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Slavery and the Constitution: An immoral compromise?

Wednesday, September 18th, 2013

On Tuesday evening, AEI’s Program on American Citizenship hosted the second annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture. Michael Zuckert of the University of Notre Dame spoke on the topic of slavery at the constitutional convention.

Zuckert notes that the debate over slavery’s place in the Constitution is divided into two factions: “neo-Lincolnians” who argue that the Constitution provided minimal protection to the institution of slavery, and “neo-Garrisonians” who condemn the Constitution for its perceived promotion of slavery.

However, in tracing the historical context of the constitutional provisions linked to slavery—the fugitive slave clause, the three-fifths clause, and the slave trade clause—Zuckert finds that the Constitution neither endorsed slavery nor wholly rejected the institution. Instead, Zuckert suggests a third, more historically accurate interpretation he terms “neo-Madisonian,” in which slavery remained legal, but was not considered legitimate. The framers, he argues, believed that slavery would eventually fade away on its own, and thus limited the new federal government’s involvement with slavery to only those issues that required addressing for comity among the states.

At the event, AEI President Arthur Brooks also announced a new website devoted to the scholarship of Walter Berns: WalterBerns.org.

Full video is available from the lecture here. The first annual Walter Berns Constitution Day Lecture is also available online, featuring Michael W. McConnell discussing “Spending, public debt and constitutional design.”

AEI