Slavery and the Constitution

Essential Questions

What were the major debates about slavery in the Constitution? What was the compromises the Framers made?

Debate 1: Should The Constitution Allow Slavery?

The Declaration of Independence in 1776, did claim that, “all men are created equal.” Eleven years later, in 1787, the founders drafted the Constitution, and the debated on whether or not to allow slavery. This raises the question: Why did the Founding Fathers keep slavery in the Constitution if the Declaration of Independence claimed, “all men are created equal”?

Activity 1: Primary Source Activity-Slavery in the Constitution

SHEG-Why did the Founding Fathers keep slavery in the Constitution-Student Version.pdf

Discussion Questions

  • Overall did these men realize that slavery was a problem?

  • Who thought it was a problem and who didn’t?

  • For those who did think it was a problem, why didn’t they do anything to abolish slavery?

Debate 2: If slavery is allowed, should states count slaves as part of their population when determining their number of represenatives in Congress? Should slaves count when determining taxation?

Since representation in the House of Representatives would be based on the population of each state, the delegates had to decide who would be counted in that population. The Southern states had many more slaves than the Northern states. Southerners wanted the slaves to be counted as part of the general population for representation but not for taxation. Northerners argued that slaves were not citizens and should not be counted for representation but should be counted for taxation. On this issue, the delegates reached another compromise, known as the Three-Fifths Compromise.

Under the Three-Fifths Compromise, three-fifths of the slave population would be counted when setting direct taxes on the states. This three-fifths ratio also would be used to determine representation in the legislature.

Debate 3: Should the slave trade be allowed?

The delegates had another heated debate about the slave trade. Slavery had already been outlawed in several Northern states. All of the Northern states and several of the Southern states had banned the importation of slaves. Many Northerners wanted to see this ban extended to the rest of the nation. But Southern slaveholders strongly disagreed. The delegates from South Carolina and Georgia stated that they would never accept any plan “unless their right to import slaves be untouched.” Again, the delegates settled on a compromise. On August 29, they agreed that Congress could not ban the slave trade until 1808. Then in 1807, Congress did pass the Act Prohibiting Importation of Slaves and ended the international slave trade. However, the slave trade did continue within the United States.

Discussion Questions

  • What were the three debates over slavery? What were their compromises?

The former-slave Frederick Douglass noted that that the framers purposefully avoided the mention of slavery in the Constitution. “It so happens that no such words as ‘African slave trade,’ no such words as ‘slave representation,’ no such words as ‘fugitive slaves,” no such words as ‘slave insurrections,’ are anywhere used in that instrument. These are…not the words of the Constitution of the United States” (Fredrick Douglass, “The Constitution of the United States: Is it Pro-Slavery or Antislavery?” March 26, 1860).The word Slave/Slavery wasn't used until the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery.

Activity 1: What were the major debates about slavery during the development of the Constitution and their resolution?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Activities