Page images

slavery; that you will be pleased to countenance the restpration of liberty to those unhappy men, who alone, in this land of freedom, are degraded into perpetual bondage, and who, amidst the general joy of surrounding freedom, are groaning in servile subjection; that you will promote mercy and justice toward this distressed race, and that you will step to the very verge of the power vested in you for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men.' (Signed,) BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, President.

The memorial, from which the above is extracted, was obviously written and presented by men, wholly unconscious that any restraint had been imposed upon the sympathy, they might feel for suffering fellow-beings any where, and of any complexion; or, upon the free expression of their sentiments and feelings respecting slavery; or, upon the full exertion of all the moral power, they could bring to bear against the abominable thing, either in the community at large, or in the councils of the nation. They seem to have understood the provisions of the Constitution very much as we do. They knew that that charter of our republic did not confer upon the general government the power to abolish slavery in the several states, but left it to be done by the legislatures of those states; precisely as it left gambling, horse-racing, and many other public vices. Nor have abolitionists of the present day ever proceeded on the supposition, that Congress did possess the power in question. But we believe, and the memorialists of 1790 believed, that many important and salutary powers are vested in Congress, which, if rightfully exercised, may go far towards securing the blessings of liberty to the people of the United States without distinction of color; and that the friends of liberty in Congress and out should urge that body to "step to the very verge of their power" to relieve the oppressed, and restore all men to the enjoyment of their birthright.

Let us now look carefully through the grossly misrepresented Constitution of our country, and see what are the powers vested in our general government, that may be brought to bear against the system of slavery; and what other provisions there are, by which the friends of liberty

out of Congress are assisted to prosecute the great cause they have espoused.

And, first, we would point to the VIII Sec. of Art. I, where we read that Congress shall have power "to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states." Now no power of this kind could have been exercised under the old confederation. Each state alone was then authorized to forbid the prosecution of any kind of traffic within its limits. There was, therefore, in this respect, a great enlargement of the prerogative of the general government by the Constitution. It was so considered at the time, and the friends of humanity rejoiced, that now there was a power competent to the entire suppression, throughout the country, of a traffic the most horrid that has ever disgraced our earth. The members of the convention foresaw the application of this power to the African slave trade, else why did they insert a clause in the next section, providing that this power should not be so exercised prior to 1808. So soon as the time specified had expired, Congress, clothed with the authority it received from the Constitution, did come forward, and, affixing the blackest epithet to that trade, denounced against all who might thereafter engage in it, the severest punishment human hands can inflict. It was a glorious Act. The praise of it has resounded throughout the world; and still resounds, though the Act has proved lamentably ineffectual. We stop not again to inquire how the majority of that convention, which so carefully avoided giving any explicit support, or even countenance to the slave system, should have been brought peremptorily to defer that act of mercy, which they evidently intended Congress should perform. Who they were that' voted for the prohibition in the IX Sec., or who, that silently consented to its becoming a part of the Constitution, we cannot ascertain. Probably there were in that venerable body, some wise and even humane men, who, like some of the same description in our day, saw what was right, and desired it should be done, but thought it not prudent to have it done immediately. But we must leave our exposition of their conduct, in this particular, as it is in the October number of this work, pages 82, 83 and 84. We wish not to screen from censure whatever they did that was wrong. We did not expect, nor endeavor to show, in the

former part of this disquisition, that the framers of our Constitution did all for the relief of the colored population, that justice and humanity demanded. We only insisted that they brought the states of this confederacy into no agreement to perpetuate the bondage of any portion of the people; and introduced not an article nor a particle into the frame of our general government, which is any hindrance to the enfranchisement to-day of all, who are in slavery. And our present expectation and endeavor is not to show that the Constitution conferred upon Congress all power over slavery in our republic. But we insist that it invested Congress with some powers, and guaranteed to the benevolent in the land the free and full exercise of a power, which, if exerted aright, will subvert the foundations of that burning mountain of crime and misery, which throws its threatening shadows over our whole country.

If it be right to understand the first clause of the passage we have quoted from the VIII Sect. of Art. I, ("Congress shall have power to regulate commerce with foreign nations,") as it has ever been understood, and was understood by the framers of the Constitution themselves; if it be right to understand that, by this clause, the power was conferred on Congress to abolish the African slave trade, then the inference is inevitable, that, by the other clause, ("and among the several states,") an equal authority was conferred over the equally wicked traffic in human beings, which is now carried on between the several states. In 1819, during the pendency of " the Missouri question," a large meeting of the citizens of Boston appointed Daniel Webster, George Blake, Josiah Quincy, James T. Austin, and John Gallison,* a committee to prepare and present to Congress a memorial on the subject of slavery. They discharged well the duty assigned them. We have the document which they prepared and signed. And we are happy to quote from it the following passage most pertinent to our purpose:-"No person has ever doubted that the prohibition of the foreign slave trade was completely within the authority of Congress, since the year 1808. And why? Certainly, only because

Mr. Gallison was a young man of transcendent excellence, who died in 1820, universally lamented. The other gentlemen of that committee are still alive. But where are they? Among the friends of the outraged slaves? We see them not! We hear not from them!! Are they dead while they live?

it is embraced in the regulation of foreign commerce; and, if so, it may, for the like reason, be prohibited since that period, between the states. Commerce in slaves, since the year 1808, being as much subject to the regulation of Congress as any other commerce, if it should see fit to enact that no slave should ever be sold from one state to another, it is not perceived how its constitutional right to make such provision could be questioned."

Here, then, according to the unavoidable construction of the passage-the construction put upon it by those who framed it, and must have known what they meant-the construction sanctioned in our day by the "great expounder" and other distinguished civilians, here, the Constitution has placed in the hands of Congress a mighty power, which, had it been applied, as in all consistency it should have been, at the same time to the domestic that it was to the foreign slave trade, ere this would have broken up effectually, entirely, in all its parts, the accursed system of merchandise in men. We should not have been called to lament in our day that, notwithstanding its legal abolition, the African trade is still carried on as largely as ever, and "with greater keenness, ferocity, and waste of life;" and that the American slave trade is increasing yearly in amount and in its circumstances of cruelty. Oh! had our general government done its duty then, exerted its undoubted authority with an equal hand in 1808, it would not have been told to the world in 1836, that, in the course of that year, 120,000 human beings have been exported from one state alone. Let, then, the blame and the disgrace of the continued traffic in our fellow men, since 1808, rest where they belong; not with the members of the federal convention, but with the members of Congress and their constituents.

The power to abolish this trade between the several states, although it has lain dormant, is still vested in Congress; and may yet be exerted with great effect. For this we are indebted to the Constitution; no such authority having belonged to the general government, under the former confederation.

"The Virginia Times states that intelligent men estimate the number of slaves exported from Virginia within the last twelve months, at 120,000. About 40,000 of these they say have been sold for about 24,000,000-the rest have been carried out of the state by planters who have removed."

We would next direct the attention of all, who may be interested in this examination, to the 17th clause of the same section, from which we have just quoted, where it reads"The Congress shall have power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over such district (not exceeding ten miles square) as may, by cession of particular states, and the acceptance of Congress, become the seat of government of the United States, &c." No one can reasonably suppose the framers of the Constitution foresaw the importance, to which this article would attain, in its bearing upon the great question, which now agitates our country from its extremities to its centre. Still it seems to us if they had intended, as some would have it, to preclude any action of Congress subversive of slavery, that they would have used in this place less unlimited and peremptory terms; for although the position of the capital was not then determined, it was highly probable it would be located partly, if not wholly in the slave states. It is fair, we think, to presume that those able, careful, patient men duly considered this as well as every other part of the Constitution, and used the best words they could find to express precisely the authority they meant to confer. For we cannot be forced to believe, they would have consented, that the capital city of our Republic should be what it has become, the great market, exchange and thoroughfare of slave-dealers; and would have withheld from the general government the authority to expel such a disgrace and nuisance from its especial jurisdiction. No. We cannot believe this.

Whatever our opposers may wish, or imagine, and try to persuade others to believe the framers of the Constitution intended, here we have in their own language the result of their deliberations on this point. No words could have been more plain and determinate. "Congress shall have power to exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever." The legislative authority conferred by this clause is unlimited over the whole District of Columbia. So soon therefore as Congress can be induced to enact a prohibition of slavery there it will be as much within its power of legislation to do so, as any other ordinary act of local policy.*

Some there are, perhaps many, who suppose that Congress cannot interfere with this abomination, standing in all its hideousness within the very purlieus of the Capitol, because of some conditions which they have heard, or imagined the

« PreviousContinue »