The Great Conspiracy

But while it had thus spread more or less throughout all the original
Colonies, and was, as it were, recognized and acquiesced in by all, as
an existing and established institution, yet there were many, both in
the South and North, who looked upon it as an evil–an inherited evil–
and were anxious to prevent the increase of that evil. Hence it was
that even as far back as 1699, a controversy sprang up between the
Colonies and the Home Government, upon the African Slavery question–a
controversy continuing with more or less vehemence down to the
Declaration of Independence itself.

It was this conviction that it was not alone an evil but a dangerous
evil, that induced Jefferson to embody in his original draft of that
Declaration a clause strongly condemnatory of the African Slave Trade–a
clause afterward omitted from it solely, he tells us, “in complaisance
to South Carolina and Georgia, who had never* attempted to restrain the
importation of slaves, and who, on the contrary, still wished to
continue it,” as well as in deference to the sensitiveness of Northern
people, who, though having few slaves themselves, “had been pretty
considerable carriers of them to others” a clause of the great
indictment of King George III., which, since it was not omitted for any
other reason than that just given, shows pretty conclusively that where
the fathers in that Declaration affirmed that “all men are created
equal,” they included in the term “men,” black as well as white, bond as
well as free; for the clause ran thus: “Determined to keep open a market
where MEN should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for
suppressing every Legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this
execrable commerce. And that this assemblage of horrors might want no
fact of distinguished dye, he is now exciting those very people to rise
in arms among us, and purchase that liberty of which he has deprived
them, by murdering the people on whom he also obtruded them; thus paying
of former crimes committed against the LIBERTIES of our people with
crimes which he urges them to commit against the LIVES of another.”

[Prior to 1752, when Georgia surrendered her charter and became a
Royal Colony, the holding of slaves within its limits was expressly
prohibited by law; and the Darien (Ga.) resolutions of 1775
declared not only a “disapprobation and abhorrence of the unnatural
practice of Slavery in America” as “a practice founded in injustice
and cruelty, and highly dangerous to our Liberties (as well as
lives) but a determination to use our utmost efforts for the
manumission of our slaves in this colony upon the most safe and
equitable footing for the masters and themselves.”] During the war of the Revolution following the Declaration of
Independence, the half a million of slaves, nearly all of them in the
Southern States, were found to be not only a source of weakness, but,
through the incitements of British emissaries, a standing menace of
peril to the Slaveholders. Thus it was that the South was overrun by
hostile British armies, while in the North-comparatively free of this
element of weakness–disaster after disaster met them. At last,
however, in 1782, came the recognition of our Independence, and peace,
followed by the evacuation of New York at the close of 1783.

The lessons of the war, touching Slavery, had not been lost upon our
statesmen. Early in 1784 Virginia ceded to the United States her claims
of jurisdiction and otherwise over the vast territory north-west of the
Ohio; and upon its acceptance, Jefferson, as chairman of a Select
Committee appointed at his instance to consider a plan of government
therefor, reported to the ninth Continental Congress an Ordinance to
govern the territory ceded already, or to be ceded, by individual States
to the United States, extending from the 31st to the 47th degree of
north latitude, which provided as “fundamental conditions between the
thirteen original States and those newly described” as embryo States
thereafter–to be carved out of such territory ceded or to be ceded to
the United States, not only that “they shall forever remain a part of
the United States of America,” but also that “after the year 1800 of the
Christian era, there shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude
in any of the said States”–and that those fundamental conditions were
“unalterable but by the joint consent of the United States in Congress
assembled, and of the particular State within which such alteration
is proposed to be made.”

But now a signal misfortune befell. Upon a motion to strike out the
clause prohibiting Slavery, six States: New Hampshire, Massachusetts,
Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York and Pennsylvania, voted to retain
the prohibitive clause, while three States, Maryland, Virginia and South
Carolina, voted not to retain it. The vote of North Carolina was
equally divided; and while one of the Delegates from New Jersey voted to
retain it, yet as there was no other delegate present from that State,
and the Articles of Confederation required the presence of “two or more”
delegates to cast the vote of a State, the vote of New Jersey was lost;
and, as the same Articles required an affirmative vote of a majority of
all the States–and not simply of those present–the retention of the
clause prohibiting Slavery was also lost. Thus was lost the great
opportunity of restricting Slavery to the then existing Slave States,
and of settling the question peaceably for all time. Three years
afterward a similar Ordinance, since become famous as “the Ordinance of
’87,” for the government of the North-west Territory (from which the
Free States of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin have
since been carved and admitted to the Union) was adopted in Congress by
the unanimous vote of all the eight States present. And the sixth
article of this Ordinance, or “Articles of Compact,” which it was
stipulated should “forever remain unalterable, unless by common
consent,” was in these words:

“Art. 6. There shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary servitude in
the said Territory, otherwise than in punishment of crimes, whereof the
party shall have been duly convicted; provided always that any person
escaping into the same from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in
any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed,
and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor, or service, as

But this Ordinance of ’87, adopted almost simultaneously with the
framing of our present Federal Constitution, was essentially different
from the Ordinance of three years previous, in this: that while the
latter included the territory south of the Ohio River as well as that
north-west of it, this did not; and as a direct consequence of this
failure to include in it the territory south of that river, the States
of Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, which were taken out of it, were
subsequently admitted to the Union as Slave States, and thus greatly
augmented their political power. And at a later period it was this
increased political power that secured the admission of still other
Slave States–as Florida, Louisiana and Texas–which enabled the Slave
States to hold the balance of such power as against the original States
that had become Free, and the new Free States of the North-west.

Hence, while in a measure quieting the great question of Slavery for the
time being, the Ordinance of ’87 in reality laid the ground-work for the
long series of irritations and agitations touching its restrictions and
extension, which eventually culminated in the clash of arms that shook
the Union from its centre to its circumference. Meanwhile, as we have
seen–while the Ordinance of 1787 was being enacted in the last Congress
of the old Confederation at New York–the Convention to frame the
present Constitution was sitting at Philadelphia under the Presidency of
George Washington himself. The old Confederation had proved itself to
be “a rope of sand.” A new and stronger form of government had become a
necessity for National existence.

To create it out of the discordant elements whose harmony was essential
to success, was an herculean task, requiring the utmost forbearance,
unselfishness, and wisdom. And of all the great questions, dividing the
framers of that Constitution, perhaps none of them required a higher
degree of self abnegation and patriotism than those touching human

The situation was one of extreme delicacy. The necessity for a closer
and stronger Union of all the States was apparently absolute, yet this
very necessity seemed to place a whip in the hands of a few States, with
which to coerce the greater number of States to do their bidding. It
seemed that the majority must yield to a small minority on even vital
questions, or lose everything.

Thus it was, that instead of an immediate interdiction of the African
Slave Trade, Congress was empowered to prohibit it after the lapse of
twenty years; that instead of the basis of Congressional Representation
being the total population of each State, and that of direct taxation
the total property of each State, a middle ground was conceded, which
regarded the Slaves as both persons and property, and the basis both of
Representation and of Direct Taxation was fixed as being the total Free
population “plus three-fifths of all other persons” in each State; and
that there was inserted in the Constitution a similar clause to that
which we have seen was almost simultaneously incorporated in the
Ordinance of ’87, touching the reclamation and return to their owners of
Fugitive Slaves from the Free States into which they may have escaped.

The fact of the matter is, that the Convention that framed our
Constitution lacked the courage of its convictions, and was “bulldozed”
by the few extreme Southern Slave-holding States–South Carolina and
Georgia especially. It actually paltered with those convictions and
with the truth itself. Its convictions–those at least of a great
majority of its delegates–were against not only the spread, but the
very existence of Slavery; yet we have seen what they unwillingly agreed
to in spite of those convictions; and they were guilty moreover of the
subterfuge of using the terms “persons” and “service or labor” when they
really meant “Slaves” and “Slavery.” “They did this latter,” Mr.
Madison says, “because they did not choose to admit the right of
property in man,” and yet in fixing the basis of Direct Taxation as well
as Congressional Representation at the total Free population of each
State with “three-fifths of all other persons,” they did admit the right
of property in man! As was stated by Mr. Iredell to the North Carolina
Ratification Convention, when explaining the Fugitive Slave clause:
“Though the word ‘Slave’ is not mentioned, this is the meaning of it.”
And he added: “The Northern delegates, owing to their peculiar scruples
on the subject of Slavery, did not choose the word ‘Slave’ to be

In March, 1789, the first Federal Congress met at New York. It at once
enacted a law in accordance with the terms of the Ordinance of ’87–
adapting it to the changed order of things under the new Federal
Constitution–prohibiting Slavery in the Territories of the North-west;
and the succeeding Congress enacted a Fugitive-Slave law.

In the same year (1789) North Carolina ceded her western territory (now
Tennessee) south of the Ohio, to the United States, providing as one of
the conditions of that cession, “that no regulation made, or to be made,
by Congress, shall tend to emancipate Slaves.” Georgia, also, in 1802,
ceded her superfluous territorial domain (south of the Ohio, and now
known as Alabama and Mississippi), making as a condition of its
acceptance that the Ordinance of ’87 “shall, in all its parts, extend to
the territory contained in the present act of cession, the article only
excepted which forbids Slavery.”

Thus while the road was open and had been taken advantage of, at the
earliest moment, by the Federal Congress to prohibit Slavery in all the
territory north-west of the Ohio River by Congressional enactment,
Congress considered itself barred by the very conditions of cession from
inhibiting Slavery in the territory lying south of that river. Hence it
was that while the spread of Slavery was prevented in the one Section of
our outlying territories by Congressional legislation, it was stimulated
in the other Section by the enforced absence of such legislation. As a
necessary sequence, out of the Territories of the one Section grew more
Free States and out of the other more Slave States, and this condition
of things had a tendency to array the Free and the Slave States in
opposition to each other and to Sectionalize the flames of that Slavery
agitation which were thus continually fed.

Upon the admission of Ohio to Statehood in 1803, the remainder of the
North-west territory became the Territory of Indiana. The inhabitants
of this Territory (now known as the States of Indiana, Illinois,
Michigan and Wisconsin), consisting largely of settlers from the Slave
States, but chiefly from Virginia and Kentucky, very persistently (in
1803, 1806 and 1807) petitioned Congress for permission to employ Slave
Labor, but–although their petitions were favorably reported in most
cases by the Committees to which they were referred–without avail,
Congress evidently being of opinion that a temporary suspension in this
respect of the sixth article of the Ordinance of ’87 was “not
expedient.” These frequent rebuffs by Congress, together with the
constantly increasing emigration from the Free States, prevented the
taking of any further steps to implant Slavery on the soil of that

Meanwhile the vast territory included within the Valley of the
Mississippi and known at that day as the “Colony of Louisiana,” was, in
1803, acquired to the United States by purchase from the French–to whom
it had but lately been retroceded by Spain. Both under Spanish and
French rule, Slavery had existed throughout this vast yet sparsely
populated region. When we acquired it by purchase, it was already
there, as an established “institution;” and the Treaty of acquisition
not only provided that it should be “incorporated into the Union of the
United States, and admitted as soon as possible, according to the
principles of the Federal Constitution,” but that its inhabitants in the
meantime “should be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of
their liberty, property, and the religion which they professed”–and,
as “the right of property in man” had really been admitted in practice,
if not in theory, by the framers of that Constitution itself–that
institution was allowed to remain there. Indeed the sparseness of its
population at the time of purchase and the amazing fertility of its soil
and adaptability of its climate to Slave Labor, together with the then
recent invention by Eli Whitney, of Massachusetts, of that wonderful
improvement in the separation of cotton-fibre from its seed, known as
the “cotton-gin”–which with the almost simultaneous inventions of
Hargreaves, and Arkwright’s cotton-spinning machines, and Watt’s
application of his steam engine, etc., to them, marvelously increased
both the cotton supply and demand and completely revolutionized the
cotton industry–contributed to rapidly and thickly populate the whole
region with white Slave-holders and black Slaves, and to greatly enrich
and increase the power of the former.

When Jefferson succeeded in negotiating the cession of that vast and
rich domain to the United States, it is not to be supposed that either
the allurements of territorial aggrandizement on the one hand, or the
impending danger to the continued ascendency of the political party
which had elevated him to the Presidency, threatening it from all the
irritations with republican France likely to grow out of such near
proximity to her Colony, on the other, could have blinded his eyes to
the fact that its acquisition must inevitably tend to the spread of that
very evil, the contemplation of which, at a later day, wrung from his
lips the prophetic words, “I tremble for my Country when I reflect that
God is just.” It is more reasonable to suppose that, as he believed the
ascendency of the Republican party of that day essential to the
perpetuity of the Republic itself, and revolted against being driven
into an armed alliance with Monarchical England against what he termed
“our natural friend,” Republican France, he reached the conclusion that
the preservation of his Republican principles was of more immediate
moment than the question of the perpetuation and increase of human
Slavery. Be that as it may, it none the less remains a curious fact
that it was to Jefferson, the far-seeing statesman and hater of African
Slavery and the author of the Ordinance of 1784–which sought to exclude
Slavery from all the Territories of the United States south of, as well
as north-west of the Ohio River–that we also owe the acquisition of the
vast territory of the Mississippi Valley burdened with Slavery in such
shape that only a War, which nearly wrecked our Republic, could get rid

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