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He put the defense of the proslavery clauses in the voice of a Virginian and then called them “a little strained,” but just.When we see things like this in today’s politics, we call it damage control.
Why his Madison has to be an antislavery truth teller when there are other candidates for that historical role—even in 1787—is beyond puzzling.
Americans and their leading historians still find it hard to account for how their Revolution, considered as a quarter-century of resistance, war, and state-making, both strengthened slavery and provided enough countercurrents to keep the struggle against it going.
What happened was that antifederalists in the North understood that that the federal government had been strengthened, but that slavery in particular had been shielded from an otherwise-powerful Congress.
Ratification ran into trouble in the states where the antislavery criticisms of the Constitution were most articulate and widely publicized: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. He went down to the Virginia ratifying convention to assure delegates that Henry was dead wrong: The original intent was indeed to protect slave property.
The planters didn’t need or even want an explicit statement that slaves were property; it would have stated the obvious while opening up the United States to international ridicule in an era when slavery was coming into question.
On balance, the Constitution was deliberately ambiguous—but operationally proslavery.
The three-fifths clause, which states that three-fifths of “all other persons” (i.e.
slaves) will be counted for both taxation and representation, was a major boon to the slave states.
The shaping policies of the early republic were proslavery because the federal government was controlled by southern expansionists like Jefferson and Jackson, who saw Africans as a captive nation, a fifth column just waiting to be liberated (again) by the British.
The refusal to mention slavery as property or anything else in the Constitution means something.