Editor: While I very much appreciate Ben Lenhart’s article, “The Long Fight for Racial Equality,” I believe some elaboration would be helpful in dealing with this issue. I will concentrate on two points.
First, on the matter of the Constitutional references to slavery. As elaborated in the 2018 book “No Property in Man: Slavery and Antislavery at the Nation’s Founding,” by Princeton professor Sean Wilentz, the semantics of our founding document matter. Wilentz stresses the fact that there was a deliberate decision by the Founders not to include the word slavery in the Constitution; in fact, there was a vote to take it out when proposed by some Southern delegates. It was James Madison who declared that there must be “no property in man,” i.e., the references to property could not be interpreted as referring to human beings. Slaves are referred to as persons.
By making this decision, Wilentz argues, the Constitution-makers were reflecting their belief, often cited by President Abraham Lincoln, that slavery was on its way to extinction. While it existed in the states, slavery was not sanctioned, although tolerated, by the Federal government. That “evasion,” as many would call it, would prove an extremely important tool for those fighting slavery over the decades to follow.
Its importance is underscored by the fight over the extension of slavery into U.S. territories. Slavery proponents consistently insisted that the Federal government had no power to stop slavery in those regions, but had to protect it. Slavery’s opponents took the opposite view. When the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision attempted to give slavery national sanction, that helped tip the balance toward civil war.
My second addendum concerns Frederick Douglass’ view of the Constitution and slavery. As a former slave and prominent abolitionist, Douglass’ view should carry great weight, and his writings are voluminous and to the point. In contrast to the Declaration, which Douglass blasted because it did not apply to his race, Douglass considered the Constitution to be a noble document. In a speech given in Glasgow, Scotland in March of 1860, Douglass took a stand against those like William Garrison, who excoriated the Constitution and effectively called for breaking up the Union. Douglass stated: “I, on the other hand, deny that the Constitution guarantees the right to hold property in man, and believe that the way to abolish slavery in America is to vote such men into power as well use their powers for the abolition of slavery.”
In other words, like Lincoln, Douglass believed that our Constitutional union provided the basis for ending slavery.
I urge readers to read both these writings as crucial to a successful fight against the scourge of racial discrimination today.
Nancy Spannaus, Lovettsville