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What were the Founders thinking ... about slavery?

Other debates from back in the 1780s continue to haunt us

The United States Constitution emerged out of the Constitutional Convention in 1787 as a compromise among competing interests.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, the 13 colonies, which had been governed largely as separate entities before the war, had little interest in unifying other than for the purposes of protection against common enemies.

The resulting Articles of Confederation are proof of this, as little power was given to the Unicameral Legislature that “governed” the colonies. Instead, each colony preferred to govern itself.

The war itself had brought about some of the issues that would later divide the colonies at the convention, and central to this was the issue of slavery. Before the Revolutionary War, slavery existed in all of the colonies.

However, the utilization of black soldiers, both free and enslaved, in all states except Georgia and South Carolina, led several of the Northern colonies to abandon slavery altogether after the war.

At the convention, the issue of slavery came up on several occasions. The first was whether to abolish slavery and/or participation in the slave trade permanently. This debate led to a clause in Article I, section 9 of the Constitution that allowed for the taxing and eventual abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, Anti-slavery forces hoped this might lead to the end of slavery, but it led only to the end of the slave trade itself in 1808.

The next debate over slavery involved representation. Anti-slavery forces saw it as the height of hypocrisy that slavers wanted to keep people as property and have them protected as such, but then count them as equals when it came to representation.

Slavers, particularly in states like South Carolina, where there were more slaves than free people, wanted to count them for fear of being outvoted in Congress by states that opposed slavery. This led to the addition of the 3/5 compromise in Article I, section 2, whereby each slave would be counted as 3/5 of a person in a state’s total population.

Slavery would become an issue in one other place in the Constitution, although with much less disagreement. The Fugitive Slave Clause in Article IV, Section 2, protected the “property rights” of slavers, giving them the right to recapture slaves who had fled to a free state.

With the ratification of the 13th Amendment, the vile institution of slavery was no longer enshrined in our founding document. But some of the other debates from that time continue to haunt us.

For example: how much power should the president have (Vesting Clause of Article II); should states be able to dictate the terms of U.S. elections (Times, Place and Manner Clause of Article I); and whether there should be equal representation in the Senate (Article I).

The latter is of particular concern today as the disparity in population between very large and very small states continues to grow and because of the impact it has on the Electoral College.

Some are beginning to believe that the only way to address these and other problems is to amend the Constitution, but this would almost certainly require a constitutional convention, for which there seems to be little support.

Note to readers: Amanda Cook Fesperman is a professor of Political Science and History at Illinois Valley Community College, Oglesby.

Fesperman to speak Feb. 19 in Princeton

Amanda Cook Fesperman, professor of Political Science and History at Illinois Valley Community College, will be the first speaker in “The U.S. Constitution: Why It Matters” series at 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 19, at the Princeton Public Library.

The four-part series, which includes presentations and small group discussions, has been organized by Voices from the Prairie, with support from the Interactivity Foundation.

Matt Schafer, Princeton High School graduate and currently assistant general counsel, litigation at ViacomCBS, New York, will speak about the Bill of Rights at the next program, 6:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Library.

Free copies of the Constitution and resource lists will be provided to participants.

Voices from the Prairie is a grassroots citizens’ movement committed to promoting open, ethical, and fair governance and upholding the values of tolerance, fairness, and inclusion in American society and political life.

For further information, visit

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