The Anti-Slavery Heritage of the Constitution

September 17, 2021 Updated: September 18, 2021


This Constitution Day, Sept. 17, marks the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Constitution in 1787. Since that day, America has extended human rights and liberties to a larger and more diverse people than ever in the history of the world.

Even s0, the Constitution is routinely attacked as being racist, pro-slavery, or somehow antithetical to freedom. The notoriously debunked 1619 Project claimed, “When it came time to draft the Constitution, the framers carefully constructed a document that preserved and protected slavery.”

Even a relatively brief review of the Constitutional Convention and subsequent historical events will show that, far from defending slavery, the Constitution was a document of liberty that put that institution on notice.

When the Framers arrived in Philadelphia to draft the Constitution in 1787, many of the leaders were strong advocates for universal liberty. The struggle for independence against England had seen a corresponding explosion of anti-slavery sentiments among the American states. Many of the Founding Fathers were leaders in the fight against slavery and helped pass pro-freedom laws in their own states. In fact, Pennsylvania had already passed a law for the gradual abolition of slavery in 1780, and by 1783, Massachusetts had abolished slavery completely.

Therefore, when they gathered to write the Constitution it shouldn’t be surprising to find a substantial number of delegates working to undermine the institution of slavery on the national stage.

James Madison’s journal from the Constitutional Convention shows that many of the major players were strongly against slavery. Had the writers of the 1619 Project even bothered to read Madison’s notes, they would have seen ample proof of the Constitution’s anti-slavery heritage. For example, Roger Sherman, who was one of the most active members, said that he “regarded the slave trade as iniquitous.” Gouverneur Morris, who is largely responsible for the wording of the Constitution, declared that he “never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of Heaven on the States where it prevailed.”

Morris even went on to say of the slaves, “Are they men? Then, make them citizens, and let them vote.”

They were far from the only ones to voice their objection to slavery. George Mason, who was Washington’s neighbor and a slave owner himself, nevertheless denounced slavery in no uncertain terms while at the Convention.

“Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant,” he explained. “They bring the judgement of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.”

See these additional examples of anti-slavery sentiment during the Constitutional Convention:

  • “Mr. [Oliver] Ellsworth, as he had never owned a slave, could not judge of the effects of slavery on character. He said, however, that if it was to be considered in a moral light, we ought to go farther, and free those already in the country.”
  • “Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry thought we … ought to be careful not to give any sanction to it [slavery].”
  • “Mr. [John] Dickinson considered it as inadmissible, on every principle of honor and safety, that the importation of slaves should be authorized to the States by the Constitution.”
  • Luther Martin: “It [slavery] was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the Constitution.”
  • “Mr. [Hugh] Williamson said, that both in opinion and practice he was against slavery.”
  • “Mr. [James] Madison. Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character, than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.”

Despite this strong anti-slavery contingent, there were enough pro-slavery delegates that in order to keep the nation together, certain compromises had to be made. From an anti-slavery perspective, if the Union fell apart and the pro-slavery states formed their own nation, then there would be no chance of stopping the practice at all. Even something such as the three-fifths clause was a compromise that limited the pro-slavery representatives in Congress, while keeping the nation together until a time that slavery could be ended. (For an excellent explanation of the three-fifths clause, watch Carol Swain’s video at PragerU.)

Once the wording had been finalized, the Constitution was sent to the states for ratification. At these state conventions, delegates repeatedly identified that the Constitution, despite the compromises, paved the way for the destruction of slavery. James Wilson, who had helped frame the Constitution, explained that I consider this as laying the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.”

At the Virginia ratification convention, Patrick Henry pointed to the Constitution as setting up the legal framework for abolition:

“Slavery is detested—we feel its fatal effects—we deplore it with all the pity of humanity. Let all these considerations, at some future period, press with full force on the minds of Congress. Let that urbanity, which I trust will distinguish America, and the necessity of national defense—let all these things operate on their minds. They will search that paper [the Constitution], and see if they have power of manumission. And have they not, sir? Have they not power to provide for the general defense and welfare? May they not think that these call for the abolition of slavery?”

Clearly, a significant portion of the most significant Founders viewed the Constitution as something that was an important first step in securing freedom for all people. Although not able to achieve their ultimate end in their own generation, when it came time to fulfill the spirit of the law and abolish slavery, it was the Constitution that pointed the way.

Perhaps the most significant leader in the fight against slavery was Frederick Douglass. Having been born a slave and suffered greatly, he rose to a position of national importance in advocating for liberty. At first, Douglass thought that the Constitution was pro-slavery because that was what he had been taught. However, he decided to study the issue for himself and concluded that far from being pro-slavery, “the Constitution of our country is our warrant for the abolition of slavery in every State for the Union.”

Elsewhere, Douglass explained that the Constitution “was in its letter and spirit an anti-slavery instrument, demanding the abolition of slavery.” Almost as if he was responding to the charges of the 1619 Project and revisionist historians of today, Douglass denounced “those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory. … Interpreted, as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a Glorious Liberty Document.”

There were a significant number of anti-slavery Framers of the Constitution who deliberatively structured the document so that the people who came after them could accomplish what they had prayed for—the end of slavery. Abolitionists such as Douglass recognized that the principles enshrined by the Constitution set the stage for the national abolition and provided the necessary framework for the states to begin the process themselves.

This Constitution Day, let’s learn the truth behind its history.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Timothy Barton is the president of WallBuilders, a national organization dedicated to highlighting the true facts about the founding of America, our Constitution, and our rich history.