On August 25, 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia debated the slave trade, after a delegate moved to protect it until 1808, as opposed to Congress having the power to end the trade in 1800 and taxing the importation of slaves until such time, as recommended in a rough sketch of the Constitution submitted nearly three weeks earlier by the five-member Committee of Detail, selected to draft a copy of the document that reflected delegates’ previous decisions about relevant issues.1
“I never mean to possess another slave by purchase,” George Washington said, explaining during the previous year his desire for the institution to end in a manner that might be perceived as agreeable to his Southern acquaintance, the recipient of Washington’s correspondence, “It being among my first wishes to see some plan adopted, by which slavery in this country may be abolished by slow, sure, and imperceptible degrees.” 2
Not only did debates about slavery consume a Saturday in August during the Constitutional Convention 223 years ago today, they also preceded and survived the meeting, providing a lens for further investigation of conflict inherent within the executive power in a President of the United States that was first vested in Washington.3
1. Bernard Bailyn, ed., The Debate on the Constitution, 2 vols. (New York: Library of America, 1993), 2:1058. Michael Nelson, “Constitutional Beginnings,” in Guide to the Presidency, Second Edition, 2 vols., ed. Michael Nelson (Washington: CQ Press, 1996), 14.
2. John C. Fitzpatrick, ed., The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, 39 vols. (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931-1944), 29:5.
3. Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (New York: Random House, 1997), 146-147, 197-208.