Another important reason why no one expected the Constitution to provide a solution to the slavery problem was because it was almost universally regarded as a state institution, even among the abolitionists at the time. Most people had wanted the federal government to have control over issues that were obviously of a common concern to all states (war and peace, international trade, and interstate relations). Only a very few of the Framers (to say nothing of the population at large) had wanted a central government which had control over the internal affairs of each state. Quite apart from question of slavery, many delegates, and principally from the Northern States, had insisted that the Constitution should include special protections that would keep the central government from interfering with the “police powers” of the states (those powers that related to the welfare of persons and property within the borders of the state). If the federal government was not going to be given any authority over the more general police powers within each state, it certainly was not going to be given the power to interfere with the most contentious domestic issue of all: what the Southern States regarded as their “peculiar institution.”
Oliver Ellsworth spoke the sentiments of many when he said in the Convention: “The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves. What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the states are the best judges of their particular interest.” Similarly, Elbridge Gerry “thought we had nothing to do with the conduct of the states as to slaves”; he was only anxious that the national Constitution did not “give any sanction to it.” In these speeches, Ellsworth and Gerry were trying to urge their colleagues to refrain from interfering with the African slave trade (which many others had argued was a decidedly national object). But there seemed to be a tacit understanding, both within and without the Convention, that the institution of slavery was an issue belonging to each state individually. It would not be until after the Constitution was ratified that some abolitionists began to see the potential for tackling the problem of slavery as a national movement.
One other circumstance may have kept some of the Framers and the country at large from expecting the Constitutional Convention to find a solution to the problem of slavery. There were some Northerners who indulged in a naïve optimism that slavery was on the long road to extinction even without any extraordinary efforts, and that optimism was not wholly without foundation. The Framers had witnessed a dramatic shift in national sentiment against slavery since the Revolution. Massachusetts had declared slavery incompatible with its state constitution and abolished it within its borders in 1783. Many other northern and middle states had passed laws for gradual emancipation, and they could look forward to a slave-free population within a few decades. Even in Virginia, there were rumors in 1785 that abolition was imminent (alas, these rumors proved to be scare-mongering tactics of pro-slavery forces, but the rumor was believed in other states). And during that same summer when the Convention was meeting, the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which banned slavery within the Northwestern Territories. Seen in retrospect, 1787 could be seen as the high-water mark for a diffusive antislavery sentiment in America. The tide was about to turn, however, and pro-slavery forces in the South would grow ever more belligerent and demanding in their protection of the institution. But people in 1787 had no way to know what was coming.
Like political scientists in our own day, some politicians at this time made the fatal error of mistaking short-term or local developments for permanent and national trends. Given enough time, many believed, the problem of slavery would resolve itself. Oliver Ellsworth had made the sanguine prediction that “slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country. Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it. And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts.” He therefore urged his colleagues not to “intermeddle” with each state’s policies regarding the slave trade. Similarly, James Wilson had triumphantly declared in the Pennsylvania Ratifying Convention that the new power to prohibit the slave trade in 1808 would lay “the foundation for banishing slavery out of this country.” Some Founders, then, might have complacently accepted a Constitution that effectively continued slavery as the status quo within the states because they naïvely expected that most of the states would eventually act to eliminate slavery. Southern delegates were more appreciative of the herculean efforts that would be required to extinguish slavery below the Mason-Dixon Line, but they were in no hurry to disabuse their more optimistic neighbors to the North.
Because of the Southerners’ commitment to slavery, the Constitutional Convention’s limited mandate to address only national concerns, and some Northerners’ indifference to or naïve optimism about slavery—the Constitution gave the federal government no power to “intermeddle” with the institution of slavery as it existed within each state. In some cases (such as a census which based representation and certain taxes on population), the Constitution was forced to acknowledge the existence of slavery within the states and to compromise with that fact. In one case (the 20-year compromise), there was a concerted effort to ameliorate the existing circumstances. And in one case (the fugitive slave clause), there was a clear protection given to slaveholders. The Constitution as written, however, offered very little hope that the federal government would ever place the institution of slavery on the road to extinction.
Future abolitionists might seek encouragement from other clauses that were formed with little or no reference to slavery (such as Congress’ power to “make all needful rules and regulations” in US territories or the guarantee of a republican form of government in each state), but these were either modest or far-fetched hopes. For the most part, while some strong rhetoric was used to describe the evils of slavery, the Constitution’s Framers had left the condition of slavery much as they had found it under the Articles of Confederation: a matter for each state to resolve on its own. Slavery simply was not an issue that the Framers were willing to confront at the risk of overthrowing their overall effort.