By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
Many delegates at the Constitutional Convention were unhappy with the institution of slavery in the newly independent nation. Slavery was an exact opposite of liberty, the idea that had led to the birth of United States of America. The committee of eleven delegates was thus formed to decide the future of slavery in America. However, there was no clarity whether the Convention had managed to encourage or discourage slavery.
Morris and Mason versus the Pinckneys
Gouverneur Morris said he would never concur in upholding domestic slavery. One of the greatest slave owners in the Constitutional Convention, George Mason, also wielded the anti-slavery sledgehammer.
While it was one thing for a New Yorker/Pennsylvanian like Gouverneur Morris to attack slavery, it was quite another for one of the most prominent slave owners in the Convention to do so, and Mason’s fellow Southerners turned on him in a paroxysm of rage.
Charles Pinckney resented the implication that there was something wrong with slavery. “If slavery be wrong,” he said, “it is justified by the example of all the world. In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves.”
He was seconded by his older cousin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who insisted that slavery was actually good for the republic: “The more slaves, the more produce to employ the carrying trade; the more consumption also, and the more of this, the more of revenue for the common treasury.”
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The Committee of Eleven Delegates
However, many members of the Convention agreed in whole or in part with Morris, Mason, and Rufus King about the embarrassment slavery posed to the public reputation of the United States.
The way out of this corner was proposed majestically by Edmund Randolph: a committee. And so with only a few dissenting votes, the Convention gratefully handed the future of slavery to 11 of the delegates: George Clymer, William Livingston, Luther Martin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, George Mason, and Gouverneur Morris, among others.
In the years to come, people would debate—often angrily—whether the Convention had managed to encourage or discourage slavery, and whether its Constitution was a pro-slavery or an anti-slavery document.
Learn more about the Convention’s most effective committee.
Views of Optimist Historians
Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn, two of the greatest historians, understand slavery in the new republic as a contradiction of the fundamentals of American independence which the Constitutional Convention set about undermining, but in a slow and subtle way.
No effort was made to convert slavery into a nationally legalized institution by the Constitution, and that held off what could have been a fatal slide toward enshrining a race barrier in American life, legally. The national government was given power to regulate slave imports and abolish the Atlantic slave trade. Even the concession of a provision authorizing the rendition of fugitive slaves across state boundaries was so vaguely worded that no one knew quite how to enforce it.
The Nature of Labor
For centuries, almost all Europeans and Americans had to labor from first light to dusk just to keep the wolf from the door, and for many of them, it seemed that labor under the duress of circumstances was little different from labor under the duress of bondage.
But the American environment had changed the nature of labor, simply because labor was no longer doomed to scratch a living. In America, labor was the path to unprecedented prosperity and wealth. As Benjamin Franklin warned immigrants, if you come to America, come prepared to work.
But Franklin was also an example that if you worked, you were not going to be shackled forever to the status of a peasant or a serf, but like Franklin himself, might become something entirely new: an owner of property, in the best Lockean desert-island sense.
Slavery, instead of appearing merely as part of labor’s spectrum of drudgery, now began to appear as an aberration, and people who tried to defend it were going to be increasingly forced into bizarre arguments, until, like John Calhoun in the 1830s, they finally decided that the new American experiment itself, including both the Declaration and the Constitution, had been a mistake.
Learn more about the Constitutional Convention.
Views of Progressive Historians
Progressive historians—like Staughton Lynd and Paul Finkelman—are more pessimistic.
They see a society, for all of its love of liberty, palsied with racism, and perfectly willing to limit liberty to white people, and from this they conclude that the Founders’ failure to demolish slavery in 1787 suggests that the Constitution they wrote that summer actually entrenched slavery more deeply.
In a peculiar way, they actually fix on John Calhoun as the true example of American principles, and reduce the Founders to mere rhetorical window dressing.
While it seems that Wood and Bailyn have the better of the argument, the Progressives are a useful reminder that the Founders were not prophets, only men, and it was not given to them as a group to see the tiger slavery would grow into.
Common Questions about Slavery: The Changing Nature of Labor
The Constitutional Convention handed the future of slavery to a committee of 11 delegates. Some of the members were George Clymer, William Livingston, Luther Martin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, George Mason, and Gouverneur Morris.
The American environment had changed the nature of labor as labor was no longer doomed to scratch a living. In America, labor was the path to unprecedented prosperity and wealth.
Progressive historians like Staughton Lynd and Paul Finkelman see a society, for all of its love of liberty, palsied with racism, and perfectly willing to limit liberty to white people. They think that the Founders’ failure to demolish slavery in 1787 suggests that the Constitution they wrote that summer actually entrenched slavery more deeply.