Debate over Slavery at the Constitutional Convention, August 21-22, 1787.
By the 1830s, slaveowners told opponents of slavery that the Constitution protected slavery, representatives from the slave states would never have signed it otherwise, and everyone at the Constitutional Convention knew it. This summary of the discussion of the international slave trade at that convention shows that they have a point. Some historians maintain that Southerners at the convention never really contemplated a separate nation. Indeed, the three South Carolina delegates who voice such threats in this extract supported a strong national government. Nevertheless, the belief that their threats were serious had become dogma by the 1850s. Thus this debate begins a pattern of threats by slaveowners that eventually resulted in secession.
As residents of the 21st century knowing what we do that the Civil War, a terrible calamity on the nation was to come, with a loss of life of 600,000 or more, which would percentage wise be equivalent to 6,000,000 to the population of today, how do we judge these deliberations? Are they working towards a compromise or engaging in self-serving rationalizations that the problem would go away on its own? In
judging, what criteria would you use?
Especially knowing that the Civil War would come, how prescient is Col. George Mason of Virginia when he says:
“Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or 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.”
These deliberations are like a chorus in a classical Greek play opening our great national drama and so we start with this as our first entry.
From Elliot’s Debates, Vol. 5, pages 457-61. We have modified the text by giving each speaker’s name in full for easier understanding as well as indicating which state they are from.
Mr. Luther Martin [MD] proposed to vary article 7, sect. 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 appointment 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 them 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. John Rutledge [SC] 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. The true question at present is, whether the Southern States shall or shall not be parties to the Union. If the Northern States consult their interest, they will not oppose the increase of slaves, which will increase the commodities of which they become the carriers.
Mr. Oliver Ellsworth [CT] was for leaving the clause as it stands. Let every state import what it pleases. The morality or wisdom of slavery are considerations belonging to the states themselves. What enriches a part enriches the whole, and the states are the best judges of their particular interest. The old Confederation had not meddled with this point; and he did not see any greater necessity for bringing it within the policy of the new one.
Mr. Charles Pinckney [SC]. South Carolina can never receive the plan if it prohibits the slave trade. In every proposed extension of the powers of Congress, that state has expressly and watchfully excepted that of meddling with the importation of negroes. If the states be all left at liberty on this subject, South Carolina may perhaps, by degrees, do of herself what is wished, as Virginia and Maryland already have done.
Mr. Roger Sherman [CT] was for leaving the clause as it stands. He disapproved of the slave trade; yet, as the states were now possessed of the right to import slaves, as the public good did not require it to be taken from them, and as it was expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, he thought it best to leave the matter as we find it. He observed, that the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the United States, and that the good sense of the several states would probably by degrees complete it. He urged on the Convention the necessity of despatching its business.
Col. George Mason [VA]. This infernal traffic originated in the avarice of British merchants. The British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it. The present question concerns not the importing states alone, but the whole Union. The evil of having slaves was experienced during the late war. Had slaves been treated as they might have been by the enemy, they would have proved dangerous instruments in their hands. But their folly dealt by the slaves as it did by the tories. He mentioned the dangerous insurrections of the slaves in Greece and Sicily; and the instructions given by Cromwell, to the commissioners sent to Virginia, to arm the servants and slaves, in case other means of obtaining its submission should fail. Maryland and Virginia, he said, had already prohibited the importation of slaves expressly. North Carolina had done the same in substance. All this would be in vain, if South Carolina and Georgia be at liberty to import. The western people are already calling out 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 arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the emigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a county. 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 cannot be rewarded or 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 lamented that some of our eastern brethren had, from a lust of gain, embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the state being in possession of the right to import, this was the case with many other rights, now to be properly given up. He held it essential, in every point of view, that the general government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.
Mr. Oliver Ellsworth [CT], as he had never owned a slave, could not judge the effects of slavery on character. He said, however, that if it was to be considered in a moral light, we ought to go further, and free those already in the country. As slaves also multiply so fast in Virginia and Maryland, that it is cheaper to raise them than import them, whilst in the sickly rice swamps foreign supplies are necessary, if we go no further than is urged, we shall be unjust towards South Carolina and Georgia. Let us not intermeddle. As population increases, poor laborers will be so plenty as to render slaves useless. Slavery, in time, will not be a speck in our country. Provision is already made in Connecticut for abolishing it. And the abolition has already taken place in Massachusetts. As to the danger of insurrections from foreign influence, that will become a motive to kind treatment of the slaves.
Mr. Charles Pinckney [SC]: If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world. He cited the case of Greece, Rome and other ancient states; the sanction given by France, England, Holland, and other modern states. In all ages, one half of mankind have been slaves. If the Southern States were let alone, they will probably of themselves stop importations. He would himself, as a citizen of South Carolina, vote for it. An attempt to take away the right, as proposed, will produce serious objections to the Constitution, which he wished to see adopted.
Gen. Charles C. Pinckney [SC] declared it to be his firm opinion that if himself and all his colleagues were to sign the Constitution, and use their personal influence, it would be of no avail towards obtaining the assent of their constituents. South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves. As to Virginia, she will gain by stopping the importations. Her slaves will rise in value, and she has more than she wants. It would be unequal to require South Carolina and Georgia to confederate on such unequal terms. He said, the royal assent, before the revolution, had never been refused to South Carolina, as to Virginia. He contended, that the importation of slaves would be for the interest of the whole Union. The more slaves, the more produce to employ the carrying trade; the more consumption also; and the more of this, the more revenue for the common treasury. He admitted it to be reasonable that slaves should be dutied like other imports; but should consider a rejection of the clause as an exclusion of South Carolina from the Union.
Mr. Abraham Baldwin [GA] had conceived national objects alone to be before the Convention; no such as, like the present, were of a local nature. Georgia was decided on this point. That state has always hitherto supposed a general government to be the pursuit of the central states, who wished to have vortex for everything; that her distance would preclude her from equal advantage; and that she could not prudently purchase it by yielding national powers. From this it might be understood in what light she would view an attempt to abridge one of her favorite prerogatives. If left to herself, she may probably put a stop to the evil. As one ground for this conjecture, he took notice of the sect of―, which, he said, was a respectable class of people, who carried their ethics beyond the mere equality of men, extending their humanity to the claims of the whole animal creation.
Mr. James Wilson [PA] observed that, if South Carolina and Georgia were themselves disposed to get rid of the importation of slaves in a short time, as had been suggested, they would never refuse to unite because the importation might be prohibited. As the section now stands, all articles imported are to be taxed. Slaves alone are exempt. This is, in fact, a bounty on that article.
Mr. Elbridge Gerry [MA] thought we had nothing to do with the conduct of the states as to slaves, but ought to be careful not to give any sanction to it.
Mr. John Dickinson [DE] considered it as inadmissible, on every principle of honor and safety, that the importation of slaves should be authorized to the states by the Constitution. The true question was, whether the national happiness would be promoted or impeded by the importation; and this question ought to be left to the national government, not to the states particularly interested. If England and France permit slavery, slaves are, at the same time, excluded from both those kingdoms. Greece and Rome were made unhappy by their slaves. He could not believe that the Southern States would refuse to confederate on the account apprehended; especially as the power was not likely to be immediately exercised by the general government.
Mr. H. Williamson [NC] stated the law of North Carolina on the subject, to wit, that it did not directly prohibit the importation of slaves. It imposed a duty of £5 on each slave imported from Africa; £10 on each from elsewhere; and £50 on each from a state licensing manumission. He thought the Southern States could not be members of the Union, if the clause be rejected; and that is was wrong to force anything down not absolutely necessary and which any state must disagree to.
Mr. Rufus King [MA] thought the subject should be considered in a political light only. If two states will not agree to the Constitution, as stated on one side, he could affirm with equal belief, on the other, that great and equal opposition would be experienced from the other states. He remarked on the exemption of slaves from duty, whilst every other import was subjected to it, as an inequality that could not fail to strike the commercial sagacity of the Northern and Middle States.
Mr. John Langon [NH] was strenuous for giving the power to the general government. He could not, with a good conscience, leave it with the states, who could then go on with the traffic, without being restrained by the opinions here given, that they will themselves cease to import slaves.
Gen. Charles C. Pinckney [SC] thought himself bound to declare candidly, that he did not think South Carolina would stop her importations of slaves in any short time; but only stop them occasionally, as she now does. He moved to commit the clause, that slaves might be made liable to an equal tax with other imports; which he thought right, and which would remove one difficulty that had been started.
Mr. John Rutledge [SC]. If the Convention thinks that North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia, will ever agree to the plan, unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is vain. The people of those states will never be such fools as to give up so important an interest. He was strenuous against striking out the section, and seconded the motion of Gen. Pinckney for a commitment.
Mr. Gouverneur Morris [PA] wished the whole subject to be committed, including the clauses relating to taxes on exports and a navigation act. These things may form a bargain among the Northern and Southern States.
Mr. Pierce Butler [SC] declared, that he never would agree to the power of taxing exports.
Mr. Roger Sherman [CT] said it was better to let the Southern States import slaves than to part with them, if they made that a sine qua non. He was opposed to a tax on slaves imported, as making the matter worse, because it implied they were property. He acknowledged that, if the power of prohibiting the importation to the general government, it would be exercised. He thought it would be its duty to exercise the power.
Mr. George Read [DE] was for the commitment, provided the clause concerning taxes on exports should also be committed.
Mr. Roger Sherman [CT] observed, that the clause had been agreed to, and therefore could not be committed.
Mr. Edmund Randolph [VA] was for committing, in order that some middle ground might, if possible, be found. He could never agree to the clause as it stands. He would sooner risk the Constitution. He dwelt on the dilemma to which the Convention was exposed. By agreeing to the clause, it would revolt the Quakers, the Methodist, and many others in the states having no slaves. On the other hand, two states might be lost to the Union. Let us then, he said, try the chance of a commitment.
On the question for committing the remaining part of sections 4 and 5 of article 7, ―Connecticut, New Jersey, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, ay, 7; New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Delaware, no, 3; Massachusetts, absent.
Don Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic (NY: Oxford UP, 2001), 36-38, 218, 244; cf. D. L. Robinson, Slavery in the Structure of American Politics (NY: Norton, 1979), 23-24 and ch. 5.