by Kim Pederson…….
A friend recently gave me a copy of The Constitution of the United States of America. It comes in a small blue booklet published by the American Civil Liberties Union. His comment was that everyone should have one of these on hand. I am embarrassed to admit that I’ve never read the entire Constitution, although I’m betting I am in the company of millions in this omission. So I decided to rectify this lapse of civic duty. I got stuck fairly quickly, though, when I came to Article I, Section 9.
What halted my perusal were these words:
Section 9. The Migration of Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight, but a Tax or duty may be imposed on such Importation, not exceeding ten dollars for each Person.
So my first thought was, hey, the US government gave itself the right to tax every slave brought into the country and forbade itself from outlawing slavery until 1808. What!!!? That can’t be right. So I looked it up and got gobsmacked. To put it in Wikipedia’s words, “The first clause in this section prevents Congress from passing any law that would restrict the importation of slaves into the United States prior to 1808.” And then comes this weird revelation: “On January 1, 1808, the first day it was permitted to do so, Congress approved legislation prohibiting the importation of slaves into the United States.”
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a lawful tax on “imported” human beings is described in our Constitution, given the circumstances and mindset toward slavery among the authors at the time. The acceptance of slavery is tacit in the earlier Article I, Section 2, Paragraph 9, the infamous Three-Fifths Compromise that decrees that people who were not “Free Persons” or Indians (that’s a whole other story) would count as three-fifths of a person in determining the state’s population for legislative representation and taxation.
Thankfully, the country was already moving in the direction of outlawing slavery at the time, as the Slave Trade Act of 1794 evidences. (We did, though, take another 71 years to actually end slavery with the Thirteenth Amendment.) I am stymied, however, by the year 1808. Why did the Constitution authors choose that year, twenty years after the document was ratified? The answer is probably out there in books detailing how our founding laws came into being. My guess is it was one of the numerous compromises between those from the northern states and those from the southern states.
The silver lining here, it seems, is that the attendees at the Constitutional Convention were able to work together and come to agreement, a lesson the current Congress needs to study and take to heart.
Meanwhile I will read on. Article II in the Constitution is all about presidential powers. This should be interesting. I will let you know.
Visit Kim Pederson’s blog RatBlurt: Mostly Random Short-Attention-Span Musings.