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Neither equal nor free: can a "government of free men" allow slavery? As America's founders struggled to write the Constitution, that question nearly tore the young United States apart.


Narrator A: "All men are created equal," Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence in 1776. Jefferson made that powerful statement as the 13 American colonies fought for their freedom from Great Britain in the American Revolution (1775-1783). Yet Jefferson, like many of America's Founding Fathers, owned black slaves who enjoyed neither equality nor freedom.

Slavery divided Americans from the start. In 1787, it played a key role in the struggle to draft the government's fundamental document, the Constitution. But because the Founders did not end slavery, the issue would ultimately embroil the nation in a bloody civil war that began 150 years ago, in 1861.


Narrator B: In 1781, the structure of the U.S. government is based on a document called the Articles of Confederation. But under the Articles, the central government is very weak. The Continental Congress, the country's first legislature, has no power to tax, pay the nation's debts, or force the states to honor laws that it passes.


Narrator C: In 1787, Congress calls for a convention of delegates from each of the states to gather in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to try to fix the Articles of Confederation. But instead of amending the Articles, after a long, hot summer the delegates produce an entirely new document: the Constitution.

The first delegate to arrive, in early May, is James Madison of Virginia. Before the convention starts, he holds meetings with delegates from Pennsylvania. Their conversations foreshadow the fierce debates in the months ahead over the issues of proportional representation and slavery.


James Madison: The country is in danger of collapsing. We need a strong central government. And instead of every state having one vote in Congress, the way it is now, states should have representatives in proportion to their population.

Gouverneur Morris: I agree that states with more people should have more votes in Congress. But I'm concerned that the Southern states, including yours, are going to want to count slaves as part of their population.

James Wilson: Like it or not, slaves are a fact of life, especially in the South. They work the tobacco and cotton fields and are a crucial part of the South's economy.

Benjamin Franklin: You know that I'm an abolitionist, and oppose slavery. But our most important goal right now is to preserve the country. We may have to compromise to keep the Southern states with us.


Narrator D: On May 25, delegates meet for the first time, and proportional representation is soon on the agenda. States with small populations, like New Jersey, are passionately opposed to the idea.

William Paterson: Each state should have one vote, period. If you give large states more votes, their power will swallow up the small states.

Narrator E: The debate over how slaves should be counted is just as intense. Roger Sherman of Connecticut expresses the view of many Northern delegates.

Roger Sherman: Representation in Congress should be based only on the number of free inhabitants.

Pierce Butler: South Carolina wants representation to be based on a state's total wealth. Economic power matters as much as population.

Elbridge Gerry: You're talking about how much property you have. But why should slaves, which you consider property, count for more votes in Congress than cattle or horses in the North?


Narrator A: Faced with a deadlock, the delegates appoint a committee to come up with a compromise. On July 5, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts presents the committee's work to the convention.

Gerry: Congress will have two branches. In the House of Representatives, states will have members in proportion to their population. But in the Senate, every state will get the same number of votes. Narrator B: In the final draft of the Constitution, each state, no matter how big or small, will have two Senators. But how are slaves to be counted? After more heated argument, the delegates reach another compromise: Each slave will count as three fifths of a person.

Narrator C: But the word slave will not appear in the Constitution. Like the delegates, the Constitution refers to slavery in code. Article I, for example, speaks of three fifths of "all other persons." In his notebook, John Dickinson of Delaware expresses uneasy feelings about how the Constitution handles slavery.

John Dickinson: What will the world think of us, founding a government of free men with power derived from slaves? We're too ashamed to even use the word.


Narrator D: Later in the summer, the Convention wrestles with the issue of the Atlantic slave trade, which continued to bring new slaves from Africa to the U.S.

Morris: Whatever happens here, I can never uphold the institution of slavery. Are slaves men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote! As it is now, a man from South Carolina can go to Africa, tear away his fellow creatures from their homes, and damn them to bondage. And he will have more representation in Congress than citizens in Pennsylvania or New Jersey who hate slavery!

Charles Pinckney: Let me make this clear. South Carolina will not approve this Constitution if it prohibits the slave trade!

Narrator A: George Mason of Virginia, who owns about 300 slaves, typifies the conflicted feelings of many of the Founders.

George Mason: Slaves bring the judgment of heaven on a country. The government must be allowed to at least prevent bringing more slaves to the country.

Narrator B: In time, a third compromise is reached: Congress will not try to ban the "importation" of "persons" until 1808. Later, Morris and Franklin discuss their doubts.

Morris: So we just put off making another tough decision. Now slavery will keep on growing.

Franklin: To be honest, I think that's the best we can do right now. Even many Americans who hate slavery think it's impossible for the races to live together as equals.


Narrator C: In late August, Pierce Butler of South Carolina proposes a law requiring states to return fugitive slaves who have fled to other states. Again, "slave" will appear in code in the Constitution as a "person held to service."

Narrator D: The delegates finally finish their work on September 17, 1787, when 39 of them sign the Constitution. It will take almost two years of intense debate around the country for the nine states required to ratify the document. On June 21, 1788, New Hampshire becomes that ninth state, and the Constitution goes into effect.

Narrator E: What about slavery? By 1790, the time of the first U.S. Census, six Northern states have outlawed it, and most slaves are in the South (see map). But the issue remains unresolved.


Narrator A: For the next 60 years, as the U.S. expanded west, the debate over slavery intensified (see chronology). Slavery was the chief cause of the Civil War (1861-1865). It took the North's victory and three amendments to the Constitution to end slavery and grant equal rights under the law to blacks. Even so, not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s was that equality actually enforced in many places throughout the U.S.

--Bryan Brown


Delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia:

James Madison, Virginia

Governor (GUHV-urn-NEER) Morris, Pennsylvania

James Wilson, Pennsylvania

Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania

William Paterson, New Jersey

Roger Sherman, Connecticut

Pierce Butler, South Carolina

Elbridge Gerry, Massachusetts

John Dickinson, Delaware

Charles Pinckney, South Carolina

George Mason, Virginia

Narrators A-E

All characters were actual people.


* abolitionist [n]: a person opposed to slavery

* delegate [n]: a person chosen to act on behalf of others; a representative

* fugitive [n]: a Person who runs away or tries to escape

* ratify [v]: to give legal or formal approval, as to a treaty or constitution



1808 Under President Thomas Jefferson, the U.S. outlaws the Atlantic slave trade.



1820 Congress passes the Missouri Compromise. While allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state and Maine as a free state, it prevents slavery in the northwestern territories.

1850 Congress passes a number of measures known as the Compromise of 1850. They admit California to the Union as a free state, but also include a Fugitive Slave Act that strengthens the law on returning runaway slaves to their masters.


1857 In Dred Scott v. Sanford, the U.S. Supreme Court rules that blacks have no rights as citizens, that slaves are property, and that Congress cannot prohibit slavery in U.S. territories.


1861 South Carolina secedes from the Union, sparking an exodus of 10 other Southern states. On April 12,1861, the first shots of the Civil War are fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina.

1863 President Abraham Lincoln issues the Emancipation Proclamation, declaring the slaves of the South to be free. After the war ends in 1865, the 13th Amendment outlaws slavery everywhere.


13th Amendment (1865):

Outlaws slavery and involuntary servitude throughout the U.S.

14th Amendment (1868):

"All persons" born in the U.S. are considered citizens, overruling the Dred Scott decision; bars state laws that would deprive citizens of "life, liberty, or property, without due process of law" or "the equal protection of the laws."

15th Amendment (1870):

Prevents any law that would deny the vote to a citizen "on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude"--a reference to slavery.
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Author:Brown, Bryan
Publication:Junior Scholastic
Article Type:Play
Date:Sep 5, 2011
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