Sunday, August 15, 2010

Slavery, the Bible, and the Constitution

Or: A funny thing happened
on the way to abolition
by Tom Van Dyke

Many Americans, especially the folks whose ancestors were directly affected, are well-aware of Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution---the nefarious Three-Fifths Compromise, where slave states counted their slaves as a "3/5 of a person" for determining their number of congressmen in the House of Representatives, and number of votes in the Electoral College.

Much less known is Article 1, Section 9, a "poison pill" for slavery in the United States:

The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.

In other words, the African slave trade could continue unmolested by Congress, but only for another 20 years. Everybody knew slavery must end someday, just not today.

And indeed, the US Congress had the bill banning the Middle Passage in place by 1807, to take effect the first day constitutionally possible, March 1, 1808, even before Great Britain's own similar and much-praised law went into effect.

Everybody knew that slavery must end someday. Just not today, but this was a start. But although the law was high on symbolism, it was short on teeth.

Let's pop in on an interesting argument from Rev. Frederick Thomas Brown from 1865:
"When, in 1787, the Constitution of the United States was adopted, there was but one opinion in the country on the subject of slavery, viz: that it was iniquitous and unprofitable; unjust to the slave, demoralizing to the master, inimical to free labor, and antagonistic to free institutions. No one thought of defending it, either from the Scriptures or on the ground of political economy. The slave States, especially, were weary of it, and lamented it as a heavy curse."


"With the acquisition of Florida in 1819, the price of slaves ran up to $800 and $1000, and slavery in the Southern States began to be regarded with decided favor; it was clearly profitable, and some Christian men were found who said, but timidly, it could be proved from the Scriptures that it was a divine institution."
The author goes on to say that "As new cotton, sugar and rice fields were opened, slaves increased in value and slavery became more and more profitable..."

So, according to Rev. Brown, it was as slavery became more and more profitable that the "Biblical arguments" went from "timid" to vociferous.

In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson famously writes in 1781 that
The whole commerce between master and slave is a perpetual exercise of the most boisterous passions, the most unremitting despotism on the one part, and degrading submissions on the other.
and famously continues

"Indeed I tremble for my country when [I] reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest."

The slaveholding Jefferson makes no attempt to defend it: slavery is unjust and must end, perhaps even by the Hand of God! Someday. Just not today.

But after 80 years of "compromises" and procrastinations, that day of reckoning arrives unquietly in 1861 at Ft. Sumter, and throws the nation---an "almost chosen people"---into ruinous war. In his second inaugural address in 1865, President Lincoln, surveying the wreckage of that great civil war:
"Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged."

Lincoln's being a just bit ironic here, I think, because the way he puts it, it sure does seem strange if not bizarre. But if we are to not judge each other, there is a higher power Who will:
"The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh." If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?"
Jefferson's "supernatural interference"? After all, "The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest," that is, take the side of the defenders of slavery.
"Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether."

That's from Psalm 19:9, written some three thousand years ago. And Lincoln echoes Jefferson here as well: "Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever..."

The ill-gotten gains of the South lie in ruins; the blood from the lash paid back by her sons. The divine justice that made Jefferson "tremble" was done.

Perhaps there's some inner Jiminy Cricket in every human being that tells us when we are treating our fellow man justly or unjustly. And it's long been thought that man's reason is corrupt; we can talk ourselves into anything to justify our own actions, let's face it. But how can anyone who believes in the Bible think he can fool God with God's Own Word?

But I suppose Mr. Lincoln had it right in judging not, lest we judged---neither Bible folk nor "rational" people are immune to deluding themselves or trying to delude The Universe. Mr. Lincoln famously closes his address:

"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations."

That is both wise and "Christian" in its sentiment. Both Jiminy and Jesus would approve. And if there's one thing that Jiminy, Jesus, the Psalmist, Jefferson, Lincoln agreed on, and those Founders---the Framers and Ratifiers who got Article 1 Section 9 into the Constitution---it's that justice does not sleep forever.


King of Ireland said...

Interesting take for sure. I have gone back and forth in my own head numerous times about the decision to put off ending slavery to bring the colonies together. There is no doubt that ending slavery would have been a deal breaker. But was it a deal with the devil?

Tom Van Dyke said...

Or with God's justice.

King of Ireland said...

meaning a deal with God's justice? If so pretty insightful I never really thought of it that way. It most certainly would be a Calvinsitic way of looking at it in that it is kind of fatalistic.

I go back to God telling Abraham to establish justice. That is a proactive command.

Anyway I have my post ready on Amos that deals with some of this. I will post it after yours so as to give yours as not to steal the main page.

J. L. Bell said...

This essay conflates the transatlantic slave trade with slavery itself (including an internal slave market). At least two American colonies voted to end the importation of enslaved Africans before the Revolution. That doesn’t mean those legislators voted to end slavery, or necessarily expected it to end in their lifetimes.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Didn't claim any of that, JL. Just said that the Constitution put in the beginning of the end. I do not conflate, mercy! Article 1 Section 9 admits there's something wrong.

What I'd like to see, if you're in the mode or knowldgeable on the subject, is a counterargument containing strong defenses of slavery on reasonable or Biblical grounds around Founding time. This would disprove the thrust of Rev. Brown's argument and that of the original post.

I'm unaware of such defenses, which is why I wrote the post, not so much to speechify but to solicit legitimate counterarguments. AC is a proving ground for original or at least uncommon ideas.

If counterfactuals exist, I trust you and those here gathered to make them. That's what we're here for.

Tom Van Dyke said...

...meaning a deal with God's justice? If so pretty insightful I never really thought of it that way. It most certainly would be a Calvinsitic way of looking at it in that it is kind of fatalistic.

Well, contra Locke's ambivalence about an essential part of natural law---he's skeptical that justice is done on this earth---what is good by natural law is necessarily good for man [the "utilitarian" dimension of traditional/Thomisic natural law theory, which Thomas West argues Locke still falls in with].

I can't find much in the Founding literature that argues slavery is just, even as they believe The Negro is inferior. Their excuses are that it's for The Negro's own good, a paternalism or some perverted "Christian charity."

And yes, I dunno if it's Calvinistic or fatalistic, but even Jefferson says [God's] justice cannot sleep forever. And in a natural law sense, slaveholding harms the slaveholder anyway. Something's wrong with "the peculiar institution" and everybody knew it.

And if they did not find the will to right that wrong, I think there was a palpable sense that a Higher Power would.

Just not today...


I was hoping somebody would send some props along about the parallels between Notes on Virginia and Lincoln's Second Inaugural. Lincoln pumped the Declaration

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

and I think Jefferson's Notes on Virginia are echoed in the Lincoln's Second Inaugural as well.

Jefferson: accidental prophet? Sure. Not a devout man, but a reasonable one.

jimmiraybob said...

What I'd like to see ... is a counterargument containing strong defenses of slavery on reasonable or Biblical grounds around Founding time.

Petition to the Virginia Assembly, 1785

“During the brief period of open debate about slavery in te upper South, the vast majority of white southerners worked to protect their prerogatives as masters or potential masters of black slaves. When, for example, the Virginia legislature formally considered a petition calling for a general emancipation in 1785, the response was unanimously negative. When citizens in heavily slaveholding Virginia counties petitioned their legislature in 1784-1785, they were able to make a positive case for slavery built on the conservative logic articulated by proslavery missionaries during the colonial era. To the evidence offered by Christian theology, the petitioners added the element of potential racial Armageddon should slavery be disrupted – a specter of widespread violence orchestrated by freed slaves."


Proslavery Petition, November 10, 1785

"To the honourable the General Assembly of Virginia the Remonstrance and Petition of the Free Inhabitants of Halifax County.


"When the British Parliament usurped a Right to dispose of our Property without our Consent, we dissolved the Union with our Parent Country, and established a Constitution and Form of Government of our own, that our Property might be secure in Future. In Order to effect this, we risked our Lives and fortunes, and waded through Seas of Blood. Divine Providence smiled on our Enterprize, and crowned it with Success. And our Rights of Liberty and Property are now as well secured to us, as they can be by any human Constitution and Form of Government.

"But notwithstanding this, we understand, a very subtle and daring Attempt is on Foot to deprive us of a very important Part of our Property. An Attempt carried on by the Enemies of our Country, Tools of the British Administration, and supported by a Number of deluded Men among us, to wrest from us our Slaves by an act of the Legislature for a general Emancipation of them. They have the Address, indeed to cover their Design, with the Veil of Piety and Liberality of Sentiment. But is unsupported by the Word of God, and will be ruinous to Individuals and to the Public.

[cont below]

jimmiraybob said...

[petition continued]

"It is unsupported by the World of God. Under the Old Testament Dispensation, Slavery was permitted by the Deity himself. Thus it is recorded, in Levit. Chap. 25. Ver. 44, 45, 46. 'Both they Bond-men, and Bond-maids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the Heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy Bond-men and Bond-maids. Moreover, of the Children of the Strangers, that do sojourn among you of them shall ye buy, and of their Families that are with you, which they beget in your Land, and they shall be your Possession, and ye shall take them, as an Inheritance for your Children after you, to inherit them for a Possession; they shall be your Bond-men forever.' This Permission to possess and inherit Bond Servants, we have Reason to conclude, was continued through all the Revolutions of the Jewish Government, down to the Advent of our Lord. And we do not find, that either he or his Apostles abridged it. On the Contrary, the Freedom which the Followers of Jesus were taught to expect, was a Freedom from the Bondage of Sin and Satan, and from the Dominion of their Lusts and Passions; but as to their outward Condition, whatever that was, wether Bond or Free, when they embraced Christianity, it was to remain the same afterwards. This Saint Paul hath expressly told us 1 Cor. Chap. 7. Ver. 20th. where he is speaking directly to this very Point; 'Let every Man abide in the same Calling, wherein he is called'; and at Ver. 24. 'Let every Man wherein he is called therein abide with God.' Thus it is evident the above Attempt is unsupported by the Divine Word.

"It is also ruinous to Individuals and to the Public. For it involves in it, and is productive of Want, Poverty, Distress, and Ruin to the Free Citizen; Neglect, Famine, and Death to the helpless black Infant and superannuated Parent; the Horrors of all the Rapes, Murders, and Outrages, which a vast Multitude of unprincipled, unpropertied, vindictive, and remorseless Banditti are capable of perpetrating; inevitable Bankruptcy to the Revenue, and consequently Breach of public Faith, and Loss of Credit with foreign nations; and lastly Ruin to this now free and flourishing Country.

"We therefore your Remonstrants and Petitioners do solemnly abjure and humble pray you, that you will discountenance and utterly reject every Motion and Proposal for emancipating our Slaves; that as the Act lately made, empowering the Owners of Slaves to liberate them has been and is still productive, in some Measure, of sundry of the above pernicious Effects, you will immediately and totally repeal it; and that as many of the Slaves, liberated by the said Act, have been guilty of Thefts and Outrages, Insolence and Violences destructive to the Peace, Safety, and Happiness of Society, you will make effectual Provision for the due Government of them.

"And your Remonstrants and Petitioners shall ever pray, etc."

jimmiraybob said...

My first link above goes to Google Books and:

Proslavery and sectional thought in the early South, 1740-1829: an anthology By Jeffrey Robert Young.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Did a generic Word of God or the property sentiment carry the day, do you think?

Although I appreciate your occasional diligent efforts to hit the books in order to prove me wrong, JRB. Not so much to ever prove me right or even credible, but that is the nature of things.

Thx. Rock on.

King of Ireland said...

Men trying to use the Bible to justify slavery goes way back. But so does men using the Bible to condemn slavery. Jefferson is an interesting case study here in that, at least at face value, he thought is was wrong but still owned slaves. Furthermore, he wrote a document that is based on the premise that all men are created equal.

They rallied around this idea to fight the war and unite the states but they never dealt with the full implications of it. In many ways we did not as a nation until the Civil Rights Act of the 60's.

I think Condi Rice calle slavery a birth defect of our nation. I cannot put it any better. I think they should have dealt with it in the beginning and dealt with the consequences of having two nations. If they were as interested in what God thought as they say they were they had to have known it was going to split anyway.

If I am hearing Tom's point I think this is it. Which gives credence to the claims that Brian made in the other post about them pandering. They broacasted that everyone was equal when it served them but downplayed it when it would have upset the apple cart as it applied to the slaves.

Phil Johnson said...

I think, Tom, you have outdone yourself.
This is your best essay yet.
And, I'm not trying to butter you up.
I may copy it and email it to some people I know. I'll be sure to use a link so they can know to whom to give the credit.

jimmiraybob said...


My comments here aren't posted against you but against the Rev. Brown. When I read, "When, in 1787, the Constitution of the United States was adopted, there was but one opinion in the country on the subject of slavery..." the bat-signal was raised. How could I possibly let that one go since it was counter to everything that I know.

Indeed, the petition was something that I came across when doing some previous research on slavery and the build up to the American civil war. I don't know what the Rev. Brown's agenda was in writing what he did but he was flat out wrong.

The writings and letters of not just Jefferson but G. Washington attest to the frustration of not being able to address the blight of slavery due to other's interests and political strength. So, I'm not trying to come to the defense of the other Tom at your expense. All of the founders, framers and ratifiers when it comes to nationally addressing slavery, have some level of blood on their hands but it deserves to be recognized that something could have been done if not for politically powerful and intransigent regional interests.

Eventually with the rise of King Cotton and the cotton gin as well as other technological improvements, the values of slaves did increase. But the voices raising the Bible as justification were anything but timid.

As my comments in the earlier post clearly noted, the Bible and the Almighty were employed on both sides of the slavery issue - it should be noted that I'm not criticising Christianity in my comments. Many historians have noted not just a north-south division of the country but a north-south division in churches preceeding the civil war.

If my comments are constructive and consistent with the record then we all win.

If it helps, I think that you are completely right when you say, "And if there's one thing that Jiminy, Jesus, the Psalmist, Jefferson, Lincoln agreed on, and those Founders---the Framers and Ratifiers who got Article 1 Section 9 into the Constitution---it's that justice does not sleep forever."

Phil Johnson said...

On the idea that "Justice does not sleep forever":

Of course, that all depends on who it is that might be seeking justice. The victim who was whipped to death in front of his fellows for not immediately snapping to on some insignificant order?

Does that disobedient slave get justice in some other world?

If you think so, then, the strategies of exotericism are working. At least on you.
But, what about the victim who was murdered at the pillory?
This is a great discussion as it gets carried out through the ages and it is pertinent to how the underclasses are being treated today.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Thx for the props on the essay, Pinky. I'm moved.

I think what is unjust these days is a bit more complicated, or shall we say, less black and white.

JRB, I read Jeffrey Robert Young's introduction---he seems to say that Rev. Brown's was the scholarly view too, at least through the 1960s. Recent scholars seem to disagree.

That's not to say they are correct, but it does reopen the question and in need of more investigation. I do think the much-overlooked Article 1 Section 9 tells us something.

Thx for the re-direct. I asked, you gave.

King of Ireland said...

"Does that disobedient slave get justice in some other world?

If you think so, then, the strategies of exotericism are working. At least on you."

Come on Pinky no need to go there. If I am reading you right it seems you are attacking the beliefs of someone who thinks there in an afterworld. If so this is clearly off limits at this site. I would say it is the number 1 rule.

King of Ireland said...

I do agree that this is one of your better posts Tom. Well written as usual. You have a real gift.

Phil Johnson said...

What? There are things we cannot express here? How does stating a fact of reality amount to an attack?

King of Ireland said...


I may have missed what you were saying but it sounded like you were calling people that believe in an afterlife foolish and that we are all duped. It would be like me telling Brad that all mormons are idiots.(I do not believe that Brad by the way most I have met are very intelligent) Out of bounds.

If I am missing what you said then I am giving you a chance to clarify.

Phil Johnson said...

KOI, here's the substance of my comment:
A slave is whipped to his death for committing some trivial act of disobedience.

He's dead. How can he receive justice? Does he get it is some other world where he might exist?

If you think so, then, the strategies of exotericism are working. At least on you.
I guess that was an expression of my opinion of what exotericism is about.

I didn't mean it as an attack and am sorry if it was taken as such.

The other side of that coin would be that a person has received a revelation that told them justice for the murdered slave would be meted out in some other world. So, the one to whom the injustice was done with receive reparations in the by and by.
What can I say?
Does that break the rules?

King of Ireland said...

I got you Phil. I misunderstood. You did not personally offend me at all. I personally do not care if people call Christians names. But others who post and comment here do and I want to keep it safe for them too.

Sorry I misunderstood you. Carry on.

Phil Johnson said...

I was addressing the idea that Justice does not sleep forever which, to me, is about some eternal existence. The idea of the murdered person receiving justice--how does that ever happen?
If you have ever been the victim of an injustice, you probably know what I'm saying.

King of Ireland said...

I get what you are saying. Even if it is true that justice will happen in the after life it does not make the person it is happening to now feel any better nor should it. I understand exactly what you are saying now.

Basically that those in power want people to believe this stuff so they stay oppressed.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Well done, Pinky and King. We are all part of the same thing here.

If I may "re-direct" like on Law & Order, the concerns of the next world are one thing. "Natural law" is another.

Of course we are free by our "God-given" [note the "scare quotes"] free will to violate the natural law, whether as individuals or as whole societies.

And we might get away with it for our lifetimes, maybe many generations after us.

But no tyranny has ever survived forever, not even for a goodly period of years. And the fact that tyrannies cannot survive is a vindication of the natural law argument that tyranny is a violation of the natural law.

There is no "cosmic justice," here on this earth anyway. But things tend to work themselves out.

I shall dig more based on JRB's well-sourced objection to Rev. Brown's theory. Perhaps there's no law written on the human heart, but I think they knew something was wrong about the slavery thing, that it was a political mechanism---and being Christians and all---not that it was God's will.

I do not believe that the human mind can fool the human heart so thoroughly. Our heart of hearts.

Cammie Novara said...

"In other words, the African slave trade could continue unmolested by Congress, but only for another 20 years. Everybody knew slavery must end someday, just not today." I really have to let my Facebook group know about that! There's a really animated debate that I thought would be of interest on evolution vs. intelligent design going on at

King of Ireland said...


I read what you said on Southern Appeal and am proud of you. It actually inspired me. That is my one worry with the whole states right movement today is that there is a racist element to it. I think it is a very small minority but one that needs to be rooted out.

I have often wondered how I always end up teaching in majority Black schools as a white man. I think it is more than a coincidence I think it is a God thing.

I am starting to get it now and that it is about the attributes of God being apart of us as a nation as we heal our birth defect of slavery and the almost as bad Jim Crow laws.

Suburban whites need to be willing to go into these settings and make amends. I often wonder what good a white man is doing when the black male teachers can relate better to the kids but I think I am getting it now.

Great piece that should really be sent to letters to the editor around the nation.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Heh heh. I kind of fell on my sword with that one, but what the hell.

As for white folks interacting with black folks, I still think interacting as human beings is the best way. Without rebel flags, preferably.

Brian Tubbs said...

Great essay/article, Tom! Well written and spot on in your analysis.

In the words of Abraham Lincoln, America's Founding Fathers indeed "put slavery on the course of ultimate extinction." They did this by refusing to let the South count nonvoting slaves as full persons for representation purposes, by putting a deadline on the slave trade, by abolishing slavery in the North, by restricting it in the Northwest Territory, and by speaking out against it with language that would be used in the future by abolitonists (and even integrationists).

Did they do ENOUGH? Probably not, and they knew it. Hence Jefferson's expression of guilt and trepidation. They knew a reckoning was coming. And it did.