Ben Shapiro Tries To Prove That the U.S. Wasn’t Partly Founded on Slavery and Fails Miserably, Part 2

Shapiro next addresses the infamous Three-Fifths Clause in the Constitution. Here, he actually makes a correct point: the clause dealt with counting slaves, who obviously could not vote, as part of state populations, for purposes of Congressional representation. Had slaves been fully counted, slave states would have amassed even more political power. Had they not been counted at all, Northern Congressmen would have had a freer hand to pass antislavery legislation. Five-and-a half years ago, I warned about the decision by many liberals to focus on the Three-Fifths Clause when this was playing into the hands of people like Shapiro. Nevertheless, Shapiro fails to demonstrate that the Constitution was not proslavery, as he does not even bother to address the Fugitive Slave Clause. Article 4, Section 2, Clause 3 stated that, “No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due.” This, in effect, meant that a slave who ran away from, say, Virginia to a free state like Massachusetts or Pennsylvania was required by federal law to be returned their their master. In order to enforce this clause, George Washington signed a new federal fugitive slave law in 1793. He admits that the Constitution forbade Congress from outlawing slavery for twenty years but emphasizes the fact that Congress banned it almost as soon as the twenty year limit had elapsed. But of course, there is a huge difference between abolishing the African Slave Trade and abolishing slavery itself. And many Virginia slaveholders such as Jefferson had economic motivations to ban the importation of slaves from Africa. In his book, Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson, Finkelman describes how Virginians felt that importation of slaves from outside the state decreased the financial value of every individual slave. After all, an important law of economics is that supply decreases demand. Having already amassed a large labor force of enslaved blacks, Virginia’s powerbrokers decided that it was in their best interests to support ending the African Slave Trade. James McHenry, a slaveholding Maryland delegate to the Constitutional Convention, wrote privately, “That the population or increase of slaves in Virginia exceeded their calls for their services.” Hence, a ban on the African Slave Trade “would be a monopoly” for Virginia.

Shapiro goes on to try to refute the idea that America’s economy was built largely on slavery by pointing out that the South’s slave-based economy was far weaker than the North’s industrial wage labor-based economy. This is true as far as it goes, but it fails to take into account the extent to which the North and South were economically linked. Both depended on each other for trade, which was made possible not only by the North’s industrial products but also the South’s slave labor products. This is a key reason why many Northern industrialists opposed the abolitionists and Radical Republicans. In fact, Eric Foner has argued that rural Northern communities tended to be more sympathetic to emancipation and civil rights in part because of big Northern cities’ “commercial ties to the South.” In 1858, James Henry Hammond, a proslavery South Carolina Senator, secessionist, and incestuous child molester, used the previous year’s economic panic to bring up this economic codependency. He boasted that, “Fortunately for you it was the commencement of the cotton season, and we have poured in upon you one million six hundred thousand bales of cotton just at the crisis to save you from destruction.”

Shapiro brings up the multitudes of Americans who died in the Civil War, concluding, “So no, America wasn’t founded on slavery. It was founded in spite of slavery. And we fought the bloodiest war in American history to end it.” It is refreshing that he admits the South seceded over slavery — while also supporting the display of the Confederate Flag on war memorials. Unfortunately, he lumps together the South’s reason for seceding and the North’s reason for stopping them. It is indisputable that the primary cause of Southern secession was a desire to protect slavery, and those who try to argue that it was simply one of many major causes argue against the historical record. However, the North did not go to war primarily to free slaves. While many abolitionists supported the war mainly as a vehicle for emancipation, abolitionists were only a small percentage of white Northerners. And while Abraham Lincoln, like the majority of his fellow Republicans, was morally opposed to slavery and played a key role in ending it, he was also willing to allow slavery to continue in the South if it would prevent secession. (He did, however, refuse to sign on to any compromise that would allow slavery to expand into the West.) Historian Bell Irvin Wiley once estimated that only about ten percent of white Union soldiers fought to free the slaves. In 1861, the United States Congress overwhelmingly passed a resolution asserting that the North was not fighting the war to interfere with “established institutions” of the South. So in essence, it would be more accurate to say that America was founded partly on slavery, the federal government actively supported slavery for three quarters of a century, and a large portion of the country broke away to continue slavery.