The American Constitution’s Limitations on Abolishing Slavery

The American Constitution’s Limitations on Abolishing Slavery

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(dramatic music) – One of the most revolutionary things about the United States Constitution is that it can in fact be changed. The people can amend the Constitution, fundamentally rewrite it. We’ve done it more than
20 times over the course of our history, changing things like the permission of women to vote, prohibition of race-based
qualifications for suffrage. All of these things have fundamentally rewritten our Constitution. But there were a couple of tiny areas, actually massively important issues, but very specifically-defined issues on which the text of the
Constitution as written in 1787 prevented itself
from being changed, an absolute prohibition on amendment. One of them was the equal representation of the states and the Senate. And I don’t wanna talk
about that here today. The other is in fact just as interesting and it’s a prohibition on the amendment of the Constitution to
prohibit the international slave trade, the
trafficking of human beings from Africa to the New World for purchase and labor for 20 years as written in the Article
Five of the Constitution. That Article defines how one amends the Constitution but there it singles out Article One, Section Nine and a couple other key sections that it identifies that simply cannot be
amended until the year 1808. The reason this happened
is an interesting story. Delegates from southern
states, particularly South Carolina and Georgia, really dug in their heels on this issue because they realized that the creation of a stronger national government might in fact create a stronger national
government that could abolish the institution of slavery or prohibit the international slave trade. And in truth they had
some vision on this point. They could see that a stronger national government could lead in that direction, and it finally did in the 1860s. But on this issue of the international slave trade they were
willing to compromise and simply write in a prohibition on any amendments to the
Constitution that might allow for the prohibition of the international slave trade before the year 1808. After the year 1808 they
were willing to accept that a stronger national
government could in fact prohibit the international slave trade, and that’s exactly what they did. Congress prohibited the
international slave trade on the first opportunity in 1808. But what this story tells
us is that the compromises, the controversies that
created the Constitution, led to some interesting permutations, some adjustments in the
Constitution, tweaking in July and August and
September, up to the final days of the Constitutional Convention, finding ways to balance
northern and southern interests, finding ways
to balance those who oppose slavery and those who supported it. In the end, the Constitution
doesn’t even use the word slave or slavery. But what it does do is create a powerful national government that can in fact maybe take steps on this issue down the road. But there’s an important prohibition, an important limitation on the powers of that government for
that first 20 years. It’s an interesting
reflection on the priorities and the compromises of the Constitution. (dramatic music)

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