Saturday, January 3, 2009

Mr. Madison's Major Mistake


The United States Constitution, the beloved founding document of a people who worshiped freedom then and do so to this day, completely approved of slavery and did nothing to curtail it. Slaves, almost all of whom were of African descent, were counted as three fifths of humans officially in the census, but in the eyes of the law, they were much, much less. They had the rights given to pack animals.

Slavery has been around for a long time, but over time, many civilizations made laws that regulated the treatment of slaves and made provisions for the freeing of slaves, known in Latin as manumission. In ancient Greece, slavery did not have a racial component, but it definitely had an ethnic component. Aristotle, the Rush Limbaugh of antiquity, believed that nature dictated Greeks to be masters and everybody else to be slaves. The standard way of becoming a slave in ancient times was to be one of a conquered people, and in ancient Greece, the most successful military city state of Sparta was also the least free. Estimates are that 90% of the people living in Sparta were slaves of foreign birth.

Another way to become a slave was through indebtedness. Jewish law had protections for Jews who became slaves of other Jews, and people in that situation had to be freed in the Jubilee year, which means the indentured servitude could last a maximum of seven years. Non-Jews were not given this legal remedy to their plight. In Rome, you could not sell yourself into slavery, but you could sell your children.

In Ancient Greece and Republican Rome, there were no laws concerning the treatment of slaves. Beating slaves was expected and killing slaves carried no penalty. Under the rule of the Roman emperors, slaves began to have rudimentary rights. Augustus famously punished a wealthy citizen named Vedius Pollio, who fed his clumsy slaves to his pet eels. Within a few years, slaves would have legal rights instead of mere protection at the whim of the emperor. Claudius made a decree that if a sick slave was abandoned then survived the illness, that slave was free. Under Nero, physically abused slaves won the right to bring their masters to court. Rules were added to create situations for automatic manumission, such as a female slave giving birth to a fourth child, and by the time of Diocletian, Roman citizens selling themselves into slavery was made illegal. The treatment of slaves became even more compassionate when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.

Slavery in the Americas had none of this Christian softness to it, instead reverting to Spartan callousness and lawlessness. The American natives made very poor slaves because of their talent for escape, so the Americans got all Aristotelean and decided they were the natural masters and people kidnapped from Africa and their descendants were natural slaves. Slavery laws stated the condition followed the condition of the mother. Any child born to a slave woman was a slave, regardless of the condition of the father. A free woman giving birth to the child of a slave father could be enslaved herself. Beating and killing slaves carried no punishment under the law.

Mr. Madison did not see this as a problem to be remedied with his freedom worshiping Constitution. Generations later, amendments were added outlawing slavery, but only after about 600,000 Americans in uniform lost their lives in what is still the costliest war in American history in terms of blood. Slavery is gone as an institution, but it still lingers on in both our racial attitudes and the bitter regional differences between North and South. The South still pays the price, leading the nation in backward ideas and practices, shown in the Southern predispositions to greater incarceration of their citizens, higher rates of infant mortality and suicide, lower life expectancies and increased tendencies toward being members of the Republican party, once the party of Lincoln the Liberator and now the most backward facing political organization in the land.

Mr. Madison, you got some 'splainin' 2 do.

7 comments:

Distributorcap said...

this might be one of the more egregious errors in the constitution - and most heinous. there is no rationale explanation for it - only it was a reflection of the times... and status of the writers and framers.

Matty Boy said...

The position of slave owners reminds me of many positions taken by conservatives in the time since, like civil rights and gay rights and any of a number of other issues. It's obvious to anyone who understands the Golden Rule who the aggrieved party is and who is the aggressor, and that the aggressor absolutely does not give a fuck.

Obama says the Republican Party is the party of "You're On Your Own." Too often, it's the party of "Fuck You." The enduring symbol of the Party should be the National Guard standing on the bridges out of New Orleans, refusing to let people leave after the levees broke.

no_slappz said...

The position of the slave owners reminds me of the position of the Supreme Court on abortion. Slavery and abortion hinge on the same legal gambit.

Slaves, as you noted Matty Boy, were deemed only 3/5 human. The Supreme Court sees things in binary terms when it comes to establishing the right to life. A living thing is either human or not human. Since slaves were decreed 3/5 human, they were less than human, which meant they were not human, and therefore not protected by the Constitution, and thus deprived of the rights to Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

The Fetus has fallen into the same category of non-human status. The Supreme Court claimed ignorance to make its point. The Court stated it did not know when a fetus became human. However, the fetus was unquestionably human at the moment of birth.

Before birth? During that period its status was a big question mark. But, to remove some of the ambiguity, the Court declared a fetus that had gestated up to three months was most certainly pre-human and therefore unprotected by the Constitution.

However, the debate has raged on, leading to the conclusion that in many cases a fetus that has gestated up to six months is not human.

Due to that lack of humanness, owners of slaves and possessors of fetuses were free to kill either. An interesting bit of non-reasoning on the part of the Supreme Court.

ken said...

The 3/5 value was for representation in the House. The real problem wasn't that they were counted as less than a full person, it's that they were counted at all, since they were in no sense represented.

Verification word is "diatib", curiously close to "diatribe".

Matty Boy said...

Good point, Ken, and not unlike the situation involving Washington D.C. Our Founding Fathers loved freedom so much that it needed to be hoarded and only shared with the right kind of people.

There are similarities to the kind of thinking now popular since the movie 300 became a hit that the Spartans were the great defenders of freedom. I don't want take this idea too far, because I'm reluctant to think about John Adams and Alexander Hamilton naked from the waist up.

Zoey and Me said...

One point about the South and I was born here and now reside in Brevard County, Florida a solid Republican stronghold. Brevard voted for McCain/Palin, even though the Democrats came closer than in any other Presidential election, so close we elected a Democratic Congresswoman in my district, Republican in the Rockledge District. More baby boomers are moving to the South for sunshine, better weather, and we are seeing a slow change in our electorate. O man won Florida for many different reasons but not because Republicans here ran to the other side. It was stated by some TV Anchor that the numbers in key precincts had change since 04. That wasn't true for where I live but it is for Tampa and parts of the panhandle.

John V said...

To give Madison and the other framers credit, the constitution embodies a number of compromises which were felt necessary in order for the states (effectively independent countries at the time, rather like the EU today) to adopt it -- see Franklin's speech at the closing of the Constitutional Convention.

Madison, though a slaveowner himself, disliked slavery and seems to have felt he was working toward ending it in a pragmatic, "realpolitik" way.

Madison was also concerned to prevent the "tyranny of the majority" (in de Tocqueville's phrase); the electoral system is perhaps one expression of that concern.

So calling these "mistakes" may be too harsh -- "tactical compromises" might be more accurate.