Does the Constitution Condone or Condemn Slavery?

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In his article from the Law and Liberty Library, JMC fellow Allen Guelzo considers what place slavery has, if any, in the Constitution. 


The Constitution: A Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery Document?

By Allen Guelzo
From the Library of Law and Liberty

Almost from the moment Christopher Columbus made landfall in the New World, European minds began turning toward slavery. “It appeared to me that these people were very poor in everything,” Columbus wrote after his first encounter with the natives of San Salvador, “They ought to be good servants….” Not that this was some eccentric conclusion. Human slavery was as old as antiquity itself, and thrived in Greek, Roman, and Islamic societies, and a trans-Sahara slave trade had been flourishing for two millennia before Columbus. What made Europeans like Columbus reach for slavery was the problem of the New World itself. It soon became clear to Europeans first that no easy way round or through the American landmasses was available, and second that the principal resource the Americas offered was the landmasses themselves. They could be turned to agricultural profit, but only by the deployment of enormous amounts of labor, and by the end of the 17th century, European colonizers had begun to import large numbers of African slaves.

The success of African slavery in North America, however, was interrupted by three problems. The first was the American Revolution, whose disruptions siphoned-off between eighty and one hundred thousand runaways out of an enslaved population of slightly less than 500,000, aided and encouraged by the British. The second was the Enlightenment ideology of natural rights and natural equality espoused by the American revolutionaries, and which stood in frank contradiction to enslavement. The third was the awakening of capitalist economics, which for the first time in human history showed how the accumulation and deployment of capital could overcome problems of time, distance and society that had otherwise seemed for centuries to be intractable. At just the moment when Enlightenment ideas made slavery unwanted, capitalism seemed to offer the resources necessary to eliminate it.

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Allen GuelzoDr. Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era, and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. He is the author of Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2000, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America, which won the Lincoln Prize for 2005, and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America, which won the Abraham Lincoln Institute Prize for 2008. His most recent work in Lincoln is Abraham Lincoln As A Man of Ideas (a collection of essays published in 2009 by Southern Illinois University Press) and Lincoln, a volume in Oxford University Press’s ‘Very Short Introductions’ series (also 2009). His book on the battle of Gettysburg, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (Knopf, 2013) spent eight weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. His articles and essays have appeared in scholarly journals, and also in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times, and he has been featured on NPR, the Discovery Channel, the National Geographic Channel, and Brian’s Lamb’s BookNotes, and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.


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