Bill Bennett

 Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from Bill Bennett’s latest book, America: The Last Best Hope, released last month. The book can be purchased here.

Most discussion of the Constitution and religion today focuses naturally on the First Amendment, but the original Constitution contained a powerful provision that receives less attention. Article VI, Section 3 states: “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” This was a revolutionary breakthrough for religious liberty, one of the most advanced statements in the world—then or even now.

Maryland’s John Carroll, a Catholic, had noted that “the American army swarmed with Roman Catholic soldiers.” How could the new government justify denying them full civil rights? Similarly, Jewish Americans had participated in the struggle for independence, notably Hayim Solomon, who had arranged loans for the Continental Congress and helped save Washington’s army from starvation. By banning religious tests for office, the Constitution assured that religion would never be a bar to any able American serving the new republic.

But what about slavery? “Persons held to service or labor.” That is the awkward phrase the Constitution uses to describe slaves. After the fight over large state/small state representation, the treatment of slavery became the greatest source of conflict. Very early, a clash occurred over this “peculiar institution.” The Founders’ reticence in dealing with this explosive topic came from their belief, as Madison pointed out, that it was “wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men.” At the time of the Constitutional Convention, slavery existed in nearly all of the states—and had existed since they were founded. Massachusetts had abolished slavery and four states—New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania—were in the process of doing so. Emancipation was advancing in New York and New Jersey. The Founders believed that slavery was on the path to extinction. Ninety percent of slaves lived in the South.

Bill Bennett

Bill Bennett is the author of Our Country's Founders .

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