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Anti-Federalists Oppose Slavery Provisions in Constitution

Slavery was one of the most divisive issues in the debates over whether or not to ratify the Constitution. Although the constitution banned the importation of slaves beginning in 1808, it did not restrict the continued use and ownership of slaves, or the slave trade within the southern states. Many in the North were appalled by what they saw as the inherent hypocrisy in the Constitution's enshrining of slavery into law; even Virginian George Mason declared ominously that the issue would "bring the judgment of Heaven on a country." The three authors of this article, published in a western Massachusetts newspaper, cite the provisions that allowed slavery to continue as among the primary reasons for their dissent to the Massachusetts Convention, which had ratified the Constitution on February 6th.

But we pass on to another thing, which (aside from every other consideration) was, and still is an insuperable objection in the way of our assent. This we find in the 9th section under the head of restrictions upon Congress, viz. "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." It was not controverted in the Convention, but owned that this provision was made purely that the southern states might not be deprived of their profits arising from that most nefarious trade of enslaving the Africans. . . . nefarious, which carries with it the idea of something peculiarly wicked and abominable: and indeed we think it deserving of this and every odious epithet which our language affords, descriptive of the iniquity of it. This being the case, we were naturally led to enquire why we should establish a constitution, which gives licence to a measure of this sort—How is it possible we could do it consistent with our ideas of government consistent with the principles and documents we endeavor to inculcate upon others? It is a standing law in the kingdom of Heaven, "Do unto others as ye would have others do unto you." This is the royal law—this we often hear inculcated upon others. But had we given our affirmative voice in this case, could we have claimed to ourselves that consistent line of conduct, which marks the path of every honest man? . . . Where is the man, who under the influence of sober dispassionate reasoning, and not void of natural affection, can lay his hand upon his heart and say, I am willing my sons and my daughters should be torn from me and doomed to perpetual slavery? We presume that man is not to be found amongst us: And yet we think the consequence is fairly drawn, that this is what every man ought to be able to say, who voted for this constitution. , , ,


But we were told by an honourable gentleman who was one of the framers of this Constitution, that the two southernmost states, absolutely refused to confederate at all, except they might be gratified in this article. What then? Was this an argument sufficient to induce us to give energy to this article, thus fraught with iniquity? By no means. But we were informed by that gentleman, further that those two states pled, that they had lost much of their property during the late war. Their slaves being either taken from them by the British troops, or they themselves taking the liberty of absconding from them, and therefore they must import more, in order to make up their losses. To this we say they lost no property, because they never had any in them, however much money they might have paid for them. For we look upon it, every man is the sole proprieter of his own liberty, and no one but himself hath a right to convey it. . . . But suppose they had lost real property; so have we; and indeed where is the man, but will tell us he has been a great loser by means of the war? And shall we from thence argue that we have a right to make inroads upon another nation, pilfer and rob them, in order to compensate ourselves for the losses we have sustained by means of a war, in which they had been utterly neutral? Truly upon this plan or reasoning it is lawful thus to do, and had we voted the constitution as it stands, we must have given countenance to conduct equally criminal, and more so, if possible. . . .


The Hon. Gentleman above named, was asked the question—What would be the consequence, suppose one or two states, upon any principle, should refuse confederating? His answer was—"The consequence is plain and easy—they would be compelled to it; not by force of arms; but all commerce with them would be interdicted; their property would be seized in every port they should enter, and by law made forfeit; and this line of conduct would soon reduce them to order." This method of procedure perhaps no one would be disposed to reprehend; and if eleven, or even nine states were agreed, could they not, ought they not to take this method, rather than to make a compact with them, by which they give countenance, nay even bind themselves (as the case may be) to aid and assist them in sporting with the liberties of others, and accumulating to themselves fortunes, by making thousands of their fellow creatures miserable. . . .


The advocates for the constitution seemed to suppose, that this restriction being laid upon Congress only for a term of time, is the "fair dawning of liberty." That "it was a glorious acquisition towards the final abolition of slavery." But how much more glorious would the acquisition have been, was such abolition to take place the first moment the constitution should be established. If we had said that after the expiration of a certain term the practice should cease, it would have appeared with a better grace; but this is not the case, for even after that, it is wholly optional with the Congress, whether they abolish it or not. And by that time we presume that enslaving the Africans will be accounted by far less an inconsiderable affair than it is at present; therefore conclude from good reasons, that the 'nefarious practice' will be continued and increased as the inhabitants of the country shall be found to increase." . . .


But said some, it is not we who do it—and compared it to entering into an alliance with another nation, for some particular purpose; but we think this by no means a parallel. We are one nation, forming a constitution for the whole, and suppose the states are under obligation, whenever this constitution shall be established, reciprocally to aid each other in defence and support of every thing to which they are entitled thereby, right or wrong. Perhaps we may never be called upon to take up arms for the defence of the southern states, in prosecuting this abominable traffick. . . . But let us suppose for once, a thing which is by no means impossible, viz. that those Africans should rise superior to all their local and other disadvantages, and attempt to avenge themselves for the wrongs done them? Or suppose some potent nation should interfere in their behalf, as France in the cause of America, must we not rise and resist them? Would not the Congress immediately call forth the whole force of the country, if needed, to oppose them, and so attempt more closely to rivet their manacles upon them, and in that way perpetuate the miseries of those unhappy people? This we think the natural consequence which will flow from the establishment of this constitution . . .


We think it most safe for ourselves to lay before our readers, an extract from a certain pamphlet, entitled "Extracts from the votes and proceedings of the American Continental Congress, held at Philadelphia, on the 5th of September, 1774, &c. In the 22d page of this same pamphlet we find the following paragraph, viz. "Second. That we will neither import, nor purchase any slave imported, after the first day of December next; after which time we will wholly discontinue the slave-trade, and will neither be concerned in it ourselves, nor will we hire our vessels nor sell our commodities or manufactures to those who are concerned in it. . . . Hence it appears to us unaccountably strange, that any person who signed the above resolve, should sign the federal constitution. For do not they hold up to view principles diametrically opposite? Can we suppose that what was morally evil in the year 1774, has become in the year 1788, morally good?

Source | Herbert J. Storing, ed., The Complete Anti-Federalist, vol. 6 (University of Chicago Press, 1981), 259-265.
Creator | Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, Samuel Field
Item Type | Newspaper/Magazine
Cite This document | Consider Arms, Malachi Maynard, Samuel Field, “Anti-Federalists Oppose Slavery Provisions in Constitution,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed March 19, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/915.

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