Constitution Sunday: “Mark Antony”

“Mark Antony”

Independent Chronicle (Boston), January 10, 1788

The original sin in America’s Constitution was how it addressed—or failed to address—the issue of slavery. There was always going to be a question of how the country would transition away from slavery as the rest of the Western world was beginning to do by restricting importation and proceeding to impose limitations on trade. An article authored by “Mark Antony” responding to one authored by “Brutus” laid out, in 1788, a vision for how the country could deal with slavery—but unaware of how long it would take for slavery to be abolished and how much would be lost in finally achieving abolition.

Antony wrote that emancipating slaves was “a dictate of humanity” but despite it being a “laudable pursuit, we ought to temper the feelings of humanity with political wisdom.” He saw the emancipation of slaves in great numbers would lead to them becoming citizens which might have been “burdensome and dangerous to the Public”; in Antony’s mind, that was an “inconvenience[ which] ought to be regarded.” The Constitution, having been debated and discussed at length during the Convention, need not have addressed the issue of freeing slaves, however, according to Antony: “it was not their province to establish those minute provisions, which properly belong partly to federal, partly to State Legislation.” In fact, the Convention “probably went as far as policy would warrant, or practicability allow. The friends to liberty and humanity, may look forward with satisfaction to the period, when slavery shall not exist in the United States; while the enlightened patriot will approve of the system, which renders its abolition gradual.”

Gradual abolition, to Antony, was the solution to America’s original sin; and to an extent, Antony’s vision came true. States, soon into the life of the Republic, began restricting slavery with the eventual effect of confining slavery to the states in the South. Slavery’s existence, after it became intertwined with the South’s economy, was more durable than Antony could have imagined writing his piece in 1788. To incentivize or persuade the South to reconfigure its economy and adopt the enlightened principles of the North was not feasible—political or otherwise—as the Nineteenth Century hit its midpoint. At that stage, a compromise was no longer in public discourse; secession and warfare became inevitable. But the result was obvious as early as 1788 when Antony wrote of the “dictate of humanity”: there was no question that a period in the life of the United States was coming when slavery would not exist, and while the Constitution would not accelerate emancipation (and may have contributed to extending the antebellum era), it was the most perfect foundational document that Americans could ask for in beginning to tend to their Republic.

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