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Franklin, in the last literary labor of his life, 1 - Jefferson, in his “Notes on Virginia,” — Barlow, in his heroic verse, -- Rush, in a work which inspired the praise of Clarkson, -- the ingenious author of the “Algerine Captive," the earliest American novel, and, though now but little known, one of the earliest American books republished in London, -- were all moved by the contemplation of Slavery. “If our fellow-citizens in the Southern States are deaf to the pleadings of Nature,” exclaims the last earnestly, “I will conjure them, for the sake of consistency, to cease to deprive their fellow-creatures of freedom, which their writers, their orators, representatives, senators, and even their Constitutions of Government, have declared to be the unalienable birthright of man.” 3 A female writer and poet, earliest in our country among the graceful throng, Sarah Wentworth Morton, at the very period of the National Convention, admired by the polite society in which she lived, poured forth her sympathies also. The generous labors of John Jay in behalf of the crushed African inspired her muse; and in another poem, commemorating a slave who fell while vindicating his freedom, she rendered a truthful homage to his inalienable rights, in words which I now quote as testimony of the times :
6* Does not the voice of Reason cry,
· Claim the first right that Nature gave, From the red scourge of bondage fly,
Nor deign to live a burdened slave'?"4
1 Speech of Sidi Mehemet Ibrahim in the Divan of Algiers against granting the Petition of the Sect called Erika, or Purists, for the Abolition of Piracy and Slavery : Works, ed. Sparks, Vol. II. pp. 517 - 521.
2 An Address to the Inhabitants of the British Settlements on the Slavery of the Negroes. Clarkson's History of the Abolition of the African Slave. Trade, Vol. I.
152. 3 Algerine Captive, Vol. I. p. 213. 4 The African Chief: My Mind and its Thoughts, p. 201.
Such, Sir, at the adoption of the Constitution and the first organization of the National Government, was the outspoken, unequivocal heart of the country. Slavery was abhorred. Like the slave-trade, it was regarded as transitory; and by many it was supposed that they would disappear together. As the oracles grew mute at the coming of Christ, and a voice was heard, crying to mariners at sea, “Great Pan is dead !” so at this time Slavery became dumb, and its death seemed to be near.
Voices of Freedom filled the air. The patriot, the Christian, the scholar, the writer, the poet, vied in loyalty to this cause. All were Abolitionists.
The earliest Congress under the Constitution attests this mood. One of its first acts was to accept the Ordinance of Freedom for the Northwestern Territory, thus ratifying the prohibition of Slavery in all existing territory. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this act as a national landmark, especially when we consider that on the list of those who sanctioned it were men fresh from the National Convention, and therefore familiar with the Constitution which it framed. The same Congress entertained the question of Slavery in other forms, — sometimes on memorials duly presented, and then again in debate. Virginia was heard by her Abolition Society denouncing Slavery as “not only an odious degradation, but an outrageous violation of one of the most essential rights of human nature, and utterly repugnant to the precepts of the Gospel.”] There was another petitioner, whose illustrious services at home and abroad entitled him to speak with authority rather than with prayer. It was none other than Benjamin Franklin. After a long life of various effort, - representing his country in England during the controversies that preceded the Revolution, - returning to take his great part in the Declaration of Independence, — then representing his country in its European negotiations, then again returning to take his great part in the formation of the National Constitution, while all the time his life was elevated by philosophy and the peculiar renown he had won,-- this Apostle of Liberty, recognized as such in the two hemispheres, whose name was signed to the Declaration of Independence, was signed to the Treaty of Alliance with France, was signed to the Treaty of Independence with Great Britain, was signed to the National Constitution, now set this same name to another instrument, a simple petition to Congress. At the age of eighty-four, venerable with years, and with all the honors of philosophy, diplomacy, and statesmanship,-a triple crown never before enjoyed, - the patriot sage comes forward, as President of the Abolition Society of Pennsylvania, and entreats Congress “that it would be pleased to countenance the restoration of Liberty to those unhappy men who alone in this land of Freedom are degraded into perpetual bondage," -- and then again, in concluding words, “ that it would step to the very verge of the power vested in it for discouraging every species of traffic in the persons of our fellow-men." Shortly after this prayer the petitioner descended to his tomb, from which he still prays that Congress will step to the very verge of the power vested in it to DISCOURAGE Slavery; and this prayer, in simple words, proclaims the National policy of the Fathers. Not encouragement, but discouragement of Slavery, - not its nationalization, but its denationalization, was their rule.
1 Weld, Power of Congress over the District of Columbia, p. 29.
Sir, enough has been said to show the sentiment which, like a vital air, surrounded the National Government as it stepped into being. In the face of this history, and in the absence of any positive sanction, it is absurd to suppose that Slavery, which under the Confederation had been merely sectional, was now constituted national. Our fathers did not say, with the apostate angel, “ Evil, be thou my good!” In different spirit they cried out to Slavery, “Get thee behind me, Satan!"
There is yet another link. In the discussions which took place in the local conventions on the adoption of the Constitution, a sensitive desire was manifested to surround all persons under the Constitution with additional safeguards. Fears were expressed, from the supposed indefiniteness of some of the powers conceded to the National Government, and also from the absence of a Bill of Rights. Massachusetts, on ratifying the Constitution, proposed a series of amendments, at the head of which was this, characterized by Samuel Adams, in the Convention, as “A Summary of a Bill of Rights”:
“ That it be explicitly declared, that all powers not expressly delegated by the aforesaid Constitution are reserved to the several States, to be by them exercised.” 1 New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, Virginia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, with minorities in Pennsylvania and Maryland, united in this proposition. In pursuance of these recommendations, the First Congress presented for adoption the following article, which, being ratified by the proper number of States, became part of the Constitution as the Tenth Amendment:
1 Debates, etc., of the Massachusetts Convention, February 1 and 6, 1788. Elliot's Debates, Vol. IV. p. 211.
“ The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
Stronger words could not be employed to limit the power under the Constitution, and to protect the people from all assumptions of the National Government, particularly in derogation of Freedom. Its guardian character commended it to the sagacious mind of Jefferson, who said: “I consider the foundation of the Constitution as laid on this ground.”1 And Samuel Adams, ever watchful for Freedom, said : “ It removes a doubt which many have entertained respecting this matter, and gives assurance, that, if any law made by the Federal Government shall be extended beyond the power granted by the proposed Constitution, and inconsistent with the Constitution of this State, it will be an error, and adjudged by the courts of law to be void.” 2
Beyond all question, the National Government, ordained by the Constitution, is not general or universal, but special and particular. It is a government of limited powers. It has no power which is not delegated. Especially is this clear with regard to an institution like Slavery. The Constitution contains no power to make a king, or to support kingly rule. With similar reason it may be said, that it contains no power to make a slave, or to support a system of Slavery. The absence of all such power is hardly more clear in the one case
1 Opinion against the Constitutionality of a National Bank, Feb. 15, 1791: Memoir, Correspondence, etc., Vol. IV. p. 523 ; Writings, Vol. VII. p. 556. See also Letter to Judge Johnson, June 12, 1823: Memoir, Correspondence, etc., Vol. IV. p. 374; Works, Vol. VII. p. 297.
2 Debates, etc., of the Massachusetts Convention, February 1, 1788. See also Life of Samuel Adams, by William V. Wells, Vol. III. pp. 271, 272, 325, 331.