Rethinking the US Foundation: Slavery & the Constitution (Part I)

        The speech on race and racism given by Senator Obama, and especially the negative attacks on it and on others who bring up the issue of slavery suggests that we need to revisit the data on some of this country’s bloody 240 years or so of slavery:

The year is 1787, the place Philadelphia. Fifty-five men are meeting in summer’s heat to write a constitution for the “first democratic nation.” Here we have an early fictions central ever since to the white racial frame. These are men of European origin, mostly well-off by the standards of their day. Significantly, at least 40 percent are or have been slave owners, and a significant proportion of the others profit to some degree as merchants, shippers, lawyers, bankers from the trade in slaves, commerce in slave-produced agricultural products, or supplying provisions to slaveholders and slave-traders. The chair of the constitutional convention, George Washington, is one of the richest men in the colonies because of the hundreds of black men, women, and children he and Martha have held in bondage. Washington and colleagues create the first “democratic” nation for whites only. In the preamble the founders cite “We the People,” but this does not encompass those enslaved–one fifth of the then population. Slavery was central to the U.S. Constitution, as James Madison made clear in his detailed notes on the convention.

Slavery had once been of some importance in all states, but northern states were moving away from slavery, and some had a growing abolitionist sentiment. Even so, many northern merchants, shippers, and consumers still depended on products produced by southern plantations, and many merchants sold goods to the plantations. (Notice that this extensive slavery creates much of the wealth, the circulating surplus capital, of the new nation, and indeed helps greatly to create its possibility to rebel against Great Britain and be a new nation.)

By the end of the summer of 1787 there were at least seven sections in the new U.S. Constitution where the white framers had the system of slavery in mind: (1) Article 1, Section 2, which counts slaves as three fifths of a person; (2) Article 1, Sections 2 and 9, which apportion taxes on the states using the three-fifths formula; (3) Article 1, Section 8, which gives Congress authority to suppress slave and other insurrections; (4) Article 1, Section 9, which prevents the slave trade from being abolished before 1808; (5) Article 1, Sections 9 and 10, which exempt goods made by slaves from export duties; (6) Article 4, Section 2, which requires the return of fugitive slaves; and (7) Article 4, Section 4, which stipulates that the federal government must help states put down domestic violence, including slave uprisings.

We still live under an undemocratically made U.S. Constitution, one substantially made by white male slaveholders. It is still part of the essential political-economic foundation of systemic racism and white privilege in the US. There is much here to continue a national dialogue, one bravely raised by Dr. Wright and Senator Obama, and even acknowledged recently by Secretary of State Rice.