MOUNT VERNON — “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union,” begins the preamble of the United States Constitution.
Knox County Prosecutor John Thatcher explained during Part 3 of the Constitution Lecture Series at the Memorial Theater on Wednesday evening that the definition of “we the people” is not the same today as it was in 1787 when the three words were written.
“A lot of the amendments [to the Constitution] were to change how inclusive that was and what that meant,” said Thatcher.
Thatcher explained Article I, Section 2; Article IV, Section 2; and Amendments 13, 15 and 24 of the Constitution.
“All of these provisions of the Constitution deal with slavery,” Thatcher said.
The “three-fifths clause” of Article I, Section 2, was actually a compromise to appease larger states like Virginia, which had a large slave population and wanted those slaves counted in the population numbers used to determine representation in Congress, and electoral votes.
The 700,000 slaves in this country in 1787 were not given any rights, but were each counted as 3/5 of a free person when determining representation as a result of this clause.
“The South wielded disproportionate power in Congress for years because of this,” Thatcher said.
Thatcher said Article IV, Section 2 of the Constitution, known as “the fugitive clause,” is another part of the Constitution “we may not be so proud of now.”
The clause made it impossible for slaves to gain their freedom by escaping to a state where slavery was outlawed. It also made African-Americans in free states vulnerable to seizure and enslavement, Thatcher explained.
The Dred Scott Case of 1857, a lawsuit over this clause, affirmed its legality. Thatcher said the Supreme Court declared in its ruling that slaves were in fact property.