chapter  IX
38 Pages

IX Slavery and the Constitution

Of all the issues that divided Americans during the antebellum period, the most bitter and persistent was the controversy over slavery. Organized opposition to the institution began during the Revolutionary War. Sentiment against slavery during the colonial period had been fragmented and typically took the form of religious and moral opposition. The natural rights idealism of the Revolutionary era brought it into sharper focus, making it diffi cult for white Americans to claim freedom for themselves while denying it to African Americans. Most did not try, not even in the South, where slavery had its deepest roots. Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, southerners and slaveholders as well, supported the idea of gradual emancipation. Jefferson’s fi rst draft of the Declaration of Independence deplored the slave trade and condemned Great Britain for disallowing colonial laws against the “execrable commerce.” Luther Martin considered the existence of slavery “inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character.” John Jay, a leader of the antislavery movement in New York, thought that unless Americans took steps to end it, their own “prayers to heaven for liberty will be impious.”