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Paul Finkelman
Paul Finkelman

Albany Law Professor Speaks on U.S. Constitution and Slavery

Posted September 18, 2009
Tags Constitution History
Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School Paul Finkelman delivered a lecture on constitutional jurisprudence and roles of slavery and race in the construction of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution Thursday evening. An expert in American legal history, race and the law, slavery and the constitution and the founding fathers, Finkelman began his remarks with a famous quote by Thomas Jefferson, the fundamental architect of American ideology.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Jefferson and the other founding fathers certainly held these truths to be self-evident, why else create a nation based on such a creed, Finkelman said.

Though undisputedly one of the top intellects of his time, second perhaps only to Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson could not seem to reconcile the words authored in his political masterpiece with his personal practices. Finkelman said that at the time of our nation’s founding, the “Master of Monticello” was a slave owner, as were many of his contemporaries. These men, arguably the “best and brightest” our nation had seen and the very embodiment of its founding, may have hidden a “giant chasm between their words and their deeds.”

Abundant in clauses that ensured its longevity, the Constitution was devoid of any mention of slavery, but Finkelman pointed to Article V of the Constitution, which reads that the document may be amended “when ratified by the legislatures of three-fourths of the States.” Would nine states have agreed to abolish slavery at the time of the Constitutional Convention? Finkelman argued that the Constitution includes Article V and other infamous clauses, such as the three-fifths clause and the provision for the Electoral College, to simultaneously appease the northern states into ratifying the document and giving the South political leverage.

“So, did slavery have an impact on the Constitution?” Finkelman asserted that slavery’s role in the drafting of the Constitution directly affected the 1800 election between Jefferson and John Adams. Though Adams won the popular vote and was directly elected by the people, Jefferson won the election through the Electoral College. At the time of this election, slaves accounted for 40 percent of Virginia’s population. Conveniently counting these slaves for purposes of representation, the Electoral College pushed the Master of Monticello into victory.

In addressing this dichotomy, Finkelman suggested that the question one might want to pose to the founding fathers would not be, “Did you do what was just and right?” Rather one must ask if they “created a nation endowed with the capacity to deal with its greatest problems.”

Jefferson became the first American to write scientifically about slavery and race in his 1781 Notes on the State of Virginia, essentially adopting a Darwinian stance to justify the practice. Quoting Jefferson, Finkelman said, “I am willing to spend the United States into bankruptcy to suppress the Black Republic.”

When once approached on his position on slavery, Jefferson replied that he had a wild animal by the ear; “Justice is in one hand, and self-preservation in the other.”

Of course, the United States did eventually abolish slavery, but not before we fought a civil war and lost 660,000 soldiers. Despite this, Finkelman believes hope can be found in the continual rewriting of our Constitution by Congress, by the executive branch, by the Supreme Court, and most importantly, by “We the People.”

The program was sponsored by the history department, the Alexander Hamilton Institute and the Publius Society.

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