return of all escaped slaves in British custody to their respective owners” (p. 163).
The United States Constitution
Though the word “slave” or “slavery” does not appear in the Constitution of the United States, the issue was very much alive during the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Spalding (2002) pointed out that, “by the time of the U.S. Constitution, every state (except Georgia) had at least proscribed or suspended the importation of slaves”; however, the Southern states were by means ready to put an end to slavery itself. The difficulty for the framers of the Constitution then was to craft a document that would bind the states into an effective union without offending sectional sensitivities. Slavery was as big a sectional sensitivity as there could be. One of the main questions was how the slave populations of the Southern states should be counted. As slaves, they had no vote to cast. Should they then be counted as part of the population in regards to representation in the legislature? As Kennedy, Cohen, and Bailey (2002) stated, “the North replied ‘no,’ arguing that, as slaves were not citizens, the North might as logically demand additional representation based on its horses” (p. 180). A compromise was reached in which a slave would be counted as three-fifths of a person thus conceding to the South a portion of their human property for the purposes of representation and increased political power.
A second constitutional issue concerning slavery was the slave trade. As stated above, nearly all states had already restricted the importation of slaves or abolished it all together. However, in order to placate the South, particularly South Carolina and Georgia, the Constitution would not prohibit “the migration or importation of such persons [slaves] as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit” until 1808. The states could, restrict the slave trade as they saw fit, but the federal government was prohibited from doing so for two decades.
A third key issue was the question of fugitive slaves. What will the law require of a free-state found to have a runaway slave within its borders? The Privileges and Immunities Clause was thus inserted which required fugitive slaves in free-states be returned upon their master’s request.
These three concessions seem a heavy human price to pay as a sop to Southern interest. How could someone like James Madison who once wrote that he “thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men” (as cited in Spalding, 2002) allow conditions that led to slavery’s perpetuation? The answer can again be found in the words of Madison, this time to the Constitution ratification convention of Virginia:
Great as the evil [slavery] is, a dismemberment of the Union would be worse. If those states should disunite from the other states for not indulging them in the temporary continuance of this traffic, they might solicit and obtain aid from foreign powers.
The Constitution made no clear condemnation of slavery, but it did not endorse it either. Frederick Douglass, the former slave and prominent abolitionist, said about slavery and the Constitution in 1864, “Abolish slavery tomorrow, and not a sentence or syllable of the Constitution need be altered” (as cited in Benet, 2006). It would take until the year after this statement by Douglass for this to occur, nearly eighty years from the Constitutional Convention. Those years would see one crisis after another concerning slavery.