Slavery In The Constitutional Convention
In the spring of 1787, fifty-five men representing twelve states traveled to Philadelphia to participate in drafting a new constitution. During the final days of the convention, in the month of August, the issue of slavery came up.
Slavery was a major cause of sectional crisis in nineteenth century America. Northern representatives detested the slave trade and wanted it to end immediately, while Southerners avoided using the word "slavery" and argued for it. When Northern delegates pushed too hard for reform, Southern delegates, especially those in South Carolina, threatened to leave the convention. This would destroy any hope of establishing a strong central government.
The institution of slavery had created a line of discrimination. If delegates from the Northern states refused to compromise, Southerners would not support the new government. Northern representatives wanted to make smuggling slaves into the country a capital offense. However, they couldn't figure out what to do with the black people captured by customs agents. They were morally against selling them, but didn't have much sympathy for freeing them either. Southern congressmen argued to let the states, not the government, regulate slavery.
The delegates reached an uneasy compromise in 1807, which prohibited the importation of slaves after 1808. These deals disappointed everyone, both Northerners and Southerners. The Southerners did not cooperate with the new laws for many years. Although unhappy with the outcome, the Northerners agreed that establishing a strong national government was far more important than ending the slave trade.