Sunday, June 23, 2013

Writings from 2011: Considering the Constitution and Slavery

I have heard a number of people complain and condemn the Constitution of the United States for permitting and even safe-guarding the institution of slavery for the following 20 years. 'Surely this is proof that the Founding Fathers weren't nearly as great as people claim!' 'Of course they'd protect it - look how many were slave-owners themselves?!' I've often wondered if those people have ever actually given the situation any serious thought.

While I wonder if people recognize how many different forms slavery can take, it is true that the idea of slavery is hated by many in this modern day. There were even some who hated it back then. But slavery was also part of their culture just as it has been across cultures from the beginning of written histories. And it provided the basis of economy for the southern colonies.

Then consider that these colonies had temporarily joined forces with each other to fight off their mother country and claim their own freedom. Against all odds. It was not an easy fight. And war weakens all who participate. Some might even consider the colonies ripe for the picking.

The only way to ensure their hard won freedom would be maintainable was to band together and form an alliance of sorts. They created an early version of the united States and a simple authority system to direct any combined armies should it become necessary. But they ran into trouble pretty quickly. Because the states were, in essence, individual countries with their own right to rule, there was no legal means to gain funding for the simple allied government or military force.

The conventions met because some leaders from each state saw the problem and sought to fix it. Many of the states had little interest but those who did participate had two basic purposes. One - to determine if a better alliance, or union, was possible; two - to protect the interests of their nation-state if it was.

Perhaps it is becoming clearer what problems the situation of slavery presented. Every other element of the agreement we now call the Constitution was debated into the ground. Managing to hammer out every detail to the approval of such different governing bodies was a miracle in and of itself, especially as it was hand-crafted to try to prevent all the troubles they had faced as colonies and before. No government in their existence was like it. They were breaking completely new ground and their greatest minds were giving their all to try to make it work.

But had the issue of slavery been forced, it would have failed. It was too divisive. 80 years later it nearly tore our country in two. Moral or not, had that judgment been required then, there would have been no United States. Instead, the drafters of the Constitution tabled it for 20 years ensuring at least that much time to solidify the nation.

It was not an easy process getting the Constitution approved by the people of the separate states. Many approved of it only on condition that a bill of right be added. These amendments are, in essence, the post-script.

I do not speak to the roughly 60 years after 1808, before the Civil War, when slavery was legally addressable. Those for and against it were active during that time period. You are free to judge how you will. It is my belief, however, that the Founders recognized that their culture was not yet ready to handle that issue. Their own personal positions aside, they instead focused on what they could do, giving us a solid political foundation and framework. For that, I am grateful.

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