James Madison, Slavery, and the Constitution
April 7, 2009
by William P. Meyers

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James Madison was born in the British colony of Virginia on March 16, 1751. Today we tend to think of 1751 as a primitive time in U.S. history, when leather-clad pioneers were constantly at war with Native American Indians. In fact coastal Virginia had been settled for over a century and was about as civilized as much of rural England.

His father, also James Madison, owned a tobacco plantation. That is a polite way of saying that he made his living by overseeing slaves of African extraction. He was a reasonably important guy. During the American Revolution he was a colonel in the Virginia militia. He had a total of twelve children, with James being the eldest.

In 1769 the younger James Madison enrolled at Princeton University (then still called the College of New Jersey). After returning to Virginia he practiced law, then started working his way up the policital machine. He was too young to be among the Virginia slave-owners and lawyers who decided to engineer a rebellion against Britain rather than risk that their slaves would be freed by litigation, using the Somersett ruling of 1772 as a precedent. In 1776 he was elected to the Virginia legislature. Madison, with Thomas Jefferson and others, shook up the world by successfully separating Church from State in Virginia [See Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom].

But James Madison was the beneficiary of a political and economic system based on slavery for African Americans and the denial of the right to vote to most European Americans (who at that time were largely descendents of white slaves, aka indentured servants). He and his friends were not happy that the under classes were demanding the vote and other human rights. He was worried that the system of using government to tax the poor for the benefit of the rich might be turned on its head as poorer groups of men gained the vote, as was happening after the American Revolution in Pennsylvania and other states.

Studying the era between the end of the Revolutionary War and the creation of the Federal Government under the Constitution is considered so risky that even today our modern vocabulary is designed to erase the tape on that period. There were several Congresses under the Articles of Confederation. The last approved that a committee would meet at the Annapolis Convention to draft amendments to the Articles to promote commerce between the states. Madison and other conservative slave owners and businessmen at Annapolis, not having a quorum present, decided to call a meeting in Philadelphia and broaden the agenda for amendments.

At Philadelphia some of the nations' richest and most powerful men decided to write a Constitution to their own liking. While it shaped a Republican form of government with Democratic elements [See also America: Republic or Democracy?], it was mainly designed to create a strong central government to protect the institution of slavery and the concentration of private property and political power in the hands of a few men. The Senate would not be chosen by the voters (that changed with the Seventeenth Amendment) and the Supreme Court would be the ultimate bastion agains the rabble.

Madison flip-flopped on the strong central government point, favoring it when it helped his friends and opposing it when it helped their rivals.

In the end, things did not all work out the way James Madison planned. Slavery was abolished after the Civil War, but only by giving almost all power to the national government at the expense of the states and people. Later the people were given the right to directly elect their Senator.

Madison's career marched from election to the House of Representatives right on up to President in 1809. His "War of 1812" is always blamed on the British in the U.S., but they gave the United States no real cause for war. Instead, Madison and others wanted to add Canada to the union. They thought that since Britain was busy fighting France, grabbing Canada would be a piece of cake.

Possibly more important, slavery was an issue in the War of 1812, a fact not mentioned in most U.S. history books. After Somersett and the resulting American Revolution, the British courts had backed off the idea of outlawing slavery. But the anti-slavery movement in England kept pushing. In 1806 the Foreign Slave Trade Act "banned British subjects, shipyards, outfitters and insureres from participating in the slave trade... A well-concealed secret was that many, possibly the majority, of supposedly neutral "American" slave ships were in fact owned by Britons, manned by British crews, and outfitted in Liverpool." [Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains page 302-303]. Then in 1807 the British slave trade was abolished in its entirety.

The harrassing of American shipping by the British, and impressing of former British seamen, is usually stated as the cause of the War of 1812. But that harassment was mainly about stopping the slave trade.

The War of 1812 was a war of aggression by the United States. Its underlying purpose was to continue committing crimes against humanity, which slavery is. James Madison, by my standards, is a War Criminal and Crimes Against Humanity criminal.

Yet I appreciate his working to separate Church and State, and his work on the Bill of Rights. Probably if he had not been raised with slaves and surrounded himself with other slavers, he would have realised how criminal that practice was.

And so each of us might think: how was I raised, and how might that prevent me from seeing what is good and just?

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