This broadside refers to an episode that took place in the First Congress when Pennsylvania Quakers, with the support of Benjamin Franklin, presented a petition to Congress requesting termination of the slave trade. The House of Representatives referred the petition to a committee, the routine procedure, but because Article I, Section 9, of the new Constitution prohibited Congress from ending the slave trade before 1808, the committee and the Congress took no action on the petition. Nevertheless, as the text of the broadside indicates, even receipt of the petition provoked controversy. The event was a reminder that the existence of slavery in a nation founded on the principles of liberty posed many problems.
During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, differences of opinion arose between representatives of states where slavery was an essential component of the economy and states where slavery was less important and was being legislated out of existence. The words slave and slavery do not appear in the Constitution, but references to slaves and slavery appear in several places, parts of the compromises worked out during the convention that allowed men from both sets of states to accept the Constitution.
The compromise that led to Section 9 of Article I permitted South Carolina, in particular, and the other slave states to participate in the importation of African laborers for twenty years, which some members of the convention defended as necessary to keep South Carolina, North Carolina, and Georgia in the Union. Planters in those states could continue to import what the Constitution identified as "such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit," but opponents of the slave trade could hope to terminate the slave trade at the beginning of 1808 if they could persuade a majority of both houses of Congress, which they eventually did.
The Constitutional Convention also compromised differences of opinion about taxation and about representation in Congress that arose because of the importance of slavery in some of the states. The so-called three-fifths compromise appears in Article I, Section 2. The Constitution awarded each state a number of members of the House of Representatives based on the state's population and also empowered Congress to collect taxes to be equally apportioned among the states by population. Some delegates from the states with large enslaved populations argued that slaves, being inhabitants, should be counted when determining how many members of the House of Representatives each state should have, but many other delegates argued that because slaves were not entitled to vote and were in many other respects legally treated as property, they should not be counted. In the manner of taxation, delegates from slave states opposed counting slaves, and delegates from the other states proposed to tax slave property. The compromise that settled the basis of legislative representation and proportional taxation among the states "according to their respective numbers" referred to those enslaved people as "three-fifths of all other persons." Because the number of senators and representatives in Congress that each state had was to be the number of its presidential electors, the slave states by that compromise gained influence in the election of presidents by a factor of three-fifths of the number of their slaves or, if looked at from the opposite point of view, lost influence in the election of presidents by a factor of two-fifths of the number of their slaves.
The Constitution also alluded to slavery in Article I, Section 8, by authorizing Congress to provide by law for calling forth state militias if necessary "to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions." Section 2 of Article II also authorized the president to act as commander in chief of "the militia of the several states" when called into federal service. The word insurrection could refer to any civil unrest, but it was the probably the potential threat of mass insurrections by enslaved African Americans that some delegates worried could be so dangerous that the ordinary course of the law and the militia of a state alone might not be adequate to suppress.
Another reference to slavery in the Constitution appears in Section 2 of Article IV, which reads, "No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due." Known as the fugitive slave clause, even though the words slave and slavery do not appear in it and it could also be understood to refer to indentured servants, this section was a protection that men who owned slaves insisted on including in the Constitution.
At the time that the Constitution was submitted to the states for ratification, it was well understood that those compromises were necessary to unite the southern slave states and the northern states—all of which had already or would soon abolish slavery. Those compromises and other sections of the Constitution, particularly Section 3 of Article IV, which allowed Congress to "make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory" belonging to the United States and to admit new states to the Union, all provoked controversies between the ratification of the Constitution and the American Civil War. Enslaved laborers being in one legal sense persons and in another legal sense property, and the morality and propriety of slavery in a country founded on principles of liberty led to intense debates over whether Congress could prohibit or had to protect slavery in new western territories; whether Congress could abolish slavery in the District of Columbia; whether Congress or the courts could require the return of fugitive slaves; whether enslaved people had access to courts to challenge their status; and whether, in fact, slaves were to be regarded as citizens of the United States or of the states in which they resided with rights to vote and hold public office.
As this broadside from the 1790 congressional election campaign indicates, those compromises in the Constitution and those problems were lively and important political issues almost from the very beginning of government under the Constitution. They would not be settled until the outcome of the Civil War in 1865 and the subsequent adoption of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution that ended slavery and defined citizenship.
1. Which section and article of the Constitution does the writer of this broadside say that the congressmen have disobeyed?
2. What is the crocodile mentioned in the twelfth paragraph?
1. What were some of the arguments that white slaveholders used to justify keeping slaves in a nation established on equality of men?
2. Read the petition that the Quaker group submitted to Congress. Was the writer of this broadside correct in arguing that its debate was unconstitutional?
This undated broadside, signed at the top by Francis Corbin (1759 or 1760–1821), may have circulated in the Northern Neck of Virginia during the congressional election campaign for members of the Second Congress in 1790, in which Corbin, of Middlesex County, was an unsuccessful candidate.
Finkelman, Paul. Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson. Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1996.
Waldstreicher, David. Runaway America: Benjamin Franklin, Slavery, and the American Revolution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2004.
Lightner, David L.. "The Founders and the Interstate Slave Trade." Journal of the Early Republic 22, no. 1 (Spring, 2002): 25–51.