What Does the Constitution Say About Enslavement?

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Answering the question "What does the U.S. Constitution say about enslavement" is a little tricky because the words "slave" or "slavery" were not used in the original Constitution, and the word "slavery" is very hard to find even in the current Constitution. However, the issues of the rights of enslaved people, its related trade and practice, in general, have been addressed in several places of the Constitution; namely, Article I, Articles IV and V and the 13th Amendment, which was added to the Constitution nearly 80 years after the signing of the original document.

The Three-Fifths Compromise

Article I, Section 2 of the original Constitution is commonly known as the three-fifths compromise. It stated that each enslaved individual counted as three-fifths of a person in terms of representation in Congress, which is based on population. The compromise was struck between those who argued that enslaved people should not be counted at all and those who argued that all should be counted, thereby increasing representation for Southern states. Enslaved people did not have the right to vote, so this issue had nothing to do with voting rights; it merely enabled Southern states to count them among their population totals. The three-fifths law was, in effect, eliminated by the 14th Amendment, which granted all citizens equal protection under the law.

Prohibition on Banning Enslavement

Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 of the original Constitution prohibited Congress from passing laws that banned enslavement until the year 1808, 21 years after the signing of the original Constitution. This was another compromise between constitutional Congress delegates who supported and opposed the trade of enslaved people. Article V of the Constitution also ensured that there could be no Amendments that would repeal or nullify Article I before 1808. In 1807, Thomas Jefferson signed a bill abolishing the trade of enslaved people, made effective Jan. 1, 1808.

No Protection in Free States

Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution prohibited free states from protecting enslaved people under state law. In other words, if a freedom seeker escaped to a Northern state, that state was not allowed to "discharge" them from their owner or to otherwise protect them by law. In this case, the indirect wording used to identify a formerly enslaved individual was "Person held to Service or Labour." 

13th Amendment

The 13th Amendment refers directly to enslavement in Section 1:

Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2 grants Congress the power to enforce the Amendment by legislation. Amendment 13 formally ended the practice in the U.S., but it didn't come without a fight. It was passed by the Senate on April 8, 1864, but when it was voted on by the House of Representatives, it failed to receive the required two-thirds vote for passage. In December of that year, President Lincoln appealed to Congress to reconsider the Amendment. The House did so and voted to pass the amendment by a vote of 119 to 56.