Revolution #270, May 27, 2012
The U.S. Constitution and the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)
Two Constitutions, Two Different Systems, Two Different Futures for African-American People
Part 1: A Slaveholders' Union
The U.S. Constitution was drafted, debated, and approved by slave owners and exploiters. Despite this profound truth about the historical birth of the United States, many people argue that the Constitution has protected and expanded the political and civil rights of the people; and that it continues to provide the legal foundation and political vision for overcoming existing inequalities and injustices. But this message—that the U.S. Constitution establishes a vision and basis for achieving a society where “everyone is equal”—is profoundly UNTRUE and actually does great harm. From the very beginning this Constitution has provided the legal framework and justifications for a society torn by deep inequalities, and the preservation of a whole economic and social setup in which a relatively small number of people rule over an exploitative society and maintain that dominance.
In 2010 the Revolutionary Communist Party published the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) (CNSRNA). This visionary document, based on the new synthesis of communism developed over decades by Bob Avakian, provides the framework for a whole new society, a framework to advance to a communist world—a world no longer divided into antagonistic social groups, where people will instead live and work together as a freely associating community of human beings, all over the planet.
This series will compare and contrast the U.S. Constitution and the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal)—in relation to the enslavement, oppression and emancipation of African-American people. We encourage readers to discuss and study this series, spread and share it among your friends; get it into the classrooms, communities and prisons; and send us your comments. The first half of Part One of this series was run in Revolution #265; here we are running it in its entirety. See Revolution #264 for the introduction to this series.
American enslavement of African people and their descendents was a never-ending hell of work, abuse, torture, rape, and degradation. It was enforced by whips, chains, shotguns, and vicious bloodhounds. The culture and outlook of white supremacy penetrated every aspect of life in the U.S., South and North alike. And all this was enshrined in the “law of the land,” starting with the U.S. Constitution—the binding legal document of the new country.
The U.S. Constitution was, and is, dedicated to the defense of “private property rights” based on exploitation, and for eight decades that included the enslavement of Black people. James Madison, the main author of the U.S. Constitution, wrote that the law in the U.S. regarded slaves as “inhabitants, but debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants.… The true state of the case is that they partake of both these qualities: being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property.... This is in fact their true character. It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live; and it will not be denied that these are the proper criterion.”1
Here Madison was arguing for and defending a legal principle that established Black people as a form of property in U.S. law.
“Inhabitants, but debased by servitude below the equal level of free inhabitants”—which meant slaves had no rights whatsoever under the law.
“Being considered by our laws, in some respects, as persons, and in other respects as property”—which meant they could be put on an auction block to be bought and sold, and witness their loved ones taken from them as someone else’s purchase.
“It is the character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live”—which meant they could be forced to work like animals under the whip, chained up and hounded by dogs if they dared to escape; subjected to subhuman conditions of life, and the constant knowledge that the slave master could end their lives on even the slightest whim.
During more than the first 70 years of the United States, constitutionally sanctioned and court approved cruelty towards enslaved Black people knew no limits. The system of “justice” developed under the U.S. Constitution was dedicated to providing the legal basis for complete control of the slave master over their human property. For example: “In one case, a Missouri court considered the ‘crime’ of Celia, a slave who had killed her master while resisting a sexual assault. State law deemed ‘any woman’ in such circumstances to be acting in self-defense. But Celia, the court ruled, was not, legally speaking, ‘a woman’. She was a slave, whose master had complete power over her person. The court sentenced her to death. However, since Celia was pregnant, her execution was postponed until the child was born, so as not to deprive Celia’s owner’s heirs of their property rights.”2
A Slaveholders’ Union
The enslavement of African people and their descendents was integral to the development of what Europeans called the “new world” beginning in 1502. By the time the U.S. declared its independence from England in 1776, slavery existed in all 13 colonies, but it was most concentrated in the southern colonies—Virginia, Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Georgia, especially in the cotton and tobacco plantation regions.
In May 1787, 55 delegates gathered in Philadelphia to write a constitution for a nation formed from the 13 newly independent British colonies. Since winning their war of independence, the former colonies had until this time been held together tenuously, by a weak and largely ineffective central power.
Whether these delegates could compose and agree upon a document capable of uniting the colonies into a coherent national state was not a settled question. Sharp, contentious debate expressing the conflicting interests of representatives from different states, in particular the slave owners of the South and the merchant capitalists of the North, continued for over four months before a complete document was drafted and approved by the delegates.
Much of their contention was shaped and driven by the question of slavery. George William Van Cleve writes in A Slaveholders’ Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic, that by 1770 slavery in the American colonies “had become a central economic institution … slaves had become a major economic asset, with a conservatively estimated collective market value of about 14 million pounds sterling (about $2.4 billion today). Slaves constituted nearly 20% of total private wealth in the 13 colonies in 1774.”3
Two convention delegates delivered speeches denouncing slavery. But the debate here was not about the morality of slavery at the Constitutional Convention. There were no passionate speeches condemning this barbaric atrocity inherited from a colonial empire. There were no demands for its immediate abolition. The arguments concerning slavery centered on several inter-related issues: whether property or population would be the main factor determining representation in the new government’s congress, and the power of the new central government to control trade, commerce, and treaties—and most specifically, the international slave trade.
One Constitution, Two Mutually Dependent Economic Systems
Defenders of the U.S. Constitution often note that it doesn’t contain the word “slavery.” There are several possible reasons for this, including that at least some of its writers and signers recognized the contradiction in overtly recognizing slavery in a document that proclaims to be based on and represent “the people.”
But the fact is that this Constitution—the highest, binding political/legal document of the United States—acknowledged and defended the outright ownership as “property” of an entire category of human beings: Africans and their descendents. Building upon this constitutional foundation, the U.S., through both its political apparatus and its system of courts and laws, continued in its first 70 years to uphold this status of human “property” as a legal category.
The newly formed U.S. included two co-existing economic systems—capitalism and slavery, two ways of organizing society on a foundation of exploitation. These two systems were mutually dependent on each other. The merchants, lawyers, slave traders and slave owners, bankers, ship owners and other prosperous men who debated and wrote the U.S. Constitution needed to create a framework in which both capitalism and slavery could continue to develop. They needed a central state structure capable of protecting their sometimes clashing interests, while at the same time holding them within a unified federal state. They needed a constitution—a document that established the legal and political “rules” of the new country.
From the beginning, the U.S. was formed with the understanding that such a unified state was needed to forge a powerful new country in the Western hemisphere, one capable of resisting domination or interference by European powers, and with a central government strong enough to work out differences between northern capitalists and southern slave owners, especially as it expanded into its western territories. The Constitution’s “pro-slavery character” was the result of efforts to deal with this contradiction. Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution declared the slaves to be three-fifths human beings. In this way, the property of the slave owners, i.e. human slaves, were counted in the system of political representation—giving the South an advantage in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College—while denying slaves legal rights as persons.
Slavery was concentrated in the southern states. But it existed in a mutually reliant economic structure with the mercantile capitalism then dominant in the northern states and within a common political framework. Slavery was decisive to the growth, expansion, and prosperity of the entire country. The economic well-being of both southern slave owners and northern capitalists depended on each other’s activities. Cotton and other agricultural products from the slave plantations were processed in northern factories and shipped from northern ports, which also dominated most of the trade coming into the new country.
The Constitution that emerged from the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia protected both the capitalist and slave forms of exploitation and enrichment for a small number of people and established a means for their often intense differences to be worked through. The framework that the U.S. Constitution provided for the coherence and development of the new country enabled the U.S., as a whole, and in both its slave and non-slave components, to expand dramatically in the decades after independence was won.
The Missouri Compromise
The years after the U.S. Constitution was written and adopted were years of rapid westward expansion, into areas that are now states, like Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana in the North, and Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee in the South. Genocidal campaigns against the Native Americans who lived in areas coveted by white Americans made this expansion possible. And agreements made in Congress, under the provisions of this Constitution, established the legal basis for areas south of the Ohio River to be developed as slave territories, soon to be slave states.
Missouri, which lies mostly north of the Ohio River, became a battleground—as both pro- and anti-slavery forces were moving into Missouri in large numbers by 1815. The question of what the character of that state would be was up for grabs. As Van Cleve notes, “the Missouri controversy of 1819-1821 was a titanic economic and political struggle between America’s sections over their westward expansion. The dispute placed slavery in a clash with an emerging free-labor ideology.”4
The resolution of these “disputes” firmly upheld the legal, constitutional basis for slavery as a long-term social institution in the United States. Missouri was admitted to the union as a slave state. In exchange the non-slave state of Maine entered the union so that Congressional “equilibrium” between the two sections of the country would be maintained.
The equilibrium proved to be fragile. For the next 40 years disputes between northern and southern states erupted repeatedly as the country continued to push westward. The key point of ongoing, unsettled contention—whether the territories being opened up to American expansion would be slave or non-slave—was argued and fought over repeatedly. But the outcome of the Missouri Compromise further strengthened and emboldened pro-slavery forces, and led them to push for further expansion of slave territories. It also further solidified the constitutionality of slavery in newly formed states or territories, not just the states that had originally been part of the union.
From the time the Constitution was approved in 1788, up until 1821, when the Missouri Compromise had been finalized, the number of slave states and the total number of enslaved people had both more than doubled. A huge proportion of the national wealth—in the North as well as the South—had been amassed from the backbreaking, never-ending labor of slaves—people who had no rights and no legal ability to resist their oppression; who were routinely worked to the point of death, sold away from families and loved ones, cruelly maimed and tortured, and systematically denied any education. The growth and expansion of slavery, as well as the enshrined right of slave masters and overseers to mete out any punishment they desired to their “property,” were built into the U.S. Constitution and were constitutionally protected.
As bargains and compromises were made in the halls of Congress, and as rulings came down in the U.S. Supreme Court, millions of human beings continued to have the legal, constitutional status of “property” without the rights of citizens. The blood of countless slaves was a mortar that bound together the increasingly clashing northern and southern sections of the country.
The Bloodhound Law (Fugitive Slave Act)
“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.” Constitution of the United States, Article 4, Section 2
Put in plain English, this section of the U.S. Constitution said that a slave would remain the property of his or her “owner” wherever the slave may go, even into areas where slavery was not recognized. It further stipulated that officials in non-slave states who came upon escaped slaves were obliged to deliver the “property” to the “rightful owner.” To make things perfectly clear, Congress in 1793 passed the “Fugitive Slave Law” to require the return of “runaway” slaves.
But by the late 1840s, runaway slaves were becoming a major problem for slave owners, especially in areas on the perimeter of the slave states. A network of safe houses and secret trails called the Underground Railroad was operated by Black people and white abolitionists to help escaped slaves get to non-slave territory in the North and in Canada, and by the 1840s and 1850s thousands of Black people were escaping from slavery through the railroad.
Further, several northern states had enacted measures called “personal liberty laws” which were aimed at nullifying the Fugitive Slave Act and preventing bounty hunters from snatching Black people off the streets in northern cities and sending them to slavery. In several instances crowds of white abolitionists forced the release of slaves who had been arrested. Well-known intellectuals and writers such as John Greenleaf Whittier and Ralph Waldo Emerson condemned the law and called for people to defy it.
Around the same time, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850—called the “Bloodhound Law” by abolitionists because of the bloodhounds used to track slaves—was passed as yet another “compromise.” But it in fact went even further than the original Fugitive Slave Act—it required that citizens of non-slave states capture and return slaves to their “rightful owners,” under severe penalty of law.
Dred Scott, and a Crisis of Legitimacy
A ruling concerning a slave named Dred Scott was a stark and concentrated example of the logic of the constitutionality of slavery. Dred Scott was a Black man who had been born into slavery, and served as a slave to a U.S. Army officer who had been stationed throughout the U.S. After the officer was transferred from Minnesota to the slave state of Missouri, Scott and his wife filed a suit in federal court seeking their freedom, which he said had been established because they had lived in non-slave states.
In 1857, the United States Supreme Court ruled that neither Dred Scott nor any person of “African descent” could file a lawsuit in a U.S. court, since they could not be citizens of the U.S. The Supreme Court further ruled that simply living outside an area where slavery was established did not establish Scott’s freedom, since this would “deprive his owner of his property.”
Roger B. Taney, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, summarized his ruling with these infamous words: saying that the authors of the Constitution—the “founders”—regarded and legally institutionalized Black people as “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
The Supreme Court’s decision emboldened the southern slave owners, and infuriated many anti-slavery forces throughout the North. The slave owners argued that the Supreme Court’s decision in effect negated the Missouri Compromise, and would restore to them their constitutional right to bring their slaves anywhere in the United States. Many northerners regarded the Dred Scott decision as a culmination of a decades-long drive to expand slavery, and vowed to defy and oppose it. The differences between the two sides could no longer be reconciled.
Four years after the Dred Scott ruling, the U.S. Civil War began.
To be continued
1. Cited in The U.S. Constitution: An Exploiters' Vision of Freedom, by Bob Avakian [back]
2. Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction, by Eric Foner and Joshua Brown [back]
3. A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic, by George William Van Cleve, p 6 [back]
4. Van Cleve, p. 225 [back]
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