Constitution Sunday: “Publius,” The Federalist XLII [James Madison]

New-York Packet

January 22, 1788

One myth that persists about the founding of the American republic is that those men involved in framing the Constitution did not sufficiently account for the problems that could arise from slavery continuing into the Nineteenth Century. In reality, many of those men sought a way to slowly phase out the institution from American life; the trouble was crafting a compromise with their southern counterparts. With the slavery labor system as a bedrock for the southern economy, hammering out a compromise that replaced that system with one for wage labor was not likely. But some, like James Madison, saw an opportunity to first ban the importation of slaves and then move—as time passed—to outlaw slavery altogether. Men like Madison believed that this was the only way to proceed at the time that the Constitution was being drafted and then debated—as his article in the New-York Packet made clear.

The draft Constitution provided that the importation of slaves would cease in 1808, and while Madison thought this was an unacceptably late year to ban the importation of slaves, it was a concession that would make ratification of the Constitution more likely—and thus it was essentially an inevitable concession to make for ratifying the Constitution was far preferred to any alternative. This was despite the fact that, to Madison, slavery was a “barbarism of modern policy” and one which “may be totally abolished by a concurrence of the few States which continue the unnatural traffic.” Madison concluded: “Happy would it be for the unfortunate Africans, if an equal prospect lay before them, of being redeemed from the oppressions of their European brethren!”

The reality was that there were those who argued against the Constitution on the basis that slavery must immediately be abolished and those who objected on the basis that it was not the business of the federal government to outlaw slavery at any juncture. Some of these objectors were also seeking to interpret the Constitution for their own political gain. Madison did not mince words with those who attempted to misconstrue the meaning of the document: “Attempts have been made to pervert this clause into an objection against the Constitution, by representing it on one side as a criminal toleration of an illicit practice, and on another, as calculated to prevent voluntary and beneficial emigrations from Europe to America.” To Madison, these were not legitimate gripes and did not deserve a thoughtful response as they were merely “specimens of the manner and spirit in which some have thought fit to conduct their opposition to the proposed government.”

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