On November 4, 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama of Illinois defeated Senator John McCain of Arizona to become the 44th president of the United States, and the first African American to serve as president.
Whatever your views of his policies or 8-year presidency, it is worth taking note of this historic moment in our nation’s history.
At the time of our nation’s founding, there were about a half million African slaves in the United States, primarily in the south. Many of our nation’s founders – including Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and James Madison – owned slaves. Though it’s also worth noting that many others – including John Jay, Benjamin Rush, Alexander Hamilton, and John Adams—did not.
The 1787 federal Constitution, while never mentioning the words slavery or slave, contains three key compromises on enumeration (three-fifths clause), slave trade, and fugitive slaves. Those clauses are as follows –
Three Fifths Clause –
“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.”
Slave Trade Clause –
“The Migration or 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.”
Fugitive Slave Clause
“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.”
Over 600,000 Americans died during our nation’s bloody civil war, fought, in part, over the issue of slavery.
The 13th Amendment formally abolished slavery when it was ratified in 1865. The Amendment reads –
Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.
Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868, granted citizenship rights to former slaves and promised “equal protections of the laws.” The Amendment reads in relevant part –
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.
The Fifteenth Amendment, ratified in 1870, extended the franchise to black men. The amendment reads –
The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
After Reconstruction ended, the era of Jim Crow began. It would take until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s for African Americans to receive more robust protection for their civil rights. The struggle for racial equality and civil rights continues to this day.
I was on the National Mall (with a group of mainly Republicans, it should be noted) the day President Obama was inaugurated in 2009. At that moment, at least amongst the group of thoughtful patriotic Americans I was with, politics didn’t matter. We were witnessing history and a moment that made all of us reflect on the words in our Constitution’s preamble – “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union…”