The Constitution Condones Slavery?

On July 24 2011 the American Thinker published this article:

In a recent series called “The State Against Blacks” John Stossel interviewed Rep. Charles Rangel and made the case that big government had failed the black American family. Congressman Rangel, an unabashed proponent of big government, asked Stossel, “What do you want? No government?” Stossel held up a copy of the Constitution, and answered, “No. I want it this size again. The Constitution and the Declaration – great government right here.” To which Rangel responded, “No, that government will throw me back into slavery. You don’t want that government. Come on now. I mean they weren’t thinking about me when they wrote that book. I wasn’t even three fifths of a guy. So let’s pass that book and say that it was a good beginning and it’s there to improve order and that’s what we’ve done.”

Rep. Rangel ought to be asked to explain how limiting the size and scope of the federal government to Constitutional standards would throw him back into slavery. The idea is preposterous. It might also be noted that the Founders were indeed thinking of him when they laid the foundations of this nation. Charles Rangel has been a powerful member of the U.S. House of Representatives for forty years. Had the Founders not succeeded in establishing the American nation, Congressman Rangel’s prospects in this world might have been severely limited. Evidently, Rep. Rangel finds no cause for gratitude to the Founders for placing our nation on a path to ever increasing opportunity for all its citizens.

But Rangel’s argument is clearly one that liberals like. Liberals are terrified at the rise of serious talk in America about going back to the principles of the Constitution, and I believe we will see Rangel’s invidious argument trotted out again and again. But “the Constitution was an instrument of slavery” argument will be effective for the liberals only if we are ignorant of the truth.

It should be understood that if the Founders had failed to organize the states into a union, slavery would have continued unabated, certainly in the South, and perhaps in the North as well. One of the great obstacles to forming a union of the states under a constitution was the question of representation in Congress. How shall small states be unified with large states in a government that would be fair and equitable to both? The small states wanted one to one representation equal to the large states, while the large and more populous states wanted representation proportionate to the relative populations of each state. The impasse seemed insurmountable and had the potential to wreck all hope of union. But Roger Sherman of Connecticut provided the solution that ultimately satisfied the representatives at the convention: he proposed that Congress be composed of two houses. Representation in the House of Representatives would be apportioned by population, thereby satisfying the large states, while representation in the Senate would be one vote per state, thereby satisfying the small states.

The question then became which “inhabitants” of each state would be counted for purposes of representation in the House of Representatives. The northern states insisted that only free citizens of each state be counted for purposes of apportionment in the House. The southern states, wanting to garner as much power and influence in the new government as possible, argued that all people within their borders, whether free or not, be counted for purposes of apportionment.

This was yet another deadly serious impasse. It must be said, however, that many of those representatives at the convention who owned slaves recognized that slavery would be a blot on the new nation and that it had to be ended. But it was also certain that if they tried to abolish slavery immediately with the Constitution, it would be rejected by the southern states and the union would fail. Two compromises were made. First, the southern states agreed to count only three fifths of slaves. In turn, the northern states agreed to a clause prohibiting Congress from abolishing slavery for twenty years, until the year 1808.

Charles Rangel and many others argue that, under the Constitution, a black man’s worth was only three fifths of a white man. But the Constitution says no such thing. Article I, Section 2 reads (in part) “Representatives…shall be apportioned among the several states…according to their respective numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole number of free persons…three fifths of all other persons.” “All other persons” referred to slaves. In other words, only 60% of slaves could be counted for purposes of a state’s representation in the House. That’s a far cry from arguing that the Constitution valued black men at three fifths of a white man. And what would Rangel and others have preferred, that all slaves be counted, thus increasing the power and influence of the slave states when the time came to vote to abolish slavery? What if the Founders had allowed all slaves to be counted for purposes of representation in the House, thus eliminating the three fifths compromise that so offends Rep. Rangel? And then what if, because of increased slave state representation, the legislation to abolish slavery had failed in 1808? Is that what Rangel would have preferred?

The result of these compromises was that a major obstacle to a union of the states and the establishment of the nation of America was overcome, and slavery as it was known in early America was eventually abolished. It should also be pointed out that America, it’s flaws and imperfections notwithstanding, has become a beacon of individual liberty to the whole world.

We modern Americans allow ourselves a certain self-congratulatory pride because we think we are morally superior to the Americans of the eighteenth century. But let’s consider what it is we so smugly condemn them for. What is slavery? Is not slavery that the fruit of a man’s labor is deemed not to be his own by the system of laws under which he is held in servitude, and that it is taken from him by those who have power and authority over him? When one adds up all the taxes and fees – local, state, and federal – that Charles Rangel and many other like-minded persons of power and authority have gradually imposed on us, we have certainly become a nation of slaves. I don’t mean to suggest that there is equivalency between eighteenth century slavery and slavery today. The slavery of two hundred fifty years ago was a hard slavery, while today’s slavery is much more subtle. I would call it soft slavery. But it is slavery nonetheless. A large portion of the fruit of our labor today is taken from us by people like Charles Rangel who then use the fruits of our labor to purchase the votes they need to keep themselves in power to rule and reign over us.

Charles Rangel and many other like-minded people have presided over the gradual imposition of a soft enslavement of millions of modern Americans. Their defense of today’s soft slavery is essentially the same as the slave masters of the eighteenth century: this is our system and the economy depends upon it. But, in truth, their own personal wealth and influence also depend on it. In addition to legally confiscating large portions of the fruit of our labor, they control our compulsory education system. They tell us how much water we can use to flush a toilet; what kind of light bulbs we must use. They have shut down vast reserves of our nation’s natural resources which we require for our energy needs, intentionally driving up the cost of energy. They intend to disarm us. They intend to tell us what doctors we can see and when. They insult and demean us in our airports. They seek to divide and inflame us by race and by economic status. They intervene in every aspect of our personal and business lives. They are destroying the value of our currency. They are the soft, but ever hardening, slave masters of the twenty first century. And sadly, most Americans seem to support this system. We are a generation who self-righteously condemns the eighteenth century American for the moat we see in his eye, but are largely blinded to the fact that we have a beam in our own eye.

The Constitution is a framework for a government intended to protect the individual liberty of each citizen – his life, his liberty, and his property – from the encroachments of his neighbor. But the Constitution is an impediment to the slave masters, and they have no regard nor use for it. Remember that the next time you hear Charles Rangel, or anyone else, dismissing the Constitution as the antidote to our national decline.

As for this American, you can count me among the twenty first century abolitionists.


About John C. Greene

I am a rapidly aging businessman in Connecticut and author of Walking in Darkness at Noonday; married since 1975 to Kyong Sook; three children, long time empty-nester. I have been a convert member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for over half my life. While a member of a rock band in LA in the mid-1970s I became fascinated with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's story of solitary bravery in the face of political imprisonment, his exile from his homeland, and his book "Gulag Archipelago." The book had a profound impact on me as it made me realize that there is a vast difference between the land Solzhenitsyn was born to and the land where I was so fortunate to have been born. That was the beginning of my interest in liberty, correct principles of government, and the peculiarly LDS doctrine we call the agency of man.
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