How Proslavery Was the Constitution?

Were the Founding Fathers responsible for American slavery? William Lloyd Garrison, the celebrated abolitionist, certainly thought so. In an uncompromising address in Framingham, Massachusetts, on July 4, 1854, Garrison denounced the hypocrisy of a nation that declared that “all men are created equal” while holding nearly four million African-Americans in bondage. The US Constitution was hopelessly implicated in this terrible crime, Garrison claimed: it kept free states like Massachusetts in a union with slave states like South Carolina, and it increased the influence of slave states in the House of Representatives and the Electoral College by counting enslaved people as three fifths of a human being. When Garrison finished excoriating the Founders, he pulled a copy of the Constitution from his pocket, branded it “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” and set it on fire.

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