previous next
[43] Franklin, then over eighty-one years of age, declined the chair on account of his increasing infirmities; and, on his motion, George Washington was unanimously elected President.

The Convention sat with closed doors; and no circumstantial nor adequate report of its deliberations was made. The only accounts of them which have reached us are those of delegates who took notes at the time, or taxed their recollection in after years, when the matter had attained an importance not anticipated at the time of its occurrence; and these reminiscences are not free from the suspicion of having been colored, if not recast, in accordance with the ambitions and ultimate political relations of the recorders. The general outline, however, of the deliberations and decisions of the Convention are sufficiently exhibited in the Constitution, and in what we know of the various propositions rejected in the course of its formation. The purpose of this work will require only a rapid summary of what was done, and what left undone, in relation to Human Slavery.

A majority of the framers of the Constitution, like nearly all their compatriots of our Revolutionary era, were adverse to Slavery.1 Their judgments condemned, and their consciences

1 In the debate of Wednesday, August 8, on the adoption of the report of the Committee,

Mr. Rufus King [then of Massachusetts, afterward an eminent Senator from New York] wished to know what influence the vote just passed was meant to have on the succeeding part of the report concerning the admission of slaves into the rule of representation. He could not reconcile his mind to the Article (Art. VII., Sect. 3), if it was to prevent objections to the latter part. The admission of slaves was a most grating circumstance to his mind, because he had hoped that this concession would have produced a readiness, which had not been manifested, to strengthen the General Government, and to make a full confidence in it. The report under consideration had, by the tenor of it, put an end to all his hopes. In two great points, the hands of the Legislature were absolutely tied. The importation of slaves could not be prohibited. Exports could not be taxed. Is this reasonable? What are the great objects of the general system? First, defense against foreign invasion; second, against internal sedition. Shall all the States, then, be bound to defend each, and shall each be at liberty to introduce a weakness which will render defense more difficult? Shall one part of the United States be bound to defend another part, and that other part be at liberty, not only to increase its own danger, but to withhold a compensation for the burden? If slaves are to be imported, shall not the exports produced by their labor supply a revenue, the better to enable the General Government to defend their masters? * * * He never could agree to let them be imported without limitation, and then be represented in the National Legislature. Indeed, he could so little persuade himself of the rectitude of such a practice, that he was not sure that he could assent to it under any circumstances.

Mr. Sherman [Roger, of Connecticut] regarded the Slave-Trade as iniquitous; but, the point of representation having been settled after much difficulty and deliberation, he did not think himself bound to make opposition; especially as the present article, as amended, did not preclude any arrangement whatever on that point in another place reported.

Mr. Madison objected to one for every forty thousand inhabitants as a perpetual rule. The future increase of population, if the Union should be permanent, will render the number of representatives excessive.

Mr. Sherman and Mr. Madison moved to insert the words “not exceeding” before the words “one for every forty thousand inhabitants.” which was agreed to nem. con.

Mr. Gouverneur Morris moved to insert “free” before the word “inhabitants.” Much, he said, would depend on this point. lie never could concur in upholding Domestic Slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspreads the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other States having slaves. Travel through the whole continent, and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of Slavery. * * * Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and let them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included? The houses in this city [Philadelphia] are worth more than all the wretched slaves that cover the rice-swamps of South Carolina. The admission of slaves into the representation, when fairly explained, comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia or South Carolina, who goes to the coast of Africa, and, in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity, tears away his fellowcreatures from their dearest connections, and dooms them to the most cruel bondage, shall have more votes in a government instituted for the protection of the rights of mankind than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey, who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice. He would add, that Domestic Slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution. * * * Let it not be said that Direct Taxation is to be proportioned to Representation. It is idle to suppose that the General Government can stretch its hand directly into the pockets of the people, scattered over so vast a country. They can only do it through the medium of exports, imports, and excises. For what, then, are all the sacrifices to be made? He would sooner submit himself to a tax, paying for all the negroes in the United States, than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.

Mr. Dayton [of New Jersey] seconded the motion. He did it, he said, that his sentiments on the subject might appear, whatever might be the fate of the amendment.

Mr. Sherman did not regard the admission of negroes into the ratio of representation as liable to such insuperable objections, etc., etc.

Mr. Pinckney [C. C., of South Carolina] considered the Fisheries and the Western Frontier as more burdensome to the United States than the slaves. He thought this could be demonstrated, if the occasion were a proper one.

On the question on the motion to insert “free” before “inhabitants,” it was disagreed to; New Jersey alone voting in the affirmative.--Madison's Papers, vol. III., p. 1261.

Tuesday, August 21st:

Mr. Luther Martin [of Maryland] proposed to vary Article VII., Section 4, so as to allow a prohibition or tax on the importation of slaves. In the first place, as five slaves are to be counted as three freemen in the apportionment of representatives, such a clause would leave an encouragement to this traffic. In the second place, slaves weakened one part of the Union, which the other parts were bound to protect. The privilege of importing was therefore unreasonable. And in the third place, it was inconsistent with the principles of the Revolution, and dishonorable to the American character, to have such a feature in the Constitution.

Mr. Rutledge [of. South Carolina] did not see how the importation of slaves could be encouraged by this section. He was not apprehensive of insurrections, and would readily exempt the other States from the obligation to protect the Southern against them. Religion and humanity had nothing to do with this question. Interest alone is the governing principle with nations, etc.

Mr. Ellsworth [of Connecticut] was for leaving the clause as it stands, etc.

Mr. Pinckney.--South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the Slave-Trade. In every proposed extension of the powers of Congress, that State expressly and watchfully excepted that of meddling with the importation of negroes. If the States should be all left at liberty on this subject, South Carolina may, perhaps, by degrees, do of herself what is wished, as Virginia and Maryland have already done.

“Adjourned. ”--Ibid., p. 1388.

Again: in the debate of the following day — the consideration of Article VII., Section 4, being resumed--Colonel Mason [George, grandfather of James M., late United States Senator, and late Confederate emissary to England] gave utterance to the following sentiments:

This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government has constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerned not the importing of slaves alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might hare been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves as it did by tile Tories. * * * Maryland and Virginia, ho said, had already prohibited the importation of slaves. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be vain, if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The Western people are already calling for slaves for their new lands; and will fill that country with slaves, if they can be got through South Carolina and Georgia. Slavery discourages the arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the emigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations can not be punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities. * * *He held it essential, in every point of view, that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of Slavery. --Ibid., p. 1390.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

hide People (automatically extracted)
hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
August 21st (1)
August 8th (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: