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The 1787 Constitutional Convention and the 2020 Murder of George Floyd

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My Black Skin will Never Be as Dangerous as your Blue Shirt sign at the George Floyd Memorial outside Cup Foods at Chicago Ave and E 38th St in Minneapolis, Minnesota
My Black Skin will Never Be as Dangerous as your Blue Shirt sign at the George Floyd Memorial outside Cup Foods at Chicago Ave and E 38th St in Minneapolis, Minnesota
(Image by Lorie Shaull from flickr)
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On May 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention convened in Philadelphia's Independence Hall. Fifty-five political leaders from twelve of the thirteen states came together to codify the laws that would govern and protect the new nation. George Washington presided, but James Madison formulated the concepts. On September 17, after more than 100 days of often tense negotiation, thirty-nine delegates signed a powerful and long-lasting document. That document, when put into action on May 25, 2020, the 233rd anniversary of the convention's opening session, placed George Floyd's life in danger.

America's guidepost begins:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The approximately 4,500 words that follow delineate not only the structure and functions of the new government but also the "people" to whom the Constitution promised "Justice," "general Welfare," and "the Blessings of Liberty"and to whom it did not. African slaves had been economically vital to the American colonies for more than 160 years and were at the center of the convention's most contentious debates, leading to the inclusion of seven clauses that dealt with the Union's black inhabitants. Before putting pen to paper, the delegates argued about when to end the importation of captured Africans and how much tax could be levied on each individual. They made hard-fought decisions about what to do about slaves who escaped to states where slavery was not practiced. And, to the relief of white citizens, this charter contained three clauses designed to discourage and overcome slave revolts. But nowhere in the final document are the words "slaves" or "slavery" mentioned. Instead, Article I, Section 2, Clause 3, proposed by James Madison, "The Father of the Constitution," states:

Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States"according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.

This passage, "the three-fifths compromise," officially sanctioned the marginalization of the indigenous people and made explicit the perception that the Union's forcibly imported people were lesser. The moment the convention ended, slaves lost their convenient, though abridged, status as human beings. Once again, slaves were mere property, but the "other Persons" were property that terrified white citizens.

Slave insurrections had flared up in nearly every colony. So, in three separate articles, the authors of the Constitution were diligent in providing means of suppressing uprisings. Addressing this purpose, Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power:

To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrection and repel Invasions; To provide for organizing [and] arming...the Militia...

And, the "Justice" promised in the Constitution's preamble is denied to enslaved rebels in Article 1, Section 9. It dictates that:

The Privilege of the Writ of Habeas Corpus shall not be suspended, unless when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.

These congressional powers are re-enforced by Article 4, Section 4, which allow states to protect themselves too:

The United States shall guarantee to every State" a Republican Form of Government, and shall protect each of them" against domestic Violence.

The exclusion of the words "slave" and "slavery" from the Constitution helped paint the nation's image. People around the world admired a just, compassionate, civilized new democracy. White Americans took a figurative look into a mirror, proud of what they allowed themselves to see. "Domestic Tranquility" insured, they felt safe, not only from external invasions, but from "Insurrections," "domestic Violence," and "Cases of Rebellion." The "other Persons"should they rebel against the inhumanity and lack of freedom imposed upon themwould be kept under control by men armed, trained, and sanctioned to do so.

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Bettye Kearse is the author of the strongly reviewed memoir The Other Madisons: The Lost History of A President's Black Family(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, March 2020). She is a descendant of a slave and President James Madison. Her essays, (more...)

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