In the 18th Century, slavery was the norm in many places in the world. That wasn’t new; the Roman Empire 2000 years earlier used slaves to maintain the standard lifestyle for Roman Citizens. The very elite could assign slaves to fight in their place in the Roman armies. Ultimately, this was a factor in the collapse of the Roman Empire. Slaves weren’t all that interested in giving their lives and getting nothing in return. When the Roman Army was largely populated by slaves, it was over for the Empire.

The Romans “recruited” their slaves from the populations they conquered. Intercontinental shipping was yet to be discovered.

By the 18th Century, slavery was an international business. Those who traded in slaves would sail to Africa and buy slaves at auction. Some tribes captured members of a victim tribe, and sold them at the auctions. European slave traders would purchase the slaves, transport them to various “markets”, and sell them to the buyers. In our case, the slaves were sold to the wealthy southern land owners and were used to tend their crops.

The southern colonies largely depended on farming, of cotton and tobacco, to support their lifestyle and their whole economy. Without a trace of farm machinery such as we have today, tending the fields required massive amounts of manual labor. For the south, that required a large number of slaves. Without slavery, the southern way of life would end.

As the colonies began to join and establish our identity as a sovereign Nation, all 13 colonies, both northern and southern, had to work together. We needed every bit of colonial support to drive out the British.

When drafting our Declaration of Independence, the north wanted to eliminate slavery, while the south required slavery. There was only one option available: the north had to accept slavery in the south.

  1. The Revolution Begins

While our Revolutionary War was being fought, work began on a document that would be our defining National document. That document was named the Articles of Confederation. Unfortunately, the document didn’t grant the kinds of Federal authority that would be needed. Taxes could not be levied, even for something as essential as National defense. Under the Articles, the Federal government could ask for, but not compel, the colonies to pay appropriate taxes.

Just as with the Declaration of Independence, the slavery question was left unresolved.

Without war powers and the power to tax, the Federal government could not defend the Nation.

It didn’t take long for representatives of the colonies to conclude that the Articles had to be replaced.
  1. The Articles of Confederation need Changes

It would not be sufficient to amend the Articles; a committee was formed to create an entirely new document; the Articles were abandoned, and a committee was formed to write a new document.

Historian Forrest McDonald, using the ideas of James Madison from Federalist 39, describes the change this way:

“The constitutional reallocation of powers created a new form of government, unprecedented under the sun. Every previous national authority either had been centralized or else had been a confederation of sovereign states. The new American system was neither one nor the other; it was a mixture of both.”

On March 4, 1789, our Country switched from the Articles to our Constitution. George Washington was unanimously elected President by the first Electoral College.

  1. Drafting our Constitution

    The opening paragraph shows just how unusual our Constitution is. Instead of being dictated by a “king” or other exalted individual, it reads:

    We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

    While George Washington is honored as the Father of our Country, it is James Madison who is the Father of the Constitution.

    The document is written on behalf of the citizens, and later ratified by them, and sets for the Federal Government, a list of granted powers. Called the Enumerated Powers (Article 1, Section 8, as amended), they limit the Federal powers to only those matters that are required to be performed by any National government.

    Quoting from the Constitution, some of these powers are:
  • “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises, to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defence and general Welfare of the United States; but all Duties, Imposts and Excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;”
  • “To borrow money on the credit of the United States;”
  • “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with the Indian Tribes;”
  • “To establish an uniform Rule of Naturalization, and uniform Laws on the subject of Bankruptcies throughout the United States;”
  • “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;”
  • “To declare War, grant Letters of Marque and Reprisal, and make Rules concerning Captures on Land and Water;”
  • “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions;”
  • “To make all Laws which shall be necessary and proper for carrying into Execution the foregoing Powers, and all other Powers vested by this Constitution in the Government of the United States, or in any Department or Officer thereof.”
Upon agreement among all the colonies, as soon as the Constitution went into effect on March 4, 1789, an initial group of ten amendments to the Constitution were ratified. Collectively, they are referred to as “The Bill of Rights”. These rights establish the fundamental relationship between the Federal Government and the individual citizens. Let’s review several of the most fundamental of rights.

Amendment 1: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Amendment 2: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

Amendment 4: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Amendment 5: “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”

In spite of this, regarding slavery in the Constitution, there still was no “anti-slavery” clause. It all boiled down to the needs of the southern economy. The issue of freedom for all would remain unresolved until the Civil War. It was President Lincoln’s defining contribution to our Country. By all costs, he was going to preserve the Union. During the war, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation which freed all slaves in our various territories; Later, the 13th Amendment was ratified:
  • “1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
  • 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”

1. Jensen, Merrill (1959). The Articles of Confederation: An Interpretation of the Social-Constitutional History of the American Revolution, 1774–1781. University of Wisconsin Press. pp. xi, 184. ISBN 0-299-00204-7.