XIX. Slaves

Catechism of the Constitution Book CoverThe Federalist Papers has posted a PDF copy of an Elementary Catechism on the Constitution from 1828 written by Arthur J. Stansbury. I’m publishing it on Mondays in a series of posts. Because the date of publication was 1828, some content has been changed by later Constitutional amendments. There are no sections in the book, so I’m dividing it into any natural breaks of topics and the posts will vary in length. Any emphases within the text are Stansbury’s.

The Elementary Catechism was written in 1828 after the Missouri Compromise had been passed by Congress in 1820.

Article I, Section 9, Clause 1

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

XIX. Slaves

Q. May slaves be imported, that is, brought into the United States?

A. No, whoever engages in the slave trade is a pirate.

Q. May slaves be held, that is, owned, and made to work—by citizens of the United States?

A. Yes.

Q. If they escape from one State into another, may the State into which they flee set them at liberty?

A. No.

In Slave Trade, an essay on Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, found at The Heritage Guide to The Constitution, Matthew Spalding writes:

…It is significant that the words slave and slavery are not used in the Constitution of 1787, and that the Framers used the word person rather than property. This would assure, as Madison explained in The Federalist No. 54, that a slave would be regarded “as a moral person, not as a mere article of property.” It was in the context of the slave trade debate at the Constitutional Convention that Madison argued that it was “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.”

Although Southern delegates hoped opposition would weaken with time, the practical effect of the clause was to create a growing expectation of federal legislation against the practice. Congress passed, and President Thomas Jefferson signed into law, a federal prohibition of the slave trade, effective January 1, 1808, the first day that Article I, Section 9, Clause 1, allowed such a law to go into effect.

On April 22, 1820, Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Holmes on the Missouri Compromise:

…I had for a long time ceased to read the newspapers or pay any attention to public affairs, confident they were in good hands, and content to be a passenger in our bark to the shore from which I am not distant. but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. it is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. a geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once concieved and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper. I can say with conscious truth that there is not a man on earth who would sacrifice more than I would, to relieve us from this heavy reproach, in any practicable way. the cession of that kind of property, for so it is misnamed, is a bagatelle which would not cost me in a second thought, if, in that way, a general emancipation and expatriation could be effected: and, gradually, and with due sacrifices, I think it might be. but, as it is, we have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go….

I regret that I am now to die in the belief that the useless sacrifice of themselves, by the generation of 76. to acquire self government and happiness to their country, is to be thrown away by the unwise and unworthy passions of their sons, and that my only consolation is to be that I live not to weep over it. if they would but dispassionately weigh the blessings they will throw away against an abstract principle more likely to be effected by union than by scission, they would pause before they would perpetrate this act of suicide on themselves and of treason against the hopes of the world.

to yourself as the faithful advocate of union I tender the offering of my high esteem and respect.
Thomas Jefferson Signature.svg

In the heading under Charters of Freedom, you will find a copy of the Constitution as well as links to other pertinent primary documents and commentary on the Constitution.

Elementary Catechism on the Constitution posts:

Elementary Catechism on the Constitution (Preface)
I. The Necessity of Government and Its Forms
II. The American Revolution
III. The Occasion and Purpose of the Constitution
IV. State and National Laws
V. The House of Representatives
VI. The Senate
VII. Impeachment
VIII. Impeachment of the President & The Rule of Law
IX. Meetings of Congress
X. Members of Congress
XI. The Making of Federal Laws
XII. Taxes, Duties, Imposts, and Excises
XIII. Finance and Commerce
XIV. Courts & International Offences
XV. Declaration of War
XVI. State Militia
XVII. Congressional Governance of Washington, D.C. & Military Facilities
XVIII. Congressional Authority On Enactment Of Laws
Book image from The Federalist Papers. Other reading formats of the Elementary Catechism on the Constitution can be found here.

One thought on “XIX. Slaves

  1. Jefferson’s words are so powerful. Also, I particularly liked the way you pointed out that the original Constitution referred to slaves in terms of personhood, not of property. Madison and Jefferson, as one on this issue.

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