Chapter 3 Activity: Framing a Racist System

Primary Source Reading

Extracts from debate in the House of Representatives on the January 1800 Petition from Rev. Absalom Jones of Philadelphia and other “Free Men of Color” - Mr. Harrison Gray Otis of Massachusetts :

I have never seen a petition presented under a more dangerous and unpleasant aspect. It appears to be subscribed by a number of individuals who are incapable of writing their names… To encourage a measure of this kind… will teach [slaves and former slaves] the art of assembling together, debating, and the like, and will soon, if encouraged, extend from one end of the Union to the other…

“I thank God I have no slaves, nor do I wish to possess any. Yet I think the subject ought not to be meddled with by the General Government, and if any grievances exist they are properly and only objects of legislation in the several States… I think those who do not possess this species of property had better leave its regulation with those who are cursed with it.” - Mr. George Thatcher of Massachusetts :

Would any gentlemen say that [Congress should not] legislate about 700,000 enemies in the very body of the United States ? While they are slave, they are enemies. I declare that greater evil cannot exist; it is a cancer of immense magnitude that will some time destroy the body politic, unless a proper legislation should prevent the evil…Whether the petitions were black or white, whether they could write, or whether not, is entirely immaterial: they stated their sufferings under a law of the United States….Because they can not write, are their rights to be [denied] them? Strange doctrine! A great reason why they could not write was their being brought up in early life in slavery.”

Mr. James: “I do not think [slavery] is an evil; would you have these people turned out in the United States to ravage, murder, and commit every species of crime? I believe it might have been happy for the United States if these people had never been introduced amongst us, but I do believe that they have been immensely benefited by coming amongst us.”

Classroom Discussion:

What arguments do each of the three Members of Congress use to justify or condemn slavery? What inconsistencies do you find in their arguments? Why do you think petitions like these were eventually barred from Congress?

Classroom Activity:

Divide the class into working groups, each one of which should have a copy of the US Constitution.  Let each group take an Article of the Constitution and look for references to slavery within the Article. Why was the word “slavery” never used? What words were used instead to refer to slaves and slavery? How many references to slavery can the class find?

Classroom Activity 2:

Ask your students to think themselves back to the Eighteenth Century.  They are delegates to the Constitutional Convention. 

Divide them into smaller groups.  Each group should discuss these questions and see if they can agree on common positions to take at the Convention.   They should then prepare a report for the entire Convention (class) saying where they stand, and why:

• What ideals will you fight for?  What will you sacrifice? 

• Would you push to abolish slavery at the risk of not having enough votes to ratify the Constitution, or would you be prepared to compromise? 

• Would you want more democracy, or less?

• Would you include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution? 

• Would you favor a strong executive branch?  A strong legislative branch? A strong judicial branch?  Or would you support a system in which no single branch is stronger than the others?

Copyright 2006, ACLU of Massachusetts