How the U.S.A. Institutionalized
“Independence” and Constitutional Racism
While declaring “All men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights” we have to recognize an irony there that is all too great. Those words, written by a Slave owner (Jefferson), did not even remotely consider the notion that Blacks, Natives, or women (and, later, Latinx people) were “equal” or had “unalienable rights.” While some states had embryonic abolitionist stirrings (Vermont, NY, Massachusetts) it wasn’t until the 19th century that the Abolitionist movement gained momentum. The War for Independence was a war to insure white, landed males would be able to control their own political and, more importantly, economic destiny. Period. The “War for Independence,” then, was really about insuring that white males with significant economic interests were granted “independence.” If you did not own property, you had limited “rights” and could not vote. If you were a woman, you had limited “rights” and you could not vote. If you were a Slave or a Native American, you had NO rights and, needless to say, you could not vote. If you were a white, male property owner, you had all the rights and you could vote. (Remember, John Locke --- whom Jefferson studied and admired greatly --- had written about man’s inalienable right to “life, liberty, and property.” Jefferson’s revision --- to “pursuit of happiness” --- ignored the 200 humans he held as “property” and, for us, has only resulted in Happy Meals and Happy Hour but little else without white male privilege). By 1789, the Constitution codified white male supremacy for the ages.
The concessions made to Southern slave owners to midwife the United States into existence clearly illustrate the depths the Founding Fathers were willing to sink to in creating their new nation and its government. The 3/5th’s “compromise,” the Electoral College, and the “fugitive slave clause” are the most blatant concessions made to the Slave oligarchy. Despite a number of Northern states moving away from the practice of slavery, the economically powerful South (upon whom Northern shipping and other industries depended) declared they would walk out of the Constitutional Convention if they did not get their way --- hence Constitutional provisions that not only acknowledge slavery but, in fact, provide slave states with advantages.
If you don’t recall the 3/5th’s Compromise from your 11th grade U.S. history class, here’s a quick summary. As the Constitutional delegates debated the creation of a legislature, residents of the more populated states (predominantly in the North) wanted a legislative house based on population. Those in the less populated states wanted representation to be equal, with all states having one or two Senators. Benjamin Franklin’s “Great Compromise,” of course, proposed a bicameral (two-house) legislature, with an “upper House” (Senate) having equal representation and a “lower” House based on population (the House of Representatives). That is, of course, the system we have to this very day (Which raises new questions in 2019 but, again, a different essay at a different time). In 1788, however, the Southern states refused to support the ratification of the Constitution unless their slaves were counted toward each of their state’s population. What this meant, of course, was that the Representatives from the Southern states actually represented far fewer actual (read “white, male”) voters than their Northern counterparts --- and it also meant they would have more Electors in Presidential elections than they actually (according to their “white” population) deserved. The North’s “compromise” with the South over the “slaves count toward population” gambit was to “allow” slaves to count for (“only”) 3/5th’s of a “person” (white person) and, in return, the North Atlantic Slave Trade could be terminated by Congress after 20 years! (Allowing Southerners to “stock up” on slaves --- literally for “breeding stock.”) If you look at that “deal” it is hardly a “compromise.” The South gets expanded representation and clout in Presidential elections for the North’s “patience” in stopping the North Atlantic Slave trade in TWENTY years!
A final concession to the Southerners (who held “ratification” hostage to their demands) was the “fugitive slave clause” (Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3) which Constitutionally guaranteed that any runaway slave (“property”) be returned to the “owner.” The wording of the clause was designed to not use the word slavery and to clearly imply that owning slaves was totally a state’s decision and was not sanctioned by the Federal government (Words are important. As with the denial of reading/writing skills to slaves, not using the term “slave” reflects the clear awareness of the “sin” of slavery). By saying a person “held in service or labor in one state, under the laws thereof “(italics, mine) the Constitution sidesteps using the term “slave” (the clause also applied to indentured servants) and puts the onus for slavery on individual states (which the Southerners had no problem with). Such linguistic legerdemain reveals the Founding Fathers understood that slavery was immoral and an abomination. But they had hung their economic hat on the “peculiar institution” and our Constitution reveals clear moral cowardice --- better to have a (thriving economic) nation with slaves than a vulnerable confederacy of states (or two nations?) without them.
If we just stopped examining U.S. History at this point we can see more than enough evidence to understand how deeply rooted racism is in our country. From 1619 through 1789, 170 years, Africans (and African-Americans) were lower than second-class citizens (a classification reserved for white women) --- they were property, “chattel,” owned by white people and seen as less than human. Those notions are deep-seated in the American psyche and even those of us who want to believe we are “not racist” are infected by the pervasive historic epidemic of racism --- a frame of mind that posits white people (and particularly white men) are at the top of a pyramid that descends to include (white) women and then Latinx (Brown), Blacks, Reds (Natives), and Yellows (Asians). That everyone understands the “color code” listed in the last sentence attests to the pervasive racism of this country. And the 1789 to 1850 period simply spread the disease further.
Tomorrow: 1789 to 1850 – The Insidious Infection Spreads