Mandated Slavery in the Confederacy?
December 29, 2010 1:54 PM   Subscribe

Did the Constitution of the Confederate States of America mandate the institution of slavery in its territories? More information, and my own layman's examination of the Confederate Constitution, within.

I read an article a few days ago (I can't recall where) that claimed one of the surest proofs that the United States' Civil War was specifically about slavery, rather than the southerners' claim of "states' rights" was that the Confederate Constitution was a direct copy of the U.S. Constitution in many respects, but deviated most notably in mandating the states not infringe on the right to own slaves... thus further infringing on the sovereignty of the individual states.

Wikipedia seems a bit unclear over whether this is actually the case, perhaps due to the effects of partisan editors, so I've moved on to studying the actual text.

Article I, Section 9, Clauses 1 & 4 clearly authorize the Confederate (federal) government to ban the international slave trade, while eliminating any basis on which they (again, the federal government) could ban or impair domestic slavery. One assumes that this would also protect right of sale, i.e. the domestic slave trade.

Article IV, Section 2, Clauses 1 & 3 are where things become kind of dicey.

Clause 1 clearly prohibits any "free" Confederate state (if there could truly be such a state) from not respecting property rights of owners to slaves in transit or sojourn, and Clause 3 supports this by prohibiting forfeiture of slaves as a criminal or civil penalty, provided the slaves have been "lawfully carried" into said state.

Clause 3 also provides that escaped slaves cannot become free merely by escaping to a free state.

By use of the terminology "lawfully carried" in Clause 3, however, the confederate constitution seems to support the possibility that a free state could require forfeiture of slaves within its borders if it is proven that they were carried unlawfully, that (for example) their presence in the state is not "transit" or "sojourn".

The meaning here seems to hinge on the precise definition of the word sojourn. The Israelites (to use the terminology present in the King James Version of the Bible), after all, "sojourned" in slavery in Egypt for 430 years. Could slaves then be bought in a slave state, and used as labor indefinitely in a free one?

If I read Article IV, Section 3, Clauses 1 & 3 correctly, free states could volunteer to join the Confederacy, and their "free" status would thus be grandfathered in with the limitations expressed above, but states and territories conquered or annexed by the Confederacy would join as slave states.
posted by The Confessor to Law & Government (13 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like you've answered your own question here. The CSA constitution pretty clearly sets out a legal structure designed to protect the property rights of slaveowners, even in the hypothetical case where there would be a "free" state became a member. I'm not sure what you're looking for here.
posted by Oktober at 2:01 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

I am not sure that it mandated slavery.

In a way Article I, Section 9, Clauses 1 & 4 irt "international trade" was pretty much meh at that point, there was plenty of domestic slave "stock" to maintain a sufficient economic work force.

I think the whole upshot of it was essentially individual States could by and large dictate local laws regarding the ownership of persons

IV 2 seems to be primarily about traveling with your slaves, so, if you are passing trough a free state with your servants, that state can not unilaterally declare the servants free.

Article IV, Section 3, Clauses 1 & 3 only addresses mandated slavery within Territories, not States. I would hazard a guess that a Territory that organized into a State would then make it's own laws regarding slavery.
posted by edgeways at 2:13 PM on December 29, 2010

IMO the Civil War was primarily about State's rights/ownership rights, the huge flaw is that African Americans where property. So, yes, concurrently it is both slavery AND State/ownership rights. Not either/or being the bigger reason.
posted by edgeways at 2:20 PM on December 29, 2010

I think the only proof anyone needs that the CSA was about slavery is easily found in the public comments of its leaders.

The other thing is this: what differences in "states' rights" are mandated in the CSA constitution that don't relate to slavery? Saying "It's about states' rights" doesn't mean anything if it's only about states' rights to permit people to buy and sell other people.

(I realize that this is a tiny bit orthogonal to your question, which you might mean to limit to the thought experiment "What if there were a free state that wanted to join the CSA, would they have to permit slavery?" in which case I would agree with you that the answer would be "Not on the basis of the CSA constitution, no.")
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:21 PM on December 29, 2010 [4 favorites]

Did the Constitution of the Confederate States of America mandate the institution of slavery in its territories?

No, no more than the US Constitution mandates the existence of printing presses. But the government cannot abridge the freedom of the press, and the Confederate government could not abridge the 'rights' of slaveowners.

Anyway, secession was entirely about slavery. Just look at the declarations of secession: "For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery....A brief history of the rise, progress, and policy of anti-slavery and the political organization into whose hands the administration of the Federal Government has been committed will fully justify the pronounced verdict of the people of Georgia."

All of the declarations are like that. It was plainly all about maintaining the institution of slavery.
posted by jedicus at 2:34 PM on December 29, 2010 [2 favorites]

You really should read the Cornerstone speech of Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens linked by Sidhedevil above. In this speech he outlines the differences between the U.S Constitution and the Confederate Constitution.

"But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the "rock upon which the old Union would split." He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically."

"Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner- stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth."

He clearly states that the new Confederate Constitution unambiguously preserves the institution of slavery forever.
posted by JackFlash at 4:23 PM on December 29, 2010

Here is a side-by-side comparison of the Confederate Constitution with the United States Constitution.

From the summary:
Overall, the CSA constitution does not radically alter the federal system that was set up under the United States constitution. It is thus very debatable as to whether the CSA was a significantly more pro-"states' rights" country (as supporters claim) in any meaningful sense. At least three states rights are explicitly taken away- the freedom of states to grant voting rights to non-citizens, the freedom of states to outlaw slavery within their borders, and the freedom of states to trade freely with each other.

States only gain four minor rights under the Confederate system- the power to enter into treaties with other states to regulate waterways, the power to tax foreign and domestic ships that use their waterways, the power to impeach federally-appointed state officials, and the power to distribute "bills of credit." When people champion the cause of reclaiming state power from the feds, are matters like these at the tops of their lists of priorities?

As previously noted, the CSA constitution does not modify many of the most controversial (from a states' rights perspective) clauses of the American constitution, including the "Supremacy" clause (6-1-3), the "Commerce" clause (1-8-3) and the "Necessary and Proper" clause (1-8-18). Nor does the CSA take away the federal government's right to suspend habeus corpus or "suppress insurrections."

As far as slave-owning rights go, however, the document is much more effective. Indeed, CSA constitution seems to barely stop short of making owning slaves mandatory. Four different clauses entrench the legality of slavery in a number of different ways, and together they virtually guarantee that any sort of future anti-slave law or policy will be unconstitutional. People can claim the Civil War was "not about slavery" until the cows come home, but the fact remains that anyone who fought for the Confederacy was fighting for a country in which a universal right to own slaves was one of the most entrenched laws of the land.
posted by Flunkie at 4:54 PM on December 29, 2010 [8 favorites]

Did the Constitution of the Confederate States of America mandate the institution of slavery in its territories?

The Confederate States may acquire new territory; and Congress shall have power to legislate and provide governments for the inhabitants of all territory belonging to the Confederate States, lying without the limits of the several Sates; and may permit them, at such times, and in such manner as it may by law provide, to form States to be admitted into the Confederacy. In all such territory the institution of negro slavery, as it now exists in the Confederate States, shall be recognized and protected be Congress and by the Territorial government; and the inhabitants of the several Confederate States and Territories shall have the right to take to such Territory any slaves lawfully held by them in any of the States or Territories of the Confederate States.
Confederate Constitution, Article IV, Section 3(3).
posted by kirkaracha at 5:29 PM on December 29, 2010

Short form:

1) Every state that formed the Confederate States of America was a slave state.

2) Every state that joined the Confederacy was a slave state.

3) Any new state was required to be a slave state (Article IV, Section 3(3)).
posted by kirkaracha at 6:26 PM on December 29, 2010

Just to be clear: the Confederate Constitution unambiguously mandated that slavery be legal. It did not, however, mandate that slavery actually exist (though practice of course there was no distinction). So the answer depends on exactly what you meant by the question.
posted by jedicus at 6:26 PM on December 29, 2010

The meaning here seems to hinge on the precise definition of the word sojourn.

You're really hung up on this clause. You needn't be. The flaw of the US Constitution, from the perspective of slave-owners, was an imperfect guarantee of their *cough* property rights. There was a long history -- over half a century, really -- of fugitive slave laws in the US, in which essentially free state residents were required to respect these property rights and in fact enforce them by seizing the slaves as fugitives and returning them to their owners. This was such an affront to free-staters that eventually it became impossible to expect local authorities to participate, and federal bounties were put into place.

It also made slavery a local issue for free staters and increased anger over the slavery issue in the long run, but for a long time the slave states were able to use their greater power in Congress (thanks in part to the partial counting of slaves in the census for representation purposes, as well as some historical accident) to forestall the end of enforcement -- culminating in Northern anger over the Dred Scott decision, a key precursor to the Civil War.

If you want to phrase this as a mandate, then yes, the CSA Constitution mandated that free states in the CSA fully and unequivocally support the institution of slavery outside their own borders. It could easily be said that the phrases you point to codified Dred Scott in the CSA Constitution.

If you want an alternate charitable reading of this, it could be that without such a clause, any union of free and slave states would not survive, q.e.d.
posted by dhartung at 11:37 PM on December 29, 2010

I think you are confused on the definition of "mandate". The Confederacy did not "mandate slavery". In other words, they did not require that everyone own a slave. They mandated that there was no infringement of slavery which is not the same thing as mandating slavery. Regardless, they maintained the institution of slavery.

Think of mandate the same way you think of mandatory. Slavery was never mandatory.
posted by JJ86 at 7:17 AM on December 30, 2010

Slavery was never mandatory.

It was for the blacks living there.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:37 AM on December 30, 2010

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