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Reflections from History and Faith

The 13th Amendment

For those who want to fundamentally transform our nation, the first order of business is to thoroughly discredit our past.  One of the ways this is being done is through the subject of slavery. The history of slavery spans nearly every culture, nationality and religion from ancient times to the present day, and the institution of slavery can be traced back to the earliest historical records, such as the Code of Hammurabi (1760 BC). In Western culture, slavery was common within the British Isles during the Middle Ages. Britain played a prominent role in the Atlantic slave trade, especially after 1600, and slavery was a legal institution in all of the 13 American colonies and Canada. I would like to very briefly address some history of slavery’s eradication as a legal institution in America specifically and Western Civilization in general.

While America’s Founders were under no illusions that slavery was in any way consonant with the foundational principles of our republic, they also were wise enough to know that an institution so ingrained in British culture could not be eradicated overnight. While some of America’s Founders were slave owners through inheritance, most considered it an abhorrent reality which needed to be eradicated – sooner than later. Prior to the time of the Founding Fathers, there had been few efforts to dismantle the institution of slavery. Many of the Founders vigorously complained against the fact that Great Britain had forcefully imposed upon the colonies the evil of slavery and many who had owned slaves as British citizens released them in the years following America’s separation from Great Britain. Two of our founders, Benjamin Franklin and Benjamin Rush, founded America’s first anti-slave society in 1774. There were also many other Founders who were anti-slavery, but I’ll briefly expound on perhaps the most notable and controversial –  Thomas Jefferson.

Some contemporary historians discredit Jefferson’s famous “All men are created equal…”statement in the Declaration of Independence because he was a slave owner. However, they stop there. As Jefferson explained in 1770 while representing a slave in court, arguing for his freedom: Under the law of nature, all men are born free. Everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will. This is what is called personal liberty, and is given him by the Author of Nature.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson included an indictment of slavery in its list of grievances but it was removed by delegates who had a large financial stake in slavery’s continuance. Jefferson’s original passage is as follows: “He [King George III] has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people on whom he has obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed again the Liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.”

Why then might you ask did not Jefferson free his slaves upon his death as did George Washington?  A revised Virginia law (1806) required emancipators to continue to support and maintain former slaves and required that a freed slave depart the state or else reenter slavery. This simply made it financially impossible for Jefferson to free his slaves and it would have also made too much of a hardship for his slaves to remain free.  

The slave trade was a major source of disagreement at the Constitutional Convention of 1787. South Carolina’s delegates were determined to protect slavery, and they had a powerful impact on the final document. They originated the three-fifths clause (giving the South extra representation in Congress by counting part of its slave population) and threatened disunion if the slave trade were banned as other states demanded. The result was a compromise helping to ensure ratification of the constitution and barring Congress from prohibiting the importation of slaves until January 1, 1808. Effective on this date, the United States outlawed American participation in the African Slave Trade.

On February 23, 1807, the British Parliament passed the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act outlawing the slave trade in Great Britain culminating a 20-year crusade lead by William Wilberforce. This Act eventually led to the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, outlawing the institution of slavery in Great Britain. These measures had a positive impact on America’s anti-slavery movement during the 19th-century.

Just over 30 years later and 155 years ago this week, after many subsequent cultural and legal battles and a costly civil war, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on December 6, 1865. “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” With these words, the single greatest change envisioned and sought by most of our Founders in 1787 was at last enshrined in our Constitution.

While those who despise our country choose to make slavery a cornerstone of our founding, this is not borne out in our Founders’ own statements at the Constitutional Convention, speeches, and private correspondence thereafter. They hoped and intended that the dissonance between principle and practice would be resolved quickly. In laying down timeless and transcendent Judeo/Christian principles inconsistent with slavery and drafting a Constitution that did not guarantee its continuance, nor even countenance slavery’s existence, our most celebrated Founders hoped they had hastened its demise. Their hope indeed became a reality, but a point needs to be made here to reinforce the “why” of this reality – even beyond our own country. In Author Rodney Stark’s words: “….It was not philosophers or secular intellectuals who assembled the moral indictment of slavery, but the very people they held in such contempt: men and women having intense Christian faith, who opposed slavery because it was sin…” In other words, Biblical theology abolished slavery because it considered slavery to be sinful, totally antithetical to the truth that all men (and women) are created in the image of God and are therefore endowed by their Creator …….

While it is true that the United States was not the first major western nation to officially outlaw slavery, we were among the first (if not the first) western country to do so within such a brief period after our founding (89 years, 1776-1865). Without question, the ratification of the 13th amendment to our constitution did not end all slavery immediately, but it put US on a path consistent with our Founder’s vision of opportunity for “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for ALL Americans. This we have seen and continue to see, perhaps most notably through those who have held and those who seek the highest office in the land.

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