Chapter 8
New Beginning: The 1780s
Creating a Democracy? Slavery and the Founding of the United States


“Early in 1783, a Savannah merchant…commented that a ‘vast number’ of slaves had fled Georgia and South Carolina during the Revolutionary War. As rice plantations renewed production, African workers were ‘exceedingly scarce and in demand.’ Sensing a profit, foreign slave traders shipped 15,000 Africans to the two states by 1785. American captains moved to grab a share of the trade. The seaports of [Rhode Island and Massachusetts] sent ships to the African coast in hopes of a renewing a trade that had been interrupted during the war. True antislavery sentiment had increased with the idealism of the Revolution. And several states, including Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and even Virginia, had passed laws outlawing slave imports. But these developments did not prevent American sea captains from transporting Africans to the Spanish West Indies and to Georgia and South Carolina. In 1784 the Savannah merchant said, ‘The Negro business is a great object with us. It is to Trade of this Country, as a Soul is to the body.’” (Jones 272)

So, clearly, greed and the desire to make money kept the slave trade alive after the Revolution and the institution of slavery in tact. And clearly, Americans recognized that the labor of African Americans and the trade in the laborers themselves were fundamental to the economic development of the United States. However, the revolution did deal blows to slavery in several ways. After the Revolution, slavery was outlawed in the Northern states. Perhaps as many as 100,000 African Americans escaped slavery and/or emigrated from the US during or right after the Revolution. (See the story of Thomas Peters and other African Americans who fought for freedom on pages 219-224 and 252). “Many black Americans had escaped from servitude, won their freedom through military service, or been freed by masters who saw a conflict between slavery and the Revolution’s rhetoric of equality.” (Jones 257) Petersburg in particular experienced a surge of manimissions after the war (especially by Methodist slave owners) and soon Petersburg would have the largest free black population in Virginia. “But half a million people remained legally enslaved” in the newly formed United States. (Jones 257)

The Constitution

Stimulated by the calls of Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and prompted by fears raised by Shays’ Rebellion, 55 delegates (many of whom were members of the Society of the Cincinnati and already attending a secret Society meeting) met in Philadelphia in 1787 to create a Constitution to replace the Articles of Confederation. The Articles had created a very loose confederation of states; they were replaced with the Constitution in order to create a strong centralized, federal government to deal with issues like war debts and other financial problems after the war. "Like-minded men maneuvered to create a new stronger central government that could support their interests and override state-level economic measures that favored the common people." (Jones 257) As for the Constitutional Convention itself , there was “no public discussion or official record of their proceedings….all [of the delegates] were white, male, well educated, and many already knew each other…more than a quarter of the participants owned slaves, and nearly a dozen had done personal business [with a single financier from the Pa. delegation]….all seemed to agree the contagion of liberty had spread too far.” (Jones 277-278)

Planter delegates from Georgia and South Carolina refused to support any document that regulated the slave trade or curtailed slavery itself. And, they asserted, such a charter could never win acceptance at home. In part they were bluffing. In fact, constraints against slavery had wide popular appeal in the expanding backcountry of the Deep South, where independent farmers outnumbered planters, ministers questioned slavery, and pioneers wanted national support in confronting powerful Indians. (Jones 281)

Yet few delegates [to the Constitutional Convention] challenged the proslavery posture, possibly because strong antislavery opinions could have prolonged or even deadlocked the convention. (Jones 281) This desire to avoid conflict between Southern elites and Northern elites by placating the former can be seen at the start of the American Revolution when the second Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1775 voted to appoint George Washington to command the continental forces, “putting a slaveholder in command signaled the beginning of an important alliance between the well-to-do regional leaders of the North and South.” (Jones 222)

While the word “slave” never appeared in the finished Constitution, it protected the slave trade for the next 20 years, required the return of any “person held to service or labor” who ran away, and deemed slaves equivalent to 3/5 of a person in terms of matters of apportionment. Meanwhile in New York the [Articles of] Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance which outlawed slavery in the new territory above the Ohio River. “Because there was much contact between the two meetings, some scholars speculate that the powerful Southerners agreed to give away the prospect of the slavery north of the Ohio River in exchange for more support of slavery with the new plan taking shape in Philadelphia [at the Constitutional Convention]. (Jones 281)

“In a society consisting of almost 3 million people, the franchise remained a limited privilege, open primarily to white men with property. All told, only about 160,000 voters throughout the country took part in choosing representatives to the state ratifying conventions [that ratified the Constiution]. And only about 100,000 of these people—less than 7 percent of the entire adult population—cast votes for delegates who supported the Constitution.” (Jones 284)