11th Grade: The Bible, the Constitution and Slavery

This was in response to a parent question about the Constitution and slavery.  A difficult and debated question to be sure.  What follows is my two cents, but I would be curious for anyone else’s thoughts. . . 

As to why the Constitution did not forbid slavery, my guess is that:

– The disagreement on slavery could not be solved either at the time of the Declaration (Jefferson’s original draft had an anti-slavery section in it) or the Constitution because it was too much a part of enough of the states at the time.  It had become a part of everyday life.  Slavery was considered to be worth having to get (at least in their minds) the greater good of unity.  If you look at the Convention debates, there is some doubt whether or not states like South Carolina would have signed onto the Constitution if it banned slavery.  Whether they were right about the ultimate benefits of that trade-off . . . I’m not sure.  But personally it would seem to me that history says ‘no.’  We don’t know what would have happened had the anti-slavery faction left some states out of the Union.  But it’s hard to imagine it being worse than a Civil War that claimed 600,000 lives and divided the country for another 100 year afterwards, with segregation, etc.

Of course one could argue that there was nothing in the Constitution that made the continuation and expansion of slavery inevitable, and I would agree.  But the Constitution did not really provide a physical or moral framework for deciding this question either, aside from the difficult amendment process.  The southern states only accepted the 13th-14th Amendments when they were totally broken and had no recourse to object.

– I also think that many believed that, while slavery was bad, it should go away of its own accord rather than government action.  This has a lot to do with many people’s view of ‘liberty’ at that time.  “I don’t like what you’re doing, but I suppose it’s not my business,” etc.  It might be similar to someone today on the abortion question.  “I don’t approve of abortion, but I don’t think government should be telling people what to do with their bodies, their families, etc.  Those are private, not public matters.”

As to the Bible and slavery, this too is a tough, slippery question.  I tend to think that while the Bible does not speak directly against it, the entire tenor and ‘atmosphere’ of the New Testament speaks against it indirectly.  This is in part why when the Christian Middle Ages come, slavery disappears almost entirely for the first time in human history.  When the Church begins to falter badly in the Renaissance, slavery returns.  Though I realize there were other factors, such as exploration, for one.

The concept of free individuals is also relatively new.  Aristotle, for example, was a progressive thinker in many ways.  But he defended certain kinds of slavery because he believed some were nothing more than slaves by nature.  Though some slave owners claimed him as an authority, they should have been more careful.  Aristotle did not think anyone should be a slave by race, or merely because they were captured in war.

What do you think?

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