The peculiar institution of slavery dominated the southern economy of the United States and was a great source of political strife leading up to and ultimately causing the American Civil War. As anti-slavery sentiments rose, abolitionists denounced the Constitution for its role in the preservation of this evil. Such arguments as those from William Lloyd Garrison source slavery’s existence to the ambiguity of the text and the framework it provides for a new government. However, despite possible failed opportunities for the Constitution to hinder slavery, the fault lies more chiefly with the citizenry and other sources than with the document itself. In truth, this document served to hinder the influence of slavery, rather than promote it.
One of the first criticisms Garrison has for the Constitution deals with the nature in which the document was constructed. With reference to collaboration between Northern and Southern states in drafting the Constitution, he condescendingly describes it as a “sacred compact” between the free and the slave states and little more. For these reasons he feels the document is tainted with the framer’s wicked desires and that morality was compromised when negotiation was made on the issue of slavery. While Garrisonians acknowledge that the preamble to the document and the closing of our beloved Declaration of Independence show evidence of good intentions, such text is used to further contrast this “sinful” document to the ideals with which a proper one should have been constructed. The Constitution is a powerful document and would have had the authority to discourage slavery, and because it allows for slavery to exist, Garrisonian critics hold there exists sufficient reason for dissolution of the state and an abandonment of democratic mechanisms as the sole means of eliminating slavery.
Frederick Douglas, a former slave and like Garrison, an abolitionist, counters such arguments by noting the absence of slavery references in the original text. The closest endorsement comes with Article I, Section Two, Paragraph Three, the product of the Three-Fifths Compromise, which refers to slaves as “all other persons”. The malevolent motives behind such vague descriptions is something critics believe detracts from the document and is reason to draw criticism to it. Still, such motives have no place in assessing the merit of the document. While human desires and political compromise undoubtedly played a role in the drafting processing (though most details regarding slavery were largely unavailable for 25 years following the document’s drafting), only the end result matters. The American people through their state delegates and not hidden motives, adopted the Constitution. The power and responsibility of interpretation must always lie in the hands of who it governs, be it for or against the institution of slavery.
That is not to say that Constitutional interpretations are incapable of using the text to justify a tolerance...