Black History and the US Constitution

blk history

If you would understand anything, observe its beginning and its development. Aristotle

If the past has been an obstacle and a burden, knowledge of the past is the safest and the surest emancipation. Lord Acton

There are many among us (both blacks and whites) who ascribe to the notion that there is no need for black history month. February (they say) should just be about history period—or at the very least, American history. I might tend to agree with that assessment if I truly believed that we (the African American community) really understood and embraced our history.  But as it stands, there still seems to be a number of “urban legends” concerning not only the founding of our country; but in particular, our nation’s founding document—the US Constitution.

About a year ago Tavis Smiley held a summit that he called the “Black Agenda-We count Summit.” (click here to watch video). One of the urban legends perpetuated by the event came from the comments of Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West who dismissed the Constitution as a pro-slavery and patriarchal document. Hence, any argument based on constitutional legitimacy was basically ejected from the conversation in a matter of a few words.

I would have reminded these scholars that the esteemed Frederick Douglass (whose name was mentioned as an historical backdrop to this discussion) would disagree with their assessment. Douglass initially viewed the Constitution as a pro-slavery document; but later changed his mind. He said of the preamble that; Its language is “we the people”; not we the white people, not even we the citizens, not we the privileged class, not we the high, not we the low, but we the people; not we the horses, sheep, and swine, and wheel-barrows, but we the people; and if Negroes are people, they are included in the benefits for which the Constitution of the United States of America was ordained and established.” (The Constitution of the United States: Is it Pro-Slavery or Anti-Slavery?” Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 2, 473.)

In respect to the three-fifths clause Douglass realized that it hurt the South with regards to representation. Freed blacks in the North were counted as full persons while those in the South bound in chattel servitude where only counted as three-fifths a person. Hence, it was to the Southern States best interest to free their slaves than to keep them in servitude.

Here is Douglass in his own words:

A black man in a free State is worth just two-fifths more than a black man in a slave State, as a basis of political power under the Constitution. Therefore, instead of encouraging slavery, the Constitution encourages freedom by giving an increase of “two-fifths” of political power to free over slave States. So much for the three-fifths clause; taking it at is worst, it still leans to freedom, not slavery; for, be it remembered that the Constitution nowhere forbids a coloured man to vote.”

Most recently Roland Martin of the TV One news program “Washington Watch” chided Congresswoman Michelle Bachman because she said that the framers of the constitution did all they could to discourage slavery. Martin’s retort was that many of the framers owned slaves therefore they had no incentive to want to get rid of slavery. He then called on Congresswoman Bachman to read up on American history. Unfortunately it is not Bachman who needs the history lesson. The fact that a person owned a slave did not mean they were pro slavery. If you follow Martin’s reasoning then Blacks who owned slaves were pro slavery also. There could be many reasons for people owning slaves from reuniting families (Hosea 3:2); protection from ruthless slave owners; to actually needing hired help were slaves were treated more like employees instead of slaves. What is more telling is what happened once the fledgling new country extricated itself from the tyranny of the British, who brought slavery to the new world. According to one historian, “it was the policy of Great Britain to foster and encourage the African slave trade into the colonies; they steadily rejected every colonial restriction on the traffic; the governors were instructed, on pain of removal, not to give even temporary assent to such laws. In 1712, Pennsylvania passed an act prohibiting the slave trade; Virginia passed a similar act in 1726, and South Carolina in 1760, but all these laws were annulled by the crown. Massachusetts, in 1771 and 1774, passed prohibitory laws, but the governor decided to oppose them. The Earl of Dartmouth stated “that the colonies were not allowed to check or discourage in any degree a traffic so beneficial to the nation”.”[1]

What did they do once they were free from British rule?

If you read the post revolutionary war history you find that the northern states begin to free their slaves. During the revolutionary war Massachusetts and New Hampshire each emancipated their slaves by the bill of rights added to their constitution. In 1784 Rhode Island enacted, “that all children born to slaves would be free after that date.”[2] In 1780 Pennsylvania adopted a system of gradual emancipation. New York, in 1799, passed a law, declaring children born after that date should be free. All the Northern States eventually abolished slavery sixty years before the emancipation proclamation.

The abolishment of slavery in the Northern States exposes another urban legend. It has been said that Lincoln only freed the slaves in the South because he didn’t really want to free them. The speeches concerning Lincoln’s opinion of the slaves trade are well documented. He opposed slavery. He did not free the slaves in the North because there were none. The Northern states took the initiative as sovereign states and freed their slaves. I believe that Lincoln hoped that the Southern states would do the same. He did not want to use federal power to force compliance but knew that “a house divide could not stand.” This would resurrect the argument that began with the framers about Federal authority vs States rights, a debate that still rages today.

At issue is a true understanding of black history in terms of the US Constitution. The problem is that many people, if they listen to “black leaders” reject the vary document that helped secure our liberties as ancestor of former slaves and as American citizens. It is the document that makes America the greatest nation on earth. Understanding the part that the Constitution played in our past and present freedom makes us better informed to navigate our future. Hence to know Black history as part of American History is vital for our future. As C. K. Chesterton said, [w]e can be almost certain of being wrong about the future, if we are wrong about the past.

[Editor’s Note: Originally printed February 6th 2011]

[1] Green B. Raum, History of Illinois Republicanism, (Chicago: Rollins Publishing Co., 1900), p. 6

[2] Ibid., p. 9

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