The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Compromise Debated, Madison Raises Issue of Slavery

June 30, 1787 (Click to read Madison’s notes)


The Connecticut compromise was debated and Madison proposed that the real division of states was between slave and free, not large and small.

Influences on the Delegates

After dispensing with a motion to make a special request for New Hampshire to send delegates, the Convention got back to the dispute over representation in the legislature. Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson opined that the majority would be overrun by the minority under the Connecticut plan. Connecticut’s Oliver Ellsworth argued that Wilson was wrong, very directly invoking the positive model of Britain.

Mr. ELLSWORTH. The capital objection of Mr. WILSON, “that the minority will rule the majority,” is not true. The power is given to the few to save them from being destroyed by the many. If an equality of votes had been given to them in both branches, the objection might have had weight. Is it a novel thing that the few should have a check on the many? Is it not the case in the British Constitution, the wisdom of which so many gentlemen have united in applauding? Have not the House of Lords, who form so small a proportion of the nation, a negative on the laws, as a necessary defence of their peculiar rights against the encroachments of the Commons? No instance of a confederacy has existed in which an equality of voices has not been exercised by the members of it. We are running from one extreme to another. We are razing the foundations of the building, when we need only repair the roof. No salutary measure has been lost for want of a majority of the States to favor it. If security be all that the great States wish for, the first branch secures them.

The delegates did not search for or appeal to a Bible verse or tenet of theology. Rather over and over again, they either lauded Britain or some former republic or criticized the same on behalf of their viewpoint.
Madison rebutted Ellsworth by appealing to European and ancient governments.

Mr. MADISON did justice to the able and close reasoning of Mr. ELLSWORTH, but must observe that it did not always accord with itself. On another occasion, the large States were described by him as the aristocratic States, ready to oppress the small. Now the small are the House of Lords, requiring a negative to defend them against the more numerous Commons. Mr. ELLSWORTH had also erred in saying that no instance had existed in which confederated states had not retained to themselves a perfect equality of suffrage. Passing over the German system, in which the King of Prussia has nine voices, he reminded Mr. ELLSWORTH of the Lycian confederacy, in which the component members had votes proportioned to their importance, and which Montesquieu recommends as the fittest model for that form of government. Had the fact been as stated by Mr. ELLSWORTH, it would have been of little avail to him, or rather would have strengthened the arguments against him; the history and fate of the several confederacies, modern as well as ancient, demonstrating some radical vice in their structure.

Madison then introduced a prophetic but absurd (in my view) idea.

These two causes concurred in forming the great division of interests in the United States. It did not lie between the large and small States. It lay between the Northern and Southern; and if any defensive power were necessary, it ought to be mutually given to these two interests. He was so strongly impressed with this important truth, that he had been casting about in his mind for some expedient that would answer the purpose. The one which had occurred was, that, instead of proportioning the votes of the States in both branches, to their respective numbers of inhabitants, computing the slaves in the ratio of five to three, they should be represented in one branch according to the number of free inhabitants only; and in the other, according to the whole number, counting the slaves as free. By this arrangement the Southern scale would have the advantage in one House, and the Northern in the other. He had been restrained from proposing this expedient by two considerations; one was his unwillingness to urge any diversity of interests on an occasion where it is but too apt to arise of itself; the other was the inequality of powers that must be vested in the two branches, and which would destroy the equilibrium of interests.

Madison’s thoughts did not catch on. The delegates went back to debating the matter of representation without another mention of slavery.
Britain came up again as a positive model, this time raised by Deleware’s Gunning Bedford.

Can it be expected that the small States will act from pure disinterestedness. Look at Great Britain. Is the representation there less unequal? But we shall be told again, that that is the rotten part of the Constitution. Have not the boroughs, however, held fast their constitutional rights? And are we to act with greater purity than the rest of mankind? An exact proportion in the representation is not preserved in any one of the States.

Bedford also invokes the example of Athenian politician Solon:

We must, like Solon, make such a government as the people will approve. Will the smaller States ever agree to the proposed degradation of them? It is not true that the people will not agree to enlarge the powers of the present Congress. The language of the people has been, that Congress ought to have the power of collecting an impost, and of coercing the States where it may be necessary.

Angus King of Massachusetts used Britain and Scotland as an example of how states might interact in a union.

As the fundamental rights of individuals are secured by express provisions in the State Constitutions, why may not a like security be provided for the rights of States in the National Constitution? The Articles of Union between England and Scotland furnish an example of such a provision, in favor of sundry rights of Scotland. When that union was in agitation, the same language of apprehension which has been heard from the smaller States, was in the mouths of the Scotch patriots. The articles, however, have not been violated, and the Scotch have found an increase of prosperity and happiness.

On the key division of the day — representation in the legislature — the delegates did not look for guidance from Christian theology or the Bible. Even after Ben Franklin appealed to the delegates to get Heaven involved, the delegates continued to rely on their reason and powers of persuasion. They used Britain, Rome, Athens, and Europe as models, both positive and negative. Contrary to the claims of David Barton and other Christian nationalists, the delegates did not seek a Constitution founded on biblical principles. They sought a plan which was reasonable and fair and would address the flaws in former governments without losing the benefits of republican government.

1787 Constitutional Convention Series

To read my series examining the proceedings of the Constitution Convention, click here.  In this series, I am writing about any obvious influences on the development of the Constitution which were mentioned by the delegates to the Convention. Specifically, I am testing David Barton’s claim that “every clause” of the Constitution is based on biblical principles. Thus far, I have found nothing supporting the claim. However, stay tuned, the series will run until mid-September.
Constitutional Convention Series (click the link)
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