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United States Constitution Impacted The Institution History Essay

Before the United States of America existed as a nation, slavery existed here. Both whites and blacks would endure the intense laboring of the making of a great nation. As the nation began to organized and establish a strong foundation of elected government, many issues were addressed. In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to discuss the governing issues America was dealing with since their independence from Great Britain. At the Constitutional Convention, the controversial issues of slavery and the regulation of it, how to count them, and the slave trade were least dominating but important because they would affect decisions made in the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott case, the emancipation of slaves, and many other compromises and events. To better understand these issues and how the new Constitution would affect the institution of slavery, you must first understand its evolution and its importance in the developing economic society of America.

The slavery of whites came prior to the enslavement of Africans in the new nation. Whites that were enslaved here were considered indentured servants and they accounted for 70% of the population. They were brought over to the new world by way of the middle passage. Those who survived this long distressful voyage were auctioned off. Many of those auctioned were children who were kidnapped at port cities, brought over to the new world, and used for slaves. During their enslavement, many of them suffered separation from their family members such as children and spouses. Slavery among whites was often inherited, and they would remain enslaved until death. [i] 

Not all the white indentured servants were kidnapped and forced into slavery, some were English criminals that were sentenced to work in the colonies of this new world. The poor and middle class English citizens were also among those who worked as indentured servants. Unlike those who were enslaved or criminals, the others usually signed a contract of agreement for labor lasting for a few years. This contract would guarantee them free passage to the new world, food, clothing, and shelter upon their arrival. Servants were considered property of the master and they were not allowed to marry or bare children without permission. They also were not allowed to leave the property without prior approval nor were they allowed to work for someone else for pay without consent. Violators were severely punished by whippings. Upon expiration of their contract, the servants were usually paid “freedom dues”. [ii] The successful enslavement of Africans in America came much later although their enslavement was originally introduced more than one-hundred years prior.

Africans brought to America as slaves were usually captured from the interior lands and brought to the coasts of Africa where they were sold to white slave traders. Just as the white indentured servants, Africans endured horrific conditions while traveling the Middle Passage. In 1526, the first African slaves arrived near the unknown territory that would later become known as Georgetown, South Carolina. The survival of slave labor within this settlement dwindled quickly as the colonists fought over leadership. This sudden eruption of disagreements allowed time for the slaves to revolt, fleeing the colony and obtaining refuge among the Native Americans. An unspecified number of African slaves settled some thirty years later in the first European settlement of Saint Augustine, Florida in North America. Here African slavery existed but did not thrive fully in America until the early 17th century. [iii] 

The preference to purchase slaves rather than to use indentured servants popularized after the settlement of the first British colony in Carolina. Although slaves were more expensive than servants this concept spread rapidly mainly throughout the Southern colonies. At this time, the Southern economy primarily consisted of tobacco, rice, corn, potatoes, indigo, wheat, silk, and iron. The choice to use blacks as slaves was a result of the intense laboring required in the farming of the tobacco, rice, and indigo. [iv] As a result of the adaptation of this intense laboring among the black slaves, colonist in the middle and northern states also began to purchase slaves. As slavery became more universal, the business of slave trading flourished in the port cities of America, importing relatively 650,000 during its existence. [v] 

Just as the white indentured servants, African slaves were considered as property. Slave owners were responsible for housing them as well as feeding and clothing them. They too did not have rights to perform work for anyone for profit without permission from their master. If a slave tried to run away they were punished severely. Unlike some white indentured servants, none of the African slave services were contracted for a certain number of years with hopes of freedom. Instead, they were expected to serve in bondage until death. [vi] This brief history of the origins of slavery can aid in the understanding of how it was affected by the Constitution of the United States of America.

Due to the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation, a Constitutional Convention was called with hopes of creating a strong federal government. There was a constant battle between the northern and southern states for economic dominance. This struggle prompted the debate of slavery. Should slave owners rights be protected or should the slaves be set free? When the delegates of the convention were deciding how slavery should be regulated they had to recognize the concerns of both the northerners and southerners in order to get the document ratified.

Believing that their economic prosperity depended on the slave trade, specifications were important in getting approval from southern states. This included recognition and protection on the institution and representation for taxation purposes. The delegates of the convention understood the need to recognize slavery because they knew the southerners may abandon the convention just as they had done at the meeting of the Second Continental Congress when writing the Declaration of Independence. The southerners had a fear of the northern states dominating Congress. This fear prompted the southern states to press the issue of slaves being counted to allow them more congressional seats. Although they wanted more congressional seats they did not want more taxes to be levied. This infuriated the northerners and they were not obliged to giving the southerners total satisfaction. The northerners decided that the slaves would have to be counted on both instances or none.

The final decision on how to count the slaves ended with them being counted as 3/5 of a vote. The judgment of count became known as the Three-Fifths Compromise. This decision satisfied the southerners need for more congressional seats which allowed for a more balanced Congress. With this balance, their fear of the northern states quickly abolishing slavery lessened but took precedence later in 1793 when the first Fugitive Slave Act was written. [vii] 

The northern states of America participated in the ownership of slaves just as the southern states did. However, their economy did not depend on the laboring of slaves. Most slaves in the north performed jobs in shipyards building ships, lumbering, fishing, barrel production, house servants, and skilled trades such as fur trading and blacksmithing. [viii] In the middle states, slavery was more fluent than in the northern states but much less than those in the south. These states economies primarily included the farming of livestock, beer and rum production, the selling of various animal products, wheat farming, and trading. [ix] All these factors contributed to oppositions between the states and played major parts in the final decision making. The next big decision regarding slavery at the Constitutional Convention would include the concerns of the northerners and the southern slave trade interest.

Africans were brought to America by way of the slave trade. Because this trading happened across the Atlantic Ocean, it became known as the transatlantic slave trade. This business thrived relatively easy because the kings of tribes in Africa were eager to hunt slaves from the country’s interior to trade for guns, ammunition, knives, and other items that the Europeans had to offer for payment. After capture, the slaves would endure a journey of approximately two weeks across the Atlantic Ocean.

While in route, slaves were kept underneath the deck of the ship and were usually shackled in chains from the neck, hands, and feet. While in route, slaves were mostly only allowed on the deck of the ship for water and a bit of air. The conditions under-deck was atrocious and most often were vile. Ships were packed to a capacity that often the men, women, and children aboard could not stand nor turn over. The limited amount of air available for breathing was filled with the scent of death. Quite often theses slaves died in route due to suffocation, starvation, dysentery, or other contagious diseases and infections. [x] Those slaves who survived the journey across the Atlantic Ocean would soon be sold at one of the port cities auction block.

After arrival, slaves were cleaned up, branded, and sometimes tarred to appear in healthy condition. They were then put into a pin for the spectators to exam for purchase. Slaves were purchased in one of two ways; by auction or by grab and go. Because slaves were seen as property and not humans, they were often split up from family if the slave masters did not choose to purchase the entire family. The strongest and most able bodies were sold at the highest bid and the sick and elderly were sold last for a much lower bid. [xi] 

This ill treatment of humans bothered some people throughout the world. British politician William Wilberforce began to push for the abolishment of the slave trade in Europe. Wilberforce was intrigued to campaign for human rights after his close colleague Rev. James Ramsey talked of the horrifying conditions in which slaves endured while aboard the ship and on the plantation. Almost immediately after initializing his campaign, the Quakers in America formed an anti-slave committee. Wilberforce’s campaign led to the passing of England’s Slave Trade Act of 1807. This act abolished slave trading in England but it did not abolish slavery there. [xii] 

According to the Constitution, slave trading in America was protected from abolishment by Congress until 1808. Although prohibited, each individual state had the right to restrict slave trading whenever they chose to. [xiii] The Quakers Pennsylvania Abolition Society was very affluent throughout the northern states of America. The Quakers views on the abolishment of slavery aided in the persuasion of the passing of states legislation in the north to abolish the slave trade. In 1787, New Jersey and Rhode Island initiated the process of states abolishing slave trading. In the mid-1790s, a law was passed prohibiting all citizens of the United States from participating in the manufacturing of equipment or ships that were to be used in the process of slave trading. This law and others were made possible through earlier decisions formed around the Constitution. By 1806, all states had abolished the slave trade with the exception of South Carolina. [xiv] Amidst the passing of these legislations, the first fugitive slave act was in the making.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was the first of two to be passed in the United States. This first act was passed during the Washington administration. It safeguarded slave owners from losing their slaves by guaranteeing that if the slave were to run away that they had the right to redeem them from any state. This law also made it illegal for anyone to assist slaves or fugitives. If caught assisting a slave, one would be punished with high fines. If they were caught assisting a fugitive, the penalty would be jail time. This law was seen as an asset to any slave owner, but it caused more hardship to blacks.

Not all blacks in America were victims of slavery. There were a few blacks in the northern area who were born free due to their mother being freed. This Fugitive Slave Act provided a way for the industry of slave catching to flourish throughout the states. With so many slave catchers hunting for blacks, many of those who had been legally freed and some who had never been a slave were caught and sold into slavery. Because they were black, it was often extremely difficult for them prove their freedom due to lack of evidence, money, and distrust from whites due to the color of their skin. [xv] As America expanded adding more states into the union, the disputes between the north and south ascended.

The Northwest Ordinance established the first organized territory of the United States between the Ohio River, the Great Lakes, and the Mississippi River. This ordinance was important because it established new states rather than expanding the old states. In relevance to slavery, this ordinance prohibited slavery in this region. Although the south was concerned about the balance of the free states to the slave states and their power in Congress, they supported the passing of the ordinance due to the fear of competition of pivotal cash crops. They also speculated that slavery would be allowed to areas south of the Ohio River, which was later guaranteed in the Southwest Ordinance of 1790. [xvi] One year after the passing of this ordinance a major slave revolt occurred in Haiti, giving birth to the revolts that would take place in the United States.

In 1800, Gabriel Prosser planned to lead a slave rebellion in Richmond, VA. Prosser was a blacksmith who belonged to Thomas Prosser. Virginia laws at this time allowed slaves to receive education and training for skilled jobs. Prosser used this education to his advantage to plan the slave revolt that involved as many as 1,000 people. The revolt was foiled, and once spotted, Gabriel was hung along with his brothers and other followers. Although this revolt was foiled, the impact was significant because of its capability of boundless violence. As a result of the uprising, the Virginia legislature banned slaves from being hired out. They also forced all free blacks to flee the state to avoid re-enslavement. [xvii] This revolt led to other small ones, but another major revolt was planned, a plan was devised as a solution to free blacks.

Wealthy ship owner Paul Cuffee advocated to take freed blacks back to Africa. Supported by black leaders and some members of Congress, Cuffee deported some blacks to Sierra Leone and aided them in getting established. Shortly after initiating his voyages, Cuffee died. The initiatives he made encouraged the Quakers to continue with his plans. This group of activists later became known as the American Colonization Society. This plan was supported by southerners in fear that free blacks would continue to organize revolts. The northerners supported the journeys because advent of black workers would harm the economic prosperity of whites. These journeys to North Africa continued for over the next twenty years. [xviii] Over the years of this society’s existence, America was dealing with disagreements between the north and south over slavery.

The controversy of power in Congress rose again between the southern slave states and the free states of the north. The altercation of sectional balance was an issue as Missouri was to be admitted into the union as a slave state. To offset the confrontation, Maine was to be admitted as a free state. In an effort to regulate slavery in the new western territories, the Missouri Compromise of 1820 was proposed. In this proposal, states to the north of the 36⁰30’ line would be free states with the exception of Missouri. All states to the south of this line were able to continue slavery upon admission. [xix] 

Angry about the decision to suppress the African church, free Methodist leader and carpenter, Denmark Versey, planned to lead a major revolt in South Carolina in 1822. His plan was to take over the entire city of Charleston, killing all the whites. Denmark’s inspiration came from the successful revolt that had taken place in Haiti in 1791, and this is where he and his co-conspirators planned to sail to in efforts of escaping any retaliation. Opposed by two slaves, the plot was foiled after the slave owners were informed. Denmark along with several of his followers were convicted and hung. His wife was later able to immigrate to Liberia with the aid of the American Colonization Society. [xx] A few years after this failed plan of attack, America faced a revolt that was able to be executed.

In August 1831, Southampton County, VA was under attack by a slave rebellion led by Baptist minister Nat Turner. Inspired by the Versey rebellion, Turner and his militia killed approximately sixty whites. After two days, the revolt was put down. Turner survived the revolt and went into hiding for several months. As a result of this uprising, as many as one hundred-fifty blacks were killed and sixty-five were executed for participation. Due to the significance of the revolt, state legislatures across the south began to pass laws forbidding the education of slaves and free blacks. They also began restricting many of the few rights that blacks had at this time and made it mandatory for a white minister to be present at the gathering of worship services. [xxi] This revolt by far was the most successful one in America. This revolt and the issues of slavery surrounding it caused major conflicts among the various denominations of the Christian religion.

For many years the issue of slavery had been developing in the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1844, at a conference in Louisville, Kentucky, all the issues were exposed and the church split. Opposed to slavery, the Church voted to remove one its pastors whom had acquired two slaves. Due to the differences, the Methodist of the south split and began their own denomination of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Most blacks in the south began to worship with the MEC-S until after the Civil War when the church would be divided again. [xxii] This split within the Methodist Church was mimicked by other denominations in America.

The Baptist Church held a convention in Augusta, Georgia in 1845. At this convention, the denomination split over issues surrounding the institution of slavery. The Southern Baptist ministers interpreted the Bible to support their practice of slavery, whereas the Northern Baptist ministers continued to oppose the institution. Under the Baptist doctrine, slave owners could not be missionaries. Due to the pressures and displeasures, Southern Baptist broke away from the Baptist organization creating their own. Another division of the Baptist Church evolved around blacks who desired to practice their own Christianity free from control and racial discrimination of whites. [xxiii] While this religious conflict was taking place, America was at war.

The Texas Annexation of 1845 led to the Mexican War (1846-48), where America seized additional territory extending to the Pacific Ocean. There were many reasons for this war, but one reason centralized around the issue of slavery. The Republic of Texas was composed mainly of southern slave owners. In 1827, slaveholding settlers became outraged at the plan to gradually emancipate the state’s slaves. As time progresses, the Republic of Texas declared independence from Mexico. [xxiv] While the war captured the attention of American politics, an escaped slave publishes his first book.

Politician, orator, writer, social reformer, and former slave, Frederick Douglass published his autobiography in 1845. After several failed attempts, Douglass managed to escape slavery in 1838, by dressing in a sailor uniform and boarding a train bound for Delaware. His journey continued until reaching New York. Later after arriving in Massachusetts, he began joining various organizations and attending abolitionist meetings. After much encouragement from journalist William Lloyd Garrison, Douglass began lecturing on anti-slavery. In 1848, he spoke at the Seneca Falls Convention, where he advocated for the rights of women.

With the assistance of his two eldest children, Douglass began a newspaper, the North Star, which was devoted to the abolition of slavery. He believed that education was essential for all blacks in order to improve their lives. This belief sparked him to speak out on the lack of facilities and instruction for blacks. His criticism led him to call for court action to open all schools to all children. He was also instrumental in President Abraham Lincoln’s decision on the mistreatment of black soldiers and black suffrage in which he spoke with President Andrew Johnson about. [xxv] Douglass mission to recognize blacks equally as whites had a significant influence over the institution of slavery and segregation.

While serving in the United States army, Zachary Taylor runs for president and wins. Three years prior to becoming president, Texas became a state and America gained land from Mexico, extending west to the Pacific Ocean. In this western territory of the United States, slavery once again became the controlling issue of politics. Despite owning slaves on his plantation in Louisiana, Taylor, during his short term as President, encouraged the new western territories to apply for statehood and devise state constitutions with provisions against slavery. His position to prevent the spreading of slavery infuriated southern slave owners. Regardless of this animosity, Taylor persisted and used the threat of force from the military to put down anyone who would try rebelling against the Union. In efforts of neutralizing this situation, Henry Clay wrote a bill consisting of many proposals. [xxvi] 

The lengthy compromise written by Henry Clay to subside the never dispute between the free states of the north and the slave states of the south failed to pass legislation numerous times. After dividing the five bills of the Compromise of 1850, Northern Democratic Party Senator Stephen Douglass, was able to get Congress to pass legislation on them. At the time these bills prevented secession within the Union and a civil war was avoided for four years. [xxvii] 

Under the provision of the five bills, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state, the slave trade would be abolished in the District of Columbia, the new territories of New Mexico and Utah would be organized under popular sovereignty or in other words, allow the people to decide whether they would allow slavery to exist in their territory or not, a new Fugitive Slave Act was passed, and Texas would receive compensation for its debts for giving up most of the western land it claimed. [xxviii] Within this new fugitive slave act, any official who refused to arrest an alleged run-a-way slave would incur a fine. This act also prohibited slaves from testifying on their own behalf or asking for a trial by jury. Anyone found guilty of aiding or provided food or shelter to a run-a-way slave would face imprisonment and a fine. [xxix] While the Compromise of 1850 and its issues surrounding slavery held precedence over the north and south, there were also ongoing debates over the railway system.

Leading into 1854, disputes began to flare over the Missouri Compromise, the territory to the west of Iowa, and the desire to construct a railroad system. In 1854, Illinois Senator Stephan Douglas proposed a bill that was passed on the regulation of the new territories to the west of Iowa that became Kansas and Nebraska. Within this bill, the settlers of the area were to decide on the issue of slavery by a vote of popular sovereignty. This popular sovereignty jeopardized the opportunity to construct the Transcontinental Railroad in Middle America. Also, due to the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 to prohibit slavery in territories north of the 36⁰ 30’ line, the balance of power between the north and south was agitated.

In efforts to get the bill passed, Douglas imposed much coercion and persuasion on President Franklin Pierce to write a draft affirming that the Missouri Compromise was exhausted by the authority of the Compromise of 1850. In the revising of this bill that was introduced to the senate, the Missouri Compromise was repealed and the western territory was divided into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives approved the bill. The passing of this bill set the stage for the upcoming Lincoln-Douglas debates and many continuing arguments over slavery. This bickering over the issue of slavery and the dismantling of the Whig Party paved the way for the rise of the New Republican Party. [xxx] 

In 1854, former members of the Whig and Free Soiler parties along with anti-slavery activist in the north formed a new party called the New Republican Party or the GOP (Grand Old Party). The party’s emergence was due to those who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the fall of the Whig Party. They soon became the strongest rival to the Democratic Party, the party that had overshadowed American politics for many years past. The New Republican Party held its first convention in July 1854. Their doctrine was based on the strong resistance to slave labor and the plantation system. Simply stated, this party believed in independent businessmen, which was in direct opposition of slave labor. They also were against the plantation system where the wealthy bought enormous amounts of farm land for slaves to work, leaving the yeoman farmers with next to nothing to work with. [xxxi] These strong beliefs play a major part in the eruption over slavery in the new territory.

Between 1854 and 1858, America’s struggle to balance the interests of both abolitionist and slaveholders failed. An array of catastrophes took place in the new territory of Kansas near Missouri, between those who represented both pro-slavery and anti-slavery. This long and overextended battle became known as Bleeding Kansas. As southerners began migrating into this new territory of Kansas with hopes of spreading slavery, many northern anti-slavery organizations began to fund settlers who would move there and vote to make it a free state.

Aiming to fight the spread of slavery, radical abolitionist John Brown initial appearance in the new territory sparked the violent feuding between the two sides. During the four years of war there were several outbreaks of violence that resulted in more than fifty deaths. This blustery fight over the institution of slavery being embraced or denounced by the Kansas Constitution ended in 1858. Kansas entered the Union as a free state. This horrific battle was a major stumbling block that led to the Civil War. [xxxii] Not far away from the battles in the new territory, the United States was trying one of its most important cases.

In 1799, Dred Scott was born in Virginia as a slave, belonging to Peter Blow and his family. Thirty-one years later, Scott relocated to St. Louis, Missouri with the Blow family. Due to financial problems, he was sold to a military surgeon by the name of John Emerson. While working for Emerson as a slave, Scott resided in the free states of Illinois and Wisconsin. During this time he married a slave name Harriet and they had two children together. As a family, they later moved to Louisiana with Dr. Emerson, where he soon met his wife Irene Sanford. A year after returning to St. Louis, Emerson died and his widow began hiring Scott and his family out to other families.

In 1846, a lawsuit was filed on behalf of Scott and his wife, against Irene Sanford. This law suit pertained to their freedom, which claimed they lived in free states for approximately ten years. Although Scott never petitioned to end his enslavement while living in free state territory, his cause was strongly supported by the children of his first owner, the Blows. One year after filing suit, the Dred Scott case was lost primarily due to evidence being based solely on hearsay. A jury trial was held three years later that decided that the evidence provided was sufficient enough and the family should be set free.

Fearful of losing her valuable property, slaves, Sanford appealed the previous court ruling to the Missouri Supreme Court. The State Supreme Court reversed the decision citing that there were political reasons for returning Scott to slavery. Simply stated, the laws of Missouri allowed slavery and the court upholds the rights of slave owners. Refusing to give up his fight for freedom, Scott appealed the decision to the Federal Court of St. Louis against Sanford’s brother, the executor of the Sanford estate. Once again, Scott lost his case. He then decided to appeal to the United States Supreme Court.

In 1857, Chief Justice Roger Taney and the nine Supreme Court justices decided that Scott should remain a slave. In this ruling, Taney stated that Scott was not a citizen of the United States and that he held no right to bring his case before the Supreme Court. He also said, due to the fact that slaves were personal property, Scott had never been free and never would be free. In addition, Taney says that the 1820 Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and that the federal government could not prohibit slavery in the new territories. This decision renewed the fighting spirit of the new Republican Party to retrieve control of the courts and Congress. [xxxiii] Southern slave owners soon have to face the threat of attack from northern abolitionist.

Radical abolitionist John Brown led an attack at Harper’s Ferry in 1859. His plan of attack was to raid the United States arsenal, arming himself and his fellow abolitionist rebels, start a revolt hoping for rebellious slaves and other anti-slavery activist to join. Two days after the raid was initiated, President James Buchanan ordered Brevet Colonel Robert E. Lee and the U.S. Marines to put down the rebellion. After capture, Brown was tried and convicted of treason against the Virginia commonwealth. He was hung to death on December 2, 1859. [xxxiv] 

One year after the raid at Harper’s Ferry, the presidential election of 1860 brought Americans to a point of no return. For most of its existence, America has been a nation divided due to the institution of slavery. The election of the new Republican Party’s candidate Abraham Lincoln seized the Democratic Party’s control. His campaign aimed to grapple the expansion of slavery beyond its existence. Due to his win of presidency, the southern slave states declared their secession from the union. After seceding, these states became known as the Confederate States of America. The feuding between the Confederacy and the Union or border and free slave states escalated to its point of eruption on April 12, 1861.

The war was initiated in Fort Sumter, South Carolina when the Confederacy attacked the U. S. military installation. President Lincoln then pled for volunteer armies from each state to respond and recapture federal property. The Union then gained control of the border states and under their Anaconda Plan, they established naval blockades along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast to prevent trade goods, supplies, and arms to and from the Confederacy. Tensions accelerated higher after Lincoln issues the executive order the Emancipation Proclamation in September 1862. This order abolished slavery in the states that had succeeded the Union. The slaves of the border states were freed under separate state and federal actions.

Under the commandment of Robert E. Lee, the Confederacy suffered high casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg. At the same time, the Union occupied Vicksburg, Mississippi and controlled the Mississippi River which split the confederacy in two. After losing many other battles, the Confederacy surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant Appomattox Court House on April 9, 1865. Five days later President Lincoln was shot, dying a day later. The day following the President’s passing and unaware of General Lee’s surrender, the last battles were fought in Columbus and West Point, Georgia. Both of these towns surrendered, putting an end to the Civil War. [xxxv] 

Since settling in the New World, the institution of slavery played a major role in the economic development of a wonderful country in the making. At the Constitutional Convention, the controversial issues of slavery and the regulation of it, how to count them, and the slave trade were least dominating but important because they affected the decisions made in the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott case, the emancipation of slaves, and many other compromises and events. The battle to end slavery and respect for blacks as humans and equal citizens was long and difficult, but well worth the battle.


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