by Juan Perea, professor of law, Loyola University Chicago School of Law
*This post is part of ACSBlog's Symposium Recognizing Black History Month.
Most contemporary historians conclude that the American Constitution is a proslavery document. When I speak with historians about teaching constitutional law, often they are shocked that law professors typically do not teach the Constitution as proslavery. I think the general failure to teach the Constitution as a proslavery document does a major disservice both to students and to society.
So what do I mean when I label the Constitution “proslavery?” I mean that the Constitution protected slavery and promoted slave ownership. The Constitution’s text contains several proslavery clauses. The Apportionment Clause, Article I, Section 2, added three-fifths of “all other Persons” ‒ slaves ‒ to the number of free inhabitants of a state for purposes of representation. This clause, by boosting the number of representatives in Congress for the slave states, guaranteed political protection for slavery. The same three-fifths ratio boosted the representation of slave states in the Electoral College during presidential elections. The slave import limitation, Article I, Section 9, prohibited Congress from regulating the international slave trade until 1808, 21 years after ratification of the Constitution. Not only was Congress forbidden from regulating the transoceanic slave trade, but Article V of the Constitution explicitly forbids amending the slave import limitation, one of only two such forbidden matters in the whole document. Lastly, the Fugitive Slave Clause, Article IV, Section 2, guaranteed nationally, for the first time, the right of slave owners to pursue and reclaim their slaves anywhere throughout the land.
The Constitution thus protected slavery by increasing political representation for slave owners and slave states; by limiting, stringently though temporarily, congressional power to regulate the international slave trade; and by protecting the rights of slave owners to recapture their escaped slaves. The Constitution also promoted slave ownership by promising increased political representation while keeping unregulated the flow of slaves through the international slave trade for 21 years. Pretty significant protections, don’t you think?
At this point one might ask, didn’t Reconstruction abolish slavery and require equal protection of the laws? Yes, the Reconstruction amendments did accomplish these things. However, the formal abolition of slavery only changed the rules of play, not the game of white domination itself. Slave codes became black codes, which became Jim Crow laws, which became race-neutral laws with outsized, unfair disparate impacts on people of color. Formal equal protection has yielded, in the main, only ostensibly race-neutral laws with heavily disparate racial impacts.