Constitution Day Lecture: Slavery, the Constitution, and James Madison

To the Founding Fathers, and James Madison in particular, slavery was never solely a moral issue, says David Waldstreicher, one of academia’s foremost scholars on the slave issue in early America. At a Constitution Day event on campus recently, he spoke on the connection between Madison, the American Constitution, and the practice of slavery, which has come to be a great blight on the country’s history.

James Madison, Courtesy of Flickr.

Though Madison himself owned many slaves, he did not approve of the practice. “There was no point in his public life that he did not believe that slavery was wrong,” Waldstreicher said. “This was obvious early on and he never changed his mind. He was principled yet flexible; optimistic yet capable of a knowing realism.”  Madison always realized slavery was an important factor in local and national politics, and though it was “an embarrassment on the international stage,” he knew that “slavery would be factored into statecraft in some fashion.” Thus, as a result of the Constitutional Convention, Madison drafted the infamous 3/5ths compromise, and spoke highly of it as late as 1829.

The compromise reads: “Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.” That said, Madison ensured in the language of the constitution that slavery would not be expressly written in. “The constitution’s virtues, were, not surprisingly, Madison’s virtues,” Waldstreicher said. Thus, throughout the course of the ratification process, people attacked him as being both pro- and anti-slavery.

David Waldstreicher, Courtesy of CUNY.

“In the end,” Waldstreicher asserted, “Madison was comfortable. The political ramifications of abolishment would have been severe, and for such a young nation, could have proved fatal. We must see Madison as having played a pivotal role in history not just because of his brilliance,” Waldstreicher said, “but because . . . he helped the nation have its slavery and its anti-slavery too.” At the present time, when many still perceive race relations to be a divisive issue, it is at least interesting to look at it from a constitutional perspective, to the extent that that leads to more informed discussions of where we’ve been as a country, and where we can go.



Slavery and the Constitution: Upcoming Lecture Speaks to Origins of Ongoing Racial Tensions

Many of the Founding Fathers of the United States, despite owning slaves themselves, despised the practice of slavery.  In his initial draft of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson condemned the injustice of the slave trade and, by implication, slavery. Nonetheless, the South had become reliant on slavery, and political unity was a necessity for young America’s success. Thus, the shameful institution weaseled its way into the United States Constitution, and there remained unchallenged until the 13th Amendment was ratified in 1865. David Waldstreicher is one of academia’s foremost scholars on the slave issue in early America, and will speak on slavery and the Constitution on Thursday, September 15th, at 11:00 a.m. in the HBLL Auditorium.


In particular, he will speak on “James Madison’s Constitution and the Problem of Slavery.” Madison was also a Founding Father who seemed unable to come to terms with slavery, despite the fact that he owned nearly 100 of them at the time of his death. BYU associate professor of history Matthew Mason, who studies slavery and the early U.S. republic, is optimistic about the upcoming lecture. “My hope for this year’s event,” he says, “is that a broad community of students and others at BYU will be able to think in more informed ways about the complex relationship between slavery and the founding of the United States. This will fulfill a key purpose of Constitution Day, which…is to help people know more about—and consequently come to a fuller appreciation of—the founding of the United States and its ongoing impact. The ongoing importance of racial prejudice in our national life is just one way this lecture’s exploration of slavery and the founding should be of wide interest.”

david-waldstreicherDr. Waldstreicher is a Distinguished Professor of History at the City University of New York. He holds a PhD from Yale University, and has previously served as a professor at Bennington College, Yale, Temple University, and the University of Notre Dame. He is the author of several books, including Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification, which Mason opines is “the best book-length treatment of how slavery and the drafting and ratification of the Constitution interrelated.” He is on the editorial board of Reviews in American History and is co-editor of the Early American Studies book series at the University of Pennsylvania Press.