What does the Constitution say about slavery

On balance, the Constitution was deliberately ambiguous—but operationally proslavery. Perhaps more so than Madison wanted, as Wilentz maintains. But Madison’s putative intentions are all that matters to Wilentz. He’s outdone original-intent jurisprudence in reducing history to a morality play of good founders, bad critics. He loses sight of what actually happened when the ambiguously worded but slavery-suffused Constitution was finally released to an anxious public.

What happened was that antifederalists in the North understood that that the federal government had been strengthened, but that slavery in particular had been shielded from an otherwise-powerful Congress. Ratification ran into trouble in the states where the antislavery criticisms of the Constitution were most articulate and widely publicized: Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and New York. Some southern antifederalists like Patrick Henry, most concerned about local control, tried to argue that any stronger government would eventually threaten slavery, but the more persuasive voices in the South were those like Charles Pinckney, who testified upon returning to South Carolina that he couldn’t imagine a better bargain could have been made for the planters.

Was Madison outraged? Hardly. He went down to the Virginia ratifying convention to assure delegates that Henry was dead wrong: The original intent was indeed to protect slave property. Much of what we know of the Constitutional Convention comes from his notes—which, recent scholarship suggests, he carefully edited for a posthumous audience. He made sure, for example, that posterity would know that he objected to the slave trade being guaranteed for another 20 years—but this was a common Virginia position at the time, since Virginians were already net sellers of slavers rather than importers by 1787.

But there’s more. When it came time to deal with the matter of slave representation in Federalist 54, Madison obliquely distanced himself from the three-fifths clause by saying that one had to admit that slaves were, irrefutably, both people and property. He actually argued that the three-fifths clause was a good example of how the Constitution would lead to good government—by protecting property. He looked forward to the honest census that would result from slaves and other people being both taxed and represented. He put the defense of the proslavery clauses in the voice of a Virginian and then called them “a little strained,” but just.

When we see things like this in today’s politics, we call it damage control. I give Madison credit for a kind of honesty about his ambivalence, at least for those who could read between the lines—but this is far from the bold antislavery stand Wilentz would have us see in Madison’s words. Wilentz is an astute student of politics, and has often praised pragmatism in the figures he admires. Why his Madison has to be an antislavery truth teller when there are other candidates for that historical role—even in 1787—is beyond puzzling.