Liberty Matters

Antislavery and Proslavery Perspectives in Madison’s Notes


Our understanding of the Convention’s treatment of slavery has come a long way since a century ago when Max Farrand, the editor of The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787, attempted to dismiss its significance. He claimed that historians had “greatly misrepresented” slavery’s significance as a topic of debate. This distortion, according to Farrand, resulted from the coincidence that James Madison’s notes from the Convention were published first in 1840, “just the time when the slavery question was becoming the all-absorbing topic in our national life.” Farrand was not surprised that “the historical writers of that time… should overemphasize the slavery questions in the Convention.” The historical writers of our time have rejected Farrand’s judgment that the debates about slavery were of secondary importance. Instead, we find ourselves asking whether it is conceivable that the Constitution was intended to be anything but proslavery. 
Thus, while Dennis Rasmussen notes “our minds are naturally drawn to the shameful silences and dirty compromises that pervade the framers’ approach” to slavery, he reminds us there were “a very few bright spots.” Focusing on Gouverneur Morris’s “stunning antislavery speech” of August 8, Rasmussen points out that the draft constitution prepared late in the Convention by the five-man Committee of Detail “was conspicuously proslavery.” Morris took this opportunity to denounce the institution of slavery, the South itself, and the slave trade. Slavery was “the curse of Heaven on the States where it prevailed.” The slave states were “barren wastes,” marked by “misery and poverty.” The slave trade was “nefarious” and “in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity.” 
Rasmussen laments, “Alas, Morris’s speech was all but ignored.” But thankfully it was not ignored by all. Later in August as the Convention debated that portion of the Committee of Detail’s report which would have prohibited Congress from ever having power to ban the importation of slaves, George Mason returned to the exact same themes Morris raised. Like Morris, Mason believed slavery would “bring the judgment of Heaven on a country.” Like Morris, Mason held that “[s]lavery discourages arts and manufactures.” Like Morris, Mason called the slave trade “a nefarious traffic.” And while Rasmussen’s conclusion is corroborated by the absence of any record of Morris’s speech in fragmentary records kept for August 8 by James McHenry and Rufus King, we should be grateful that Morris’s speech was not ignored by Madison, who recorded, in 630 vivid and uncompromising words, Morris’s “ringing denunciations of slavery” in all of their “moral clarity.” 
Neither Morris’s denunciation of slavery nor most of the details of the Convention’s debates on slavery would be widely known until the 1840 publication of James Madison’s Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. By this time, lines had been drawn between those who claimed the Constitution was intended to be antislavery and those who claimed it was intended to be proslavery. The latter argument prevailed in the Taney Court’s egregious 1842 decision Prigg v. Pennsylvania. Even though the attorney for Pennsylvania, Thomas Hambly, cited Madison’s recently published Debates to claim that the drafting history of the fugitive slave clause indicated a concern for the due process rights of those alleged to have escaped from “service or labor,” the Taney Court — now remembered as the original originalists — paid no attention to Madison’s notes. Willfully ignoring the leading historical source of the framers’ intent, the Taney Court cynically held, “Historically, it is well known that the object of the clause was to secure to the citizens of the slave-holding states the complete right and title of ownership in their slaves, as property, in every State in the Union….”
The Prigg decision contributed to a schism in the abolitionist movement. Brian Satterfield shows how William Lloyd Garrison accepted the claim that the Constitution was intended to be proslavery, and Frederick Douglass rejected it. Satterfield points out that, in an 1860 speech to the Scottish Anti-Slavery Society in Glasgow, Douglass (no doubt prompted by the Taney Court’s 1857 decision Dred Scott v. Sandford) challenged the intent of the framers as a guide or controlling factor in the interpretation of the Constitution. “[T]he intentions of those who framed the Constitution, be they good or bad, for slavery or against slavery, are respected so far, and so far only, as we find those intentions plainly stated in the Constitution.” (Here, of course, Douglass echoes James Madison’s paradoxical insistence that “the legitimate meaning of the Instrument must be derived from the text itself” and not from the “intentions of the Body which planned & proposed the Constitution.”)
Satterfield shows that Douglass found “the text of the Constitution steadfastly avoided any explicit recognition of slaves or slavery.” The three-fifths clause, Douglass argued, was a “‘downright disability’ for slave holding states in that it deprived them of two-fifths of the representation that they would under normal counting procedures have had. Taking it at its worst, Douglass argued, it ‘leans to freedom.’” The slave trade clause “tended to freedom, and showed that ‘the intentions of the framers of the Constitution were good, not bad.’” Finally, Satterfield points out that in addressing the fugitive slave clause, Douglass went to Madison’s notes to claim:
the words employed in the first draft of the fugitive slave clause were such as applied to the condition of slaves, and expressly declared that persons held to “servitude” should be given up; but that the words “servitude” was struck from the provision, for the very reason that it applied to slaves…. Mr. Madison declared that the word was struck out because the convention would not consent that the idea of property in men should be admitted into the Constitution.
In referring to the text of the Constitution, Douglass refused to accept that this public document bound Americans to be governed by any secret intent or private bargains struck behind closed doors at the Philadelphia Convention. Garrison, by contrast, had been shocked by revelations of a sectional bargain struck within the Convention regarding slavery, but he accepted the Taney Court’s judgment that a sectional bargain should control the meaning of the Constitution. Garrison’s sense of shock is shared by historians today. His critique of the framers was recovered (following Farrand’s dismissal of it) and expanded in the late 1960s by Staughton Lynd who speculated about a secret bargain between the Federal Convention and the Confederation Congress. Subsequent scholars working in the Garrisonian vein have claimed his critique of the Constitution did not go far enough. William Wiecek has argued that at least nine or ten clauses directly protected or referred to slavery. Paul Finkelman found five clauses that “directly sanctioned slavery,” seven more that “directly protected slavery,” and another six that “ultimately protected [slavery] when interpreted by the courts or implemented by Congress…,” totaling eighteen clauses tainted by slavery. David Waldstreicher concluded, “The clauses that relate directly to slavery are not exceptions to the Constitution’s remarkable combination of precision and vagueness: they epitomize those qualities.” 
In this way Christa Dierksheide attempts to go “beyond” the “binary” nature of the debate — “proslavery vs. antislavery or Northern vs. Southern.” While she observes “[a]n array of seemingly antislavery and proslavery positions were staked out when delegates debated the slave trade in August of 1787,” the salient fact was that “General Charles Pinckney of South Carolina drew a line in the sand, saying that ‘South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves.’” The Constitution allowed slaveholders “to imagine the U.S. federal union as a rapidly expanding system wherein slave property and the free movement of that property were safeguarded by law.” Even Madison’s recollection of a sectional “line of discrimination” between slave and free states “obfuscated the real issue at hand at the Convention — creating a continental ‘union’ that guaranteed the protection of property rights, including federal recognition of those rights — both citizenship and slavery — across jurisdictional boundaries.” Dierksheide points out that most Northern states “only pledged to end slavery gradually through state statues. This meant that bondage did not actually end in the ‘free states’ until between 1827 and 1850.” This view goes beyond the binary proslavery vs. antislavery debate by concluding the Constitution created a slaveholder’s union through and through. 
This symposium has identified multiple perspectives on the Convention’s treatment of slavery — from Convention delegates who condemned slavery as an affront to God and the slave trade as “nefarious,” to a former slave who insisted the Constitution was antislavery, to modern historians who insist that it is proslavery. Ultimately, these perspectives are all filtered through two people: William Lloyd Garrison and James Madison. To Madison, of course, we owe nearly everything we know about the Convention’s antislavery and proslavery influences. From him we have learned the perspectives of those like Gouverneur Morris — and George Mason, and Luther Martin — who denounced slavery in the most strident terms as a moral evil and a sin. And from him we have learned about the “dishonorablebargain by which seven states from New England and the Deep South — against the objections of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia (with New York and Rhode Island absent) — came to “an understanding” on the slave trade. To Garrison, prompted by the Taney Court, we owe the binary debate over whether the Constitution was proslavery or antislavery. To Garrison alone we owe the binary debate about whether Madison’s notes proved this to be so. 
Responding in his speech in Glasgow to this binary debate, Frederick Douglass argued, “The fact that Mr. Madison can be cited on both sides of this question is another evidence of the folly and absurdity of making the secret intentions of the framers the criterion by which the Constitution is to be construed.” Madison agreed. Still he ensured that Garrison’s generation of Americans, and ours, had access to the secret intentions of the framers. Though some of Madison’s revelations show the honorable intentions of men like Gouverneur Morris, others reveal much that is dishonorable to the American character. We should ask why Madison intended for us to know these secrets.