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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Several States refused to ratify


last and on the whole the least defensible of the concessions made in this matter concerned the African Slave Trade. That odious traffic was condemned by almost all Americans--even by those who were accustomed to domestic slavery, and could see little evil in it. Jefferson, in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, had placed amongst the accusations against the English King the charge that he had forced the slave trade on reluctant colonies. The charge was true so far at any rate as Virginia was concerned, for both that State and its neighbour, Maryland, had passed laws against the traffic and had seen them vetoed by the Crown. But the extreme South, where the cotton trade was booming, wanted more Negro labour; South Carolina objected, and found an expected ally in Massachusetts. Boston had profited more by the Slave Trade than any other American city. She could hardly condemn King George without condemning herself. And, though her interest in the traffic had diminished, it had not wholly ceased. The paragraph in question was struck out of the Declaration, and when the Convention came to deal with the question the same curious alliance thwarted the efforts of those who demanded the immediate prohibition of the trade. Eventually the Slave Trade was suffered to continue for twenty years, at the end of which time Congress might forbid it. This was done in 1808, when the term of suffrance had expired.

Thus was Negro Slavery placed

under the protection of the Constitution. It would be a grave injustice to the founders of the American Commonwealth to make it seem that any of them liked doing this. Constrained by a cruel necessity, they acquiesced for the time in an evil which they hoped that time would remedy. Their mind is significantly mirrored by the fact that not once in the Constitution are the words "slave" or "slavery" mentioned. Some euphemism is always used, as "persons held to service or labour," "the importation of persons," "free persons," contrasted with "other persons," and so on. Lincoln, generations later, gave what was undoubtedly the true explanation of this shrinking from the name of the thing they were tolerating and even protecting. They hoped that the Constitution would survive Negro Slavery, and they would leave no word therein to remind their children that they had spared it for a season. Beyond question they not only hoped but expected that the concession which for the sake of the national unity they made to an institution which they hated and deplored would be for a season only. The influence of time and the growth of those great doctrines which were embodied in the Declaration of Independence could not but persuade all men at last; and the day, they thought, could not be far distant when the Slave States themselves would concur in some prudent scheme of emancipation, and make of Negro Slavery an evil dream that had passed away. None the less not a few of them did what they had to do with sorrowful and foreboding hearts, and the author of the Declaration of Independence has left on record his own verdict, that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God was just.



The compromises of the Constitution, on whatever grounds they may be criticized, were so far justified that they gained their end. That end was the achievement of union; and union was achieved. This was not done easily nor without opposition. In some cities anti-Constitutional riots took place. Several States refused to ratify. The opposition had the support of the great name of Patrick Henry, who had been the soul of the resistance to the Stamp Act, and who now declared that under the specious name of "Federation" Liberty had been betrayed. The defence was conducted in a publication called _The Federalist_ largely by two men afterwards to be associated with fiercely contending parties, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. But more persuasive than any arguments that the ablest advocate could use were the iron necessities of the situation. The Union was an accomplished fact. For any State, and especially for a small State--and it was the small States that hesitated most--to refuse to enter it would be so plainly disastrous to its interests that the strongest objections and the most rooted suspicions had eventually to give way. Some States hung back long: some did not ratify the Constitution until its machinery was actually working, until the first President had been chosen and the first Congress had met. But all ratified it at last, and before the end of Washington's first Presidency the complement of Stars and Stripes was made up.

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