The Declaration of Independence holds it a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” At the time of the American Founding, however, this proclamation of the desirability of unalienable rights for all men was clearly inconsistent with the enslavement of an entire race of men in the Southern states.
The Founders, recognizing the tension, deliberately omitted mention of the word “slavery” in the Constitution so as not to give the impression that the Constitution explicitly championed the practice, instead of tolerating it as a necessary evil. Where slaves were mentioned, as in the slave importation clause, the fugitive slave clause, the three-fifth clause, and Article V, they were euphemistically referred to as “other persons,” implying that the Founders did unequivocally recognize the slaves’ humanity.
Both Abraham Lincoln in his speech on the Dred Scott decision in 1857 and John Calhoun, in his 1838 speech on the issue, give the same account of the Founders’ views on slavery; while slavery could be tolerated for the time being as a necessary evil, the Founders expected and wanted it to eventually die out. The Founders were willing to allow slavery to persist where it already was so as not to engender disunity and political fractiousness, but they also endeavored to obstruct its spread-for example through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, which forbade slavery in the Northwest territories. The first act of the U. S. Congress was to reaffirm this Ordinance and its prohibition. While Lincoln and Calhoun hold diametrically opposite views as to slavery’s desirability, their accounts of the Founders’ views are extremely similar.
Lincoln and Calhoun also both recognize the change in public opinion of African-Americans and slavery since the Founding. For Calhoun, the Founders’ toleration of slavery as a necessary evil had given way to the desirable perception of slavery as a positive good. Lincoln mentions that two of the five states where African-Americans originally had the right to vote had since taken that right away; at the time of the Founding, there were no legal restrictions on masters’ abilities to emancipate their slaves, but since then it has become virtually impossible for masters to do so.
Furthermore, many state constitutions had been amended to prohibit even the state legislatures from abolishing slavery. Moreover, the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which forbade the extension of slavery north of the 36◦30′ line, was repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, sponsored by Stephen Douglas and based on the principle of “popular sovereignty,” i.e., allowing the residents of a territory to choose whether to open the territory to slavery. The act allowed slavery to be entertained in territories from which it had hitherto been strictly excluded.
In these ways, the condition of slaves in the United States actually worsened prior to the Civil War; thinkers on both sides of the issue acknowledged this and saw the need for action either to decisively strike back against slavery or to entrench it permanently. The seeds of armed conflict had been sown.