Only one other institution in this country has been treated so evasively, and that is the institution that was nurtured and protected by the government during the first eighty-seven years of our nation's existence: the institution of slavery.
The men who drafted the Constitution included representatives from slave states who were determined to protect their states' interests. Yet they were all highly vocal proponents of human liberty. How does one reconcile liberty with slavery? They did it by producing a document that referred to slavery in three different places without once mentioning it. Slaves were "persons"—or, sometimes, "other persons"—in contrast to "free persons." The slave trade (which the Constitution prohibited Congress from banning until 1808) was referred to as "the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit." Free states were required to return fugitive slaves to their masters in the slave states, but in that clause a slave was a "person held to Service or Labour" and a master was "the party to whom such Service or Labour may be due."
At least the founders recognized the humanity of slaves by calling them "persons"; but in the next generation the status of slaves, and of blacks in general, steadily declined. By the end of the 1820s slaves were reduced to a species of property to be bought and sold like other property. Thomas Jefferson, who in 1776 had tried to insert into the Declaration of Independence a denunciation of the King for keeping open "a market where MEN should be bought & sold," now agonized only in private. Publicly all he could say on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration (the last year of his life) was that the progress of enlightenment had vindicated the "palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God," adding vaguely, "these are grounds of hope for others."
Jefferson often shied away from public controversy, but even the most flamboyant political leaders of the early nineteenth century could become suddenly circumspect when the talk turned to slavery. Andrew Jackson left office in 1837 blaming the South's secession threats on those northerners who insisted on talking about "the most delicate and exciting topics, topics upon which it is impossible that a large portion of the Union can ever speak without strong emotion." Such talk, he said, assaulted "the feelings and rights" of southerners and "their institutions." Jackson, usually a plainspoken man, would not mar the occasion of his last presidential address by saying the words "abolitionist" and "slavery." When slavery was discussed during the antebellum period, it was usually in the language of "rights"—the property rights of slaveholders and the sovereign rights of states. In 1850 the famous Whig senator Daniel Webster defended his support for a tough fugitive-slave law on such grounds. What right, he asked, did his fellow northerners have "to endeavor to get round this Constitution, or to embarrass the free exercise of the rights secured by the Constitution to the persons whose slaves escape from them? None at all, none at all."