July 12, 2010 – Federalist No. 54 – Cathy Gillespie
Monday, July 12th, 2010
“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?”
–Federalist No. 51
Federalist No. 54 reminds us of the fact that the United States Constitution was not, and is not, a perfect document. It is a reflection of human nature, and as our founders knew, human beings are not perfect creatures. Federalist 54 addresses Article I, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States Constitution, the Three-Fifths clause. The counting of human beings as 3/5’s of a person, and the preservation of the institution of slavery for 20 years, are some of the Constitution’s greatest blemishes. Although 3/5′s was a compromise, with the ultimate goal being the elimination of slavery, it is still a blemish on a document that is a beacon of liberty for our country and the world.
I was curious where else slavery is mentioned specifically in the Constitution and consulted the Heritage Guide to the Constitution (one of my favorite Constitutional resource books). I found that slavery is also addressed in Article I, Section 9, Clause 1 (Slave Trade); Article IV, Section 2, Clause 3 (Fugitive Slave Clause); and Article V (Prohibition on Amendment: Slave Trade). The Slave Trade clause of the Constitution (Article I, Section 9, Clause 1) did not allow the federal government to prohibit the slave trade until January 1, 1808. According to Dr. Mathew Spalding in the Heritage Guide, on that very day, January 1, 1808, Congress passed a prohibition of the slave trade, and President Thomas Jefferson signed it into law. Although they could not ban slavery at the inception of the Constitution, the founders put a mechanism in place to start the country on that path, and banned it as soon as they could.
Through their humility and understanding of human nature, our founders knew the Constitution was not perfect. They devised the Amendment process to make corrections, adjustments and refinements, a process not too easy, but also not too difficult, a process Madison describes in Federalist 43:
“It guards equally against that extreme facility, which would render the Constitution too mutable; and that extreme difficulty, which might perpetuate its discovered faults. It, moreover, equally enables the general and the State governments to originate the amendment of errors, as they may be pointed out by the experience on one side, or on the other.”
One of the great characteristics of Americans is that we are always striving to be better, to improve, and to grow. Many Amendments to the Constitution reflect this growth.
Although we may not always be proud of every step in our journey, we can be proud that as a country we have made corrections from where we started, that our founders recognized we would need to make corrections, and that a process is in place to continue to refine this brilliant, but human, document.
Good night and God Bless,