Revolution #244, August 28, 2011

Check It Out:

Slavery and the U.S. Constitution

Posted Thursday, August 25, 2011

We received the following "Check It Out" from a reader:

Many people have remarked on the very first quote in BAsics: "There would be no United States as we now know it today without slavery. That is a simple and basic truth." Some people read that and say, "I gotta have this book!" Others read it, frown, and ask, "Is that really true?"

There are two important books that demonstrate just how true this statement is. The first is Complicity: How the North Promoted, Prolonged, and Profited from Slavery by three reporters from the Hartford [CT] Courant. The second is A Slaveholders' Union: Slavery, Politics, and the Constitution in the Early American Republic by George William Van Cleve.

The Hartford Courant authors began an investigation of the role of New England insurance companies in the slave trade. They soon found that not only did New England companies profit from the slave trade and cotton trade (based on slavery), they were central to the whole institution, while slavery, in turn, formed the basis for the rise of capitalism in the U.S. As the authors point out:

This economic integration and the power of the slave-owning class in the newly independent United States found its expression in the drafting of the U.S. Constitution. This is the theme of A Slaveholders' Union.

The economic clout of the slave-owning class became concentrated as a result of the American Revolution. In 1774, the major slave colonies in North America represented 10 percent of the population and 14 percent of the wealth of the British Empire. With the formation of an independent USA, the slave states constituted over 50 percent of the population and over 50 percent of the wealth of the new country.

The principal source of wealth for the colonies was the export of slave-produced agricultural products from the South and the export from the North of foodstuffs for slaves in the West Indies and rum for the slave trade in Africa. These were instrumental to the primitive accumulation of capital in the United States. As the result, a series of behind-the-scenes deals were brokered during the writing and ratification of the U.S. Constitution.

First, the northern colonies gave up a profitable (to shipping interests) treaty with Spain in return for southern colonies agreeing to maintain the ban on slave labor (thus guaranteeing wage labor) in territories north of the Ohio River.

Second, the new Constitution guaranteed the states equal representation in the Senate (that is,  veto power for the slave states) and extended constitutional protection for the importation of slaves for 20 years (both of which were explicitly exempted from the amendment process in the Constitution).

Third, the southern states, whose free white population was smaller than in the northern states, were given inflated voting power through the counting of 3/5 of the slaves in calculating congressional representation.

Fourth, the Constitution required the return of runaway slaves.

In addition (although this is not dealt with in Van Cleve’s book), the federal capital was moved south into the slave states in return for the South agreeing to have the federal government assume the revolutionary war debt of the states (debt principally owed to northern banking interests).

The result was a slaveholders’ union that held together until the slave system and the political stranglehold of the southern states on federal political power became too great an impediment to the growth of capitalist production. But by then it had shaped the America that exists today.

* Why did the slave colonies in the West Indies import food for slaves from New England? The answer is that sugar cane was such a fantastically profitable crop that no land in the West Indies could be wasted on growing food for slaves. One horrible result is that during the American Revolution, when this trade was interrupted by the British blockade, thousands of slaves in the West Indies starved to death. [back]



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