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We the People: THE AMERICAN CONSTITUTION AFTER 200 YEARS : Seeds of Conflict : By sidestepping the slavery issue, the Founding Fathers shackled the nation to a future of racial discord.

September 13, 1987|LEE MAY | Times Staff Writer

America's problems that began with slavery just won't go away.

The moral and political questions raised by "the peculiar institution"--as it came to be called shortly before the Civil War--have plagued the nation since its birth. They threatened to break up the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia 200 years ago, and the repercussions of slavery continue to fuel bitter disputes today.

During the Constitutional Convention, the Founding Fathers dared not even write the word slavery into the document. Those opposed to the institution declared angrily that the word itself would sully the charter, yet all delegates recognized that Southern states would bolt and doom the new government if slavery were tampered with.

Unable to resolve the problem, historians and others now agree, the delegates worked out a formula for tiptoeing around it: In return for Southern delegates' support of the new charter and acceptance of broad federal authority over the states--considered a vital principle by advocates of a strong national government--the Founding Fathers allowed slavery to continue without sanctioning it by name.

In the process, they left undisturbed the seeds of endless future conflict.

The effects of the compromise "have remained for generations," Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black ever appointed to the high court, said in a speech last May. "They arose from the contradiction between guaranteeing liberty and justice to all, and denying both to Negroes."

The Constitution is still "evolving," he said, noting that blacks and women were excluded from voting until the 15th and 19th Amendments were passed in 1870 and 1920, respectively.

Marshall's speech set off howls of protest because he criticized the Constitution's framers for creating a government that was "defective from the start, requiring several amendments, a civil war and a momentous social transformation to attain the system of constitutional government, and its respect for the individual freedoms and human rights, we hold as fundamental today."

Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, agreed with Marshall. "The failure of the framers of the Constitution to come to grips with slavery caused serious problems for this country," he said in an interview. "We have paid for it in blood, sweat and tears."

In a mixed assessment of post-slavery racial progress, Wade J. Henderson, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said: "On one level, we've made tremendous leaps, socially, politically and economically. On another level, we're faced with some incredible problems. For example, in 1987, we still debate whether a black person can run for the presidency of the United States."

Orators of every generation have railed against what abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass called "this Hydra-headed monster" of slavery--but the moral outrage has seldom led to a consensus on dealing with the problems it raised.

During his October, 1980, debate with then-President Jimmy Carter, for example, Ronald Reagan commented that he had grown up in an era "when this country didn't even know it had a racial problem"--a remark that many whites found unexceptionable but struck many blacks as insensitive.

Similarly, whereas many whites see current government programs for helping the disadvantaged as adequate, political science professor Ronald W. Walters of Howard University, a black, said in a recent interview that "many black people believe the government participated in the process of racial subordination and blacks are owed reparations."

Walters and some other black scholars are pressing the idea that the 13th Amendment opens the way for black people to be guaranteed access to resources, not just to civil rights. Others assert that white people have hidden behind the First Amendment in stereotyping black people in movies.

And as the buoyant celebration marking the end of the Constitutional Convention nears, another Howard University professor has prepared a graphic display of racial memorabilia to show the black side of history.

Some of the 55 men--all of them white--who attended the Philadelphia convention in 1787 envisioned the future as they wrestled with the issue of slavery.

One, George Mason of Virginia, saw and was frightened.

"Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant," he warned on Aug. 22, breaking the Virginia delegation's silence about whether the federal government could regulate states' slave trade. "They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities."

The irony of Mason's impassioned speech escaped no one. As the owner of perhaps more slaves than any of the 17 slaveholders at the convention, he was especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy.

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