Abolition Reasons against Disunion

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Stephen Pearl Andrews. "Abolition Reasons against Disunion." Young American’s Magazine of Self-Improvement. May 1847, 159-166.


By S. P. Andrews.

THE relations of the Constitution of the United States to American Slavery, and the duty of American citizens as respects the Union, are daily becoming subjects of more intense interest. The last number of this Magazine has an article from the able pen of Wendell Phillips, displaying the argument, or perhaps, more properly speaking, stating the positions, (as little more could be done in the space occupied,) of the advocates of disunion. Mr. Phillips assumes, indeed, that all Abolitionists are such—which, in view of the facts, might be objected to as in bad taste. This assumption, however, is unimportant. The argument deserves attention.

It may well be doubted whether the dissolution of the Union, if it were effected, would prove adequate, as an instrumentality, to the overthrow of Slavery. This point need not, however, be discussed. Assuming that it would be effective, the writer of this would still object to the dissolution of the Union as an expedient, on the ground that it is more difficult, in his apprehension, to be attained, than the end itself for which the dissolution is demanded. To one holding this position, it is inconclusive to prove that if the Union were dissolved, Slavery would be abolished.

The question, however, still remains open, whether there be not something more cogent than expediency, pressing on the conscience, and demanding of honest men to dissolve their connection with the existing Government. Mr. Phillips, and those who think with him, believe that there is. They think they find it in the four clauses quoted from the Constitution of the United States, in his article.

ART. 1, SECT. 2. "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."

ART. 1, SECT. 8. "Congress shall have power * * * to suppress insurrections.

ART. 4, SECT. 2. "No person, held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor may be due.

ART. 4, SECT. 4. "The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government; and shall protect each of them against invasion ; and, on application of the legislature, or of the executive, (when the legislature cannot be convened,) against domestic violence."

“The first of these clauses," says Mr. Phillips, "relating to representation, gives to every inhabitant of Carolina, provided he is rich enough to hold five slaves, equal weight in the government with four inhabitants of Massachusetts—and accordingly confers on a slaveholding community additional political power for every slave held among them; thus tempting them to continue to uphold the system."

This is denied on the following grounds:—The clause gives to the slave-holder nothing. It does not deal with an "inhabitant of South Carolina," in any form whatsoever. It deals with States, as such, and apportions their representation in the Congress of the United States. If an unequal portion of political power is given to one inhabitant within the State of South Carolina over another inhabitant within the same, it is not the Constitution of the United States which makes the gift, but the laws of the state. If it be said that the Constitution was formed in view of the existence of the fact that the laws of South Carolina were thus unequal, it is replied, So was the American Anti-Slavery Society. It is a great mistake not to distinguish between the recognition of a fact and the approbation or sanction of a principle. It is possible to couple, in the same document, the notice and admission of a fact with the repudiation of the principle to which the fact owes its being, and even with measures devised expressly to invalidate the fact, or to put an end to its existence. The illustration is found equally in the Constitution of the United States and in that of the Anti-Slavery Society. It is admitted, nevertheless, that the Constitution of the United States has been so administered as to foster the growth of Slavery; and it must be admitted that it is within the range of possibility, that the Constitution of the Anti-Slavery Society, even, should have been so administered likewise, and yet that such abuse would not have changed the essential character of the document.

In Massachusetts, the political power is vested, by the laws of the state, in the males, to the exclusion of females. Should this provision be found to work out some great political or social wrong, we should hardly charge such wrong upon the Constitution of the United States, on the ground that the Constitution was adopted in the face of the fact, while the fact owed its existence to a distinct system of laws, over which the Constitution had not, and could not obtain, the control.

The Constitution, so far from "conferring on a slave-holding community additional political power for every, slave held among them," as affirmed by Mr. Phillips, does precisely the contrary. It withholds a portion of that to which they would be otherwise entitled. Nothing is, clearer than this. The community of South Carolina would immediately obtain an additional representation upon the floor of the House of Representatives, in the Congress of the United States, by abolishing slavery among themselves. This fact settles the question. The individual slave-holder would, it is true, lose power thereby; but it would be power for the possession of which he is indebted to State laws, and not to the Constitution. The aggregate of the Slave States would at once become entitled to nineteen additional representatives, by abolition. The basis of representation, in the Free States, is the whole number of inhabitants of all classes. In the Slave States, it is the whole of one class and three-fifths only of another class; that is, less than the whole. Hence the Constitution imposes a restriction upon the Slave States, and tenders a premium on emancipation. It is contrary to the federative plan of the Constitution, to intermeddle with the internal laws and administration of the several states, or the personal condition of their inhabitants. But in favor of liberty, and against slavery, it has ventured to do so. Can a criminal collusion with slavery be deduced from such a hostile interference? Is the animus of such a transaction for or against the institution of slavery?

The error of reasoning upon this subject consists in confounding the quantity of power vested in a state with the degree of efficiency resulting from the mode of its application. The Constitution assigns the quantity. The state laws determine the mode of its exercise. The Constitution, hostile to slavery, assigns to Carolina less power, in proportion to population, than to Massachusetts. Carolina, friendly to the despotism of the few, vests this smaller quota, thus gained, in the hands of a single class, whose action is swayed by the impulse of a single combined interest; and by this concentration of the power, makes it tenfold more efficient in its operation than the larger quota of Massachusetts, which is distributed among all the conflicting interests of the state. Hence the result is an inequality in the working of the governmental machinery of the Union, not chargeable on the Constitution, but on the vicious laws and internal political order of the state of South Carolina. The argument, so far as it is good at all, bears not against this special compact with the Slave States, but against any compact whatever—against the possibility of any political federation on the part of real republics, with others whose internal political order is that of an oligarchy or a despotism. In this point of view, it has a degree of force, and is entitled to candid consideration in its own place. It is then an argument, however, based upon grounds entirely distinct from those involved in the question we are now considering, namely, the anti-slavery or pro-slavery phase of the Constitution itself. It is an argument likewise which, carried out to its logical conclusions, results in the no-government theory, which Mr. Phillips stops short of reaching.

That provision of the Constitution which curtails the amount of representation of the Slave States on account of slavery, is itself a departure from the democratic principle, which demands that all the population of each state should be equally reckoned. It is excusable only on the ground that the departure is made in favor of freedom, and against slavery; because the action relates to communities which refuse to apply the democratic principle within their own borders. If the Constitution had made no provision at all on the subject, the evils of the federation would have been greater than they are; while the opponents of that compact would have had a difficulty in finding fault with the terms, apparently so equitable, whatever they might have said of the essential evils of any compact or political union whatsoever between the parties. If, on the other hand, the Constitution had based representation exclusively upon free population, the departure from the democratic principle would have been carried still farther, while the recognition of the fact of slavery would have remained the same as now; and it may well be doubted whether much would have been gained to the Free States, in relative influence, since it has never been the want of numbers at the North, but of disposition and of concentration of will, which has prevented them from resisting the action of the slave-holding power.

It is a mistake to suppose that the Constitution gives a specific power to suppress insurrections. This power is inherent in all governments. What it does, is to empower the Congress “to call out the militia (in order) to suppress insurrections; " i. e. in order to exercise its inherent powers as a government.

The power to protect a state against domestic violence might be made a most valuable one in behalf of liberty. John Q. Adams demonstrated that the war power was adequate to abolish slavery in all the states, even in case of a foreign war. How much more so in case of a domestic war, caused by the oppressions of slavery itself. What more potent means of protecting a state against domestic violence, than a redress of grievances. It is no answer to say that such a measure was not contemplated. Neither was a railroad nor a magnetic telegraph contemplated as a "post-road." It is a better way of exercising the power given, and of attaining the same end, just as a Congress of Nations may be better than the battle-field for settling national disputes. The Constitution is not an iron shoe, nor a straight jacket, to compress the mind of the country to the growth of the seventeenth century. The Government of the United States cannot interfere with the troubles of a state, until called upon. When thus invoked, she does not act under the control of the state, but under her own control, with plenary powers. She must of necessity be entitled to use the same kind of means to effect the end, that the state government itself might use; and nobody doubts that a state might resort to abolition, to protect herself against domestic violence.

The clause relating to "persons held to labor and service" is only applicable to slaves, so long as a sentiment favorable to slavery guides the interpretation. 1. Because it is not, in strictness, sufficient language to describe a slave, and would not be held to be so in the courts of any slave-holding state, in matters of private contract. It is of the essence of slavery, that the slave be regarded as a thing, and not as a "sentient being." All language having reference to contract, obligation, or debt, has no application, therefore, as respects slaves. We have had abundant evidence that courts desirous of doing so, may stretch this language over the case of slavery. What is here asserted is, that there is nothing in the words to constrain a court to such an interpretation, if an opposite sentiment prevailed. On the contrary, such an interpretation can only consist with a liberal construction in favor of slavery. 2. Slaves are in law, things. In fact, they are human beings. Hence slavery is a legal fiction—and fictions of law are not to be extended beyond their settled limits. 3. It is a well settled canon of interpretation, that the construction of law shall be rigid against the restrictions of personal liberty, and liberal in favor of freedom. 4. To construe this clause in favor of slavery, makes it counter to the whole tenor of the instrument. To construe it otherwise, harmonizes the instrument with itself. 5. There is no proof that this clause was, as asserted by the Supreme Court in Prigg's case, "one of the compromises of the Constitution." It was introduced at the very heel of the session of the Convention, and adopted without debate, without being referred to any committee, without deliberation or contest, and was innocent on its face. 6. There is a strong presumption against its having been understood by the people as a compromise with slavery, at the time when the Constitution was adopted, arising from the fact that in none of the Northern State Conventions was it so much as alluded to, while the most strenuous exertions 'were made to get the Constitution rejected, under the charge of a pro-slavery character. It -was twenty years later, and after the watchful liberty- loving spirit of the people had been lulled to sleep, before a case occurs in the books of any application of this clause to slaves by the courts. Revive the love of liberty, and the construction will be reversed. The law of '93 has no words applicable to slavery.

The Disunion argument commonly assumes three false postulates:

1. That the Constitution is whatever the framers of it secretly intended that it should be.

2. That the Constitution is whatever the Supreme Court of the United States may have decided it to be.

3. That the Constitution is whatever those who have administered it have represented it to be. The space to which this statement is confined will not admit an argument upon these points. Strike away these assumptions, and apply the ordinary and rightful canons of legal interpretation, and we hardly need a better aegis under which to rally the people of the whole country for the overthrow of slavery, than the American Constitution. If the writer of this believed otherwise, he, too, would be a disunionist; and he honors the brave men who, true to their convictions, assail the morbid idolatry of the masses for a Constitution which they, in too many cases, neither read nor understand.

  • Stephen Pearl Andrews, “Abolition Reasons against Disunion,” Young American’s Magazine of Self-Improvement 1, no. 3 (May 1847): 159-166.