In chapter three, “The Silence,” of “Founding Brothers,” the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for History winner by Joseph J. Ellis, an unknown history of America was revealed to me. What follows I have taken from Professor Ellis’ book.
On Feb. 11, 1790, two Quaker delegates presented petitions to the House of Representatives in the Congress of the United States calling for an immediate end to the African slave trade.
The next day, Feb. 12, the Pennsylvania Abolition Society submitted another petition, signed by Benjamin Franklin, promoting the abolition of slavery and the slave trade.
These petitions caused such unrest among the representatives that the ongoing debate on the assumption of the states Revolutionary War debts and the resident location of the new nation’s capital was set aside for an entire day. Things were said on this day that had never before been uttered in any public forum at the national level with warnings of sedition and civil war.
The subject of the place of slavery had come up in the constitutional ratifying conventions of 1788, but the subject was deemed too important and controversial to talk about publicly. It was so controversial to the promise of all the states ratifying the Constitution that Article 1, Section 9, paragraph 1 of that sacred document prohibited the federal government from passing any law that abolished or restricted the slave trade until 1808.
The debate that ensued saw the representatives from the South touting Biblical passages as proslavery and the economic precondition of slavery for no white man would perform the tasks necessary for profitable agriculture. There was an implicit understanding that the southern states had ratified the Constitution under the precondition that the federal government could do nothing with the existence of slavery in the South. The southern states would not have come into the union had that part not been granted.
Several northern representatives came forth to contest the claim of the Bible and the Constitution endorsing slavery. The Constitution provided temporary protection to those states wishing to import more Africans, but there was a clear consensus that it would be ended in the long run. The Declaration of Independence was the defining text clearly announcing that is was “not possible that one man should have property in person of another.”
The debate lead to the establishment of a committee to wrestle with the issue. No southern state representative elected to serve on the committee. On March 16, 1790, the committee made its report to the House. Over the succeeding two days, the Deep South representatives (South Carolina and Georgia) brought forward virtually every argument that southern defenders of slavery would mount during the next 70 years. No representatives from the North or Upper South (Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina) came forth to answer the Deep South delegation. No national plan for emancipation came before the Congress for serious consideration. The Deep South’s fatalistic diagnosis of the slavery problem and the secessionist threat from South Carolina and Georgia left the argument unanswerable. Ending slavery was a challenge on the same scale as the victory over England in 1776, and the creation of a unified republican government from 13 separate and sovereign states in 1787. The effort to make the Revolution truly complete seemed diametrically opposed to remaining a united nation.
John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and even George Washington agreed that the ongoing debate was an embarrassing and dangerous nuisance that must be terminated. Thomas Jefferson was quiet on the subject.
On March 23, 1790, the committee report came up for a vote in the House. As the result of political maneuvering, changes had occurred in the nature of the slavery issue. Three resolutions were proposed. The second read “The Congress have no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves, or in the treatment of them within any of the States; it remaining with the several States alone to provide any regulation therein, which humanity and true policy may require.” The resolutions, passed by a vote of 29 to 25, effectively placed any and all debate over slavery as it existed in the South out of bounds forever.
The passing of the buck on the slavery and race issue 230 years ago has contributed to the present race relations that are dividing this major experiment that the founding fathers initiated. I’m with Joseph Crisp on the matter of the Confederate soldier statue in DeLeon Plaza. Don’t take it down, but rededicate it with the true spirit upon which our nation was created.