The Constitution was drafted and pushed to ratification by Federalists -- the likes of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison (in this earlier phase of his career) and Gouverneur Morris (who authored the famous Preamble). The chief goal of these Framers, as they met in secret in Philadelphia in 1787, was to consolidate power in the central government. They were reacting to the disastrous experience of the Articles of Confederation, which had made the states "sovereign" and "independent" and left the federal government as not even a government but a "league of friendship."
By contrast, the Constitution gave the federal government broad powers to "provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States" and afforded Congress the authority to enact legislation to carry out that sweeping mandate. Acts of Congress were deemed the supreme law of the land and federal courts were given the power to strike down state laws.
Though the Federalists made compromises with Southern slave-owning states to win ratification (implicitly accepting the South's institution of slavery), it was soon clear to opponents of the Constitution -- the Anti-Federalists -- that this new national governing structure could be the death knell for slavery, as the North gained population and accumulated political power.
That's why slavery-defending Virginians, such as George Mason and Patrick Henry, fought so hard against ratification. For instance, Henry warned his fellow Virginian slave owners that if the Constitution were ratified, eventually federal authorities would move against slavery. "They'll free your niggers!" Henry predicted.
The Anti-Federalists lost their fight against the Constitution in 1788, but they didn't go away. Instead, they organized behind the charismatic figure of Thomas Jefferson, who had been in France during the drafting of the Constitution but returned in 1789 and began developing his extra-constitutional theories of "nullificationism," the idea that individual states could reject federal laws, and even "secession," the right of states to opt out of the Union.
The Southern Success
Jefferson, whose personal wealth derived from his Monticello plantation with some 100 slaves, also mounted a vicious and effective propaganda campaign to undermine the Federalists, especially President Washington's Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and President John Adams. Many of the Federalists, including Hamilton and Adams, were abolitionists who staunchly opposed slavery.
Amid the complexities of creating America's new and unprecedented governing structure -- and navigating the treacherous straits of geopolitics in those early years -- the Federalists made their share of mistakes, which were exploited by Jefferson and his Republican-Democrats. In 1800, Jefferson prevailed over President Adams, winning the presidency because Southern slave states were allowed to count their slaves as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of representation.
Though Jefferson had devised the theory of "strict constructionism" -- that the federal government should only have powers explicitly mentioned in the Constitution, ignoring the phrase about providing for the "common Defense and general Welfare" -- he abandoned his revisionist theory as unworkable when he became president.
Indeed, President Jefferson exercised more federal power than even Alexander Hamilton had advocated -- when Jefferson acquired the Louisiana Territories and imposed a trade embargo against European countries. But Jefferson and his successors, fellow Virginians James Madison (in this later phase of his career) and James Monroe, still promoted Jefferson's revisionist interpretation of the Constitution, with the slave South touting the Jeffersonian theories of "states' rights."
By the time the Virginia Dynasty ended in 1825, Jefferson's protection of Southern slave interests had opened western states to slavery and had created a new industry for his native Virginia, the breeding and selling of slaves to the more fertile regions of Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. The rising price of slaves boosted the net worth of Jefferson and his fellow slaveholders, but the expansion of slavery also put the United States on a collision course with the Civil War. [See Consortiumnews.com's "Rethinking Thomas Jefferson."]
All this history is relevant again as the Tea Party and the Right dust off the old Jeffersonian canards about "states' rights," "strict construction," "nullificationism," and even "secession." Along with that has come a new trivializing of the historic crime of slavery by likening it to the individual mandate to obtain health insurance in the Affordable Care Act.
A number of right-wingers have claimed that Obamacare is the worst law in America since slavery, an absurd but glib comparison that rightists may think cleverly throws the issue of slavery into the face of Barack Obama, the first African-American president. But the comparison also suggests that the speakers don't really regard slavery as all that bad, much like how mundane comparisons using Hitler are offensive to Jews and others who consider the Holocaust another one of history's worst crimes.
Perhaps, anyone who thinks it's appropriate to put Obamacare and slavery in the same sentence should be required to go watch what slavery was like, as portrayed convincingly in "Twelve Years a Slave."
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