Four: A Constitution Day Reflection
Most standard biographies of Doctor James McClurg (1747-1823) begin with his accomplished medical career, friendship with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and mention his participation in the American Revolution as a physician. Some detail his attendance at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, noting that he left without signing the final document. This brief biography will start with a number: Four.
That is the number of enslaved people that McClurg owned toward the end of his life. The 1820 census detailed that James McClurg held four in bondage while residing with his son-in-law and daughter, John and Elizabeth Wickham. One young man was aged between 14 and 25. The other three were women over 45 years old. Whether they worked and lived on the Wickham’s property or elsewhere is not known. They might have been hired out to other families, not benefiting from the money they made for McClurg. The young man might have been his forced to wash, dress, and feed the elderly McClurg, possibly even sleeping in his room each night (notice the pallet on the floor at the foot of the bed in the photo above).
So it is clear that James McClurg did not leave the Constitutional Convention in late July 1787 because he opposed slavery. He and the other Virginians at the summer-long meeting in Philadelphia supported preserving the domestic slave trade. Instead, they worked to ensure that an enslaved individual would count as only 3/5 of a free person in order to determine representation in Congress. So why did he leave? After months of working on the document, McClurg disagreed with the length of the President’s term (he thought it should be for life), and he believed the federal government should be able to veto state laws. He and James Madison exchanged letters about these issues. Madison sent him a copy of the Constitution in October 1787. We do not know how the four enslaved people he owned felt about any of these issues. Nor do we know how they learned of the newly-created United States of America. Their letters, stories, and opinions do not survive.
McClurg was a Federalist, meaning an advocate for a strong central government that would oversee the then-13 states. He and the other delegates created a document that provided structure and simultaneously crafted a process to amend it. After ratifying the initial Constitution in 1788, the states set about changing it immediately, adding ten amendments largely based on the proposals of Virginia’s George Mason. But the Bill of Rights (ratified on December 15, 1791), as revolutionary as it was, still did not apply to McClurg’s enslaved man and women. They could not enjoy freedom of speech or assembly. They certainly were not allowed to petition the government to redress their grievances.
Thirty-eight delegates* signed the final draft of the Constitution on September 17, 1787. It would be 74 years before the 13th Amendment abolished American slavery in 1865. Three years later, the 14th Amendment provided citizenship and equal protection for those persons born or naturalized in the United States. In 1870, the 15th Amendment gave the vote to men, no matter their “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” If you’re counting, that’s over 83 years before one of the four enslaved members of James McClurg’s household significantly benefited from the ideals of the new nation. And the three women? Unless they were wealthy and educated, the 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, did not benefit many African-American women in Richmond. They were turned away by poll taxes, vague “understanding clauses,” and other restrictive measures provided in Virginia’s 1902 Constitution. It is not until federal laws, enacted during the 1960s, along with the 1964 ratification of the 24th amendment (outlawing poll taxes) that McClurg’s four enslaved likely would have achieved full-citizenship. 177 years and 5 amendments later, “We the People” finally included African-Americans and women (as well as Native Americans and persons of color).
As we observe Constitution Day today, we can honor the living, breathing document that James McClurg and his colleagues created and expected to be altered while also acknowledging the harsh reality of James McClurg’s endorsement of and participation in the slave trade. We can celebrate the revolutionary ideas contained in the Constitution while also celebrating the descendants of the four who sought freedom and worked hard to finally put into practice the ideals enshrined in this founding document. Hopefully, today, we can seek to enjoy the “blessings of liberty” while renewing our efforts to create “a more perfect Union.”
*George Read signed for an absent John Dickinson. 39 signatures were added by 38 men. Three Virginians signed the Constitution: George Washington, John Blair, and James Madison.