The 1787 Constitutional Convention – What Biblical Principle Inspired Protection of the Slave Trade?

August 25, 1787 (Click to read Madison’s notes on the day)


The delegates approved a provision on debt and allowed for the common defense. The big news was that the delegates decided to prohibit Congress from abolishing the slave trade until 1808.

Influences on the Delegates

One reason I started this series was to test David Barton’s claim that every clause of the Constitution has a biblical foundation. My efforts have not substantiated that claim. There are many influences ranging from Greece and Rome to the experiences of the delegates in their home states. It has been rare for the Bible or Christianity to come up at all.
In the session of August 25, the delegates voted to keep Congress from acting against the slave trade until 1808. I must ask David Barton what biblical principle was at the root of that clause? What biblical principle allowed the Northern delegates to acquiesce to the Southern delegates? What principle animated the resolute efforts of the Southern delegates to threaten to leave the union over human bondage?
Below is the debate over the matter.

The Report of the Committee of eleven (see Friday, the twenty-fourth), being taken up, —
General PINCKNEY moved to strike out the words, “the year eighteen hundred,” as the year limiting the importation of slaves; and to insert the words “the year eighteen hundred and eight.”
Mr. GORHAM seconded the motion.
Mr. MADISON. Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the American character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.
On the motion, which passed in the affirmative, — New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, — 4.
Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was for making the clause read at once, “the importation of slaves into North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, shall not be prohibited, &c.” This he said would be most fair, and would avoid the ambiguity by which, under the power with regard to naturalization, the liberty reserved to the States might be defeated. He wished it to be known, also, that this part of the Constitution was a compliance with those States. If the change of language, however, should be objected to, by the members from those states, he should not urge it.
Colonel MASON was not against using the term “slaves,” but against naming North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, lest it should give offence to the people of those States.
Mr. SHERMAN liked a description better than the terms proposed, which had been declined by the old Congress, and were not pleasing to some people.
Mr. CLYMER concurred with Mr. SHERMAN.
Mr. WILLIAMSON said, that both in opinion and practice he was against slavery; but thought it more in favor of humanity, from a view of all circumstances, to let in South Carolina and Georgia on those terms, than to exclude them from the Union.
Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS withdrew his motion.
Mr. DICKINSON wished the clause to be confined to the States which had not themselves prohibited the importation of slaves; and for that purpose moved to amend the clause, so as to read: “The importation of slaves into such of the states as shall permit the same, shall not be prohibited by the legislature of the United States until the year 1808; which was disagreed to, nem. con.1
The first part of the Report was then agreed to, amended as follows: “The migration or importation of such persons as the several states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the legislature prior to the year 1808,” —
New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, North Carolina. South Carolina, Georgia, aye, — 7; New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Virginia, no, — 4.
Mr. BALDWIN, in order to restrain and more explicitly define, “the average duty,” moved to strike out of the second part the words, “average of the duties laid on imports,” and insert “common impost on articles not enumerated”; which was agreed to, nem. con.
Mr. SHERMAN was against this second part, as acknowledging men to be property, by taxing them as such under the character of slaves.
Mr. KING and Mr. LANGDON considered this as the price of the first part.
General PINCKNEY admitted that it was so.
Colonel MASON. Not to tax, will be equivalent to a bounty on, the importation of slaves.
Mr. GORHAM thought that Mr. SHERMAN should consider the duty, not as implying that slaves are property, but as a discouragement to the importation of them.
Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS remarked, that, as the clause now stands, it implies that the Legislature may tax freemen imported.
Mr. SHERMAN, in answer to Mr. GORHAM, observed, that the smallness of the duty showed revenue to be the object, not the discouragement of the importation.
Mr. MADISON thought it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not, like merchandise, consumed, &c.
Colonel MASON, in answer to Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS. The provision, as it stands, was necessary for the case of convicts, in order to prevent the introduction of them.
It was finally agreed, nem. con., to make the clause read: “but a tax or duty may be imposed on such importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each person”; and then the second part, as amended, was agreed to.

Some delegates were embarrassed to use the word slaves and Madison didn’t want slavery in the Constitution. The Northern delegates thought it more important to keep South Carolina and Georgia than to have a slavery-free nation.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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