Remembering National Constitution Day

I am a day late, but better late than never.  Many in the United States celebrated National
Constitution Day
on Saturday, which commemorates the anniversary of when the
U.S. Constitution was signed by the 39-member Constitutional Convention in
1787.

Even skeptics of the Constitution saw its value as fundamental
law for the new nation. “The Constitution is not an instrument for the
government to restrain the people, it is an instrument for the people to
restrain the government – lest it come to dominate our lives and interests,”
said Patrick Henry, whose role as an Anti-Federalist is often overshadowed by his
clarion calls for liberty during the Revolution.

Yet, the Constitution restrained people in a way that still
prompts many to consider slavery the greatest hypocrisy in our national
history.  The words “slavery” and “slave”
appear nowhere in the Constitution. However, it is clear that the Constitution
drafted in 1787
sanctioned and protected slavery.

  • Article I, Section 2
    states that apart from free persons “all other persons,” are each to be
    counted as three-fifths of a white person for the purpose of apportioning
    congressional representatives on the basis of population. In other words,
    slaves were considered three-fifths of a human being as part of the
    political compromise over sectional power.
  • Article I, Section 9
    states that the importation of “such Persons as any of the States now
    existing shall think proper to admit,” would be permitted until 1808. This
    was a 20-year moratorium on banning the international slave trade.
  • Article IV, Section 2
    directs that persons “held to Service or Labour in one State, under the
    Laws thereof, escaping into another,” were to be returned to their owners.
    The “persons” described were fugitive slaves.
  • The Bill of Rights,
    adopted in 1791, says nothing about slavery. But the Fifth Amendment
    guaranteed that no person could “be deprived of life, liberty, or
    property, without due process of law.” Slaves were property, and
    slaveholders had a constitutional right to take their property with them,
    even into free states
    or territories.

Though it formed no government and did not serve as an underpinning of
national law, it was the Declaration of Independence with its basic statement
of human rights – “all men are created equal”
– that gave the nation its second
chance to fulfill the promise of “the blessings of liberty, to ourselves and
our posterity.”  We could not have one
without the other.

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