Skipping Over Slavery in the Constitution

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

When the Republican-led Congress took to the House floor to read the entire U.S. Constitution, it omitted several provisions in the document, including two that allude to slavery: the "three-fifths compromise" and the fugitive-slave clause. While leaders like Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.) objected to such redactions that ignore the "long history of improving the Constitution," Republican organizer Rep. Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia argued that they would "read the document as amended," leaving out any portion superseded by subsequent amendments, such as the one abolishing slavery.


Even in their attempt to present a slavery-free edit of the Constitution, they failed. Slavery is too deeply embedded and encoded in our nation's history and documents to be easily erased. When Rep. William Keating (D-Mass.) stepped to the podium and read Article I, Section 9 (19:44 into this video), about the "importation" of persons not being prohibited by Congress until 1808, did he even know what he was reading? This procedural, matter-of-fact reading failed to convey the gravitas of a congressional promise to protect the slave trade for 20 years.

In defense of Keating and the other organizers who may have missed this reference to slavery: It was the intent of the Constitution's framers that the word "slave" appear nowhere in the document. In the three-fifths clause in Article I, Section 2, every category of person is named ("free persons," indentured servants "bound to Service for a Term of Years" and "Indians"), leaving slaves to be referred to as "all other Persons." Likewise, a similar slight of language is used to refer to fugitive slaves in Article IV, Section 2, as "Person[s] held to Service or Labour."

Even at the country's founding, the framers of the Constitution knew that something was wrong with slavery. Luther Martin, one delegate to the Constitutional Convention, wrote of the language used in Article I, Section 9: "The design of this clause is to prevent the general government from prohibiting the importation of slaves, but … [t]hey anxiously sought to avoid the admission of expressions which might be odious in the ears of Americans, although they were willing to admit into their system those things which the expressions signified …"

Clearly, some of the Founding Fathers were too ashamed by the institution of slavery to make explicit mention of it. Today that shame has spurred a wave of historical revisionism, reflected in upcoming commemorations of the Civil War, and one publisher's attempt to produce an n-word-free edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. But shame did not stop the founders from sanctioning slavery, and today it will not change that history.

That we feel shame is a good thing. It reflects our sense that there is something about our nation in need of absolution. But that absolution will come only by facing up to, and accepting responsibility for, our history, including all of its odiousness. If this week's Constitution recital is any indication, any attempts to do otherwise will just ring hollow.

Zaheer Ali is a doctoral student in history at Columbia University, researching 20th-century African-American history and religion. Follow him on Twitter.