The 1787 Constitutional Convention – Slavery Entered the Debate

a570af34_optJuly 11, 1787 (Click the link to read Madison’s notes)


Due to discussion of the census, the debate turned to the 3/5ths clause. A vote was taken to substitute the word “all” for “3/5.” It failed. It was agreed to take the census every 15 years.

Influences on the Delegates

Delegate Randolph moved to take a census but deferred to Hugh Williamson’s motion which came later in the session:

Mr. WILLIAMSON was for making it a duty of the Legislature to do what was right, and not leaving it at liberty to do or not to do it. He moved that Mr. RANDOLPH’S propositions be postponed, in order to consider the following, “that in order to ascertain the alterations that may happen in the population and wealth of the several States, a census shall be taken of the free white inhabitants, and three-fifths of those of other descriptions on the first year after this government shall have been adopted, and every — year thereafter; and that the representation be regulated accordingly.”

The span between census taking was not designated by Williamson’s motion. Nonetheless, Randolph supported the motion as a means of fairly apportioning representatives based on population. Randolph attributed this principle to Montesquieu.

Mr. RANDOLPH agreed that Mr. WILLIAMSON’S proposition should stand in place of his. He observed that the ratio fixed for the first meeting was a mere conjecture; that it placed the power in the hands of that part of America which could not always be entitled to it; that this power would not be voluntarily renounced; and that it was consequently the duty of the Convention to secure its renunciation, when justice might so require, by some constitutional provisions. If equality between great and small States be inadmissible, because in that case unequal numbers of constituents would be represented by equal numbers of votes, was it not equally inadmissible, that a larger and more populous district of America, should hereafter have less representation than a smaller and less populous district? If a fair representation of the people be not secured, the injustice of the Government will shake it to its foundations. What relates to suffrage is justly, stated by the celebrated Montesquieu as a fundamental article in Republican Governments.

Representation of Slaves

The representation of slaves was then discussed with Butler and General Pinckney from South Carolina advocating for ” blacks be included in the rule of representation equally with the whites; and for that purpose moved that the words “three-fifths” be struck out.”
Because of the significance of the discussion, I include it here:

Mr. BUTLER and General PINCKNEY insisted that blacks be included in the rule of representation equally with the whites; and for that purpose moved that the words “three-fifths” be struck out.
Mr. GERRY thought that three-fifths of them was, to say the least, the full proportion that could be admitted.
Mr. GORHAM. This ratio was fixed by Congress as a rule of taxation. Then it was urged, by the Delegates representing the States having slaves, that the blacks were still more inferior to freemen. At present, when the ratio of representation is to be established, we are assured that they are equal to freemen. The arguments on the former occasion had convinced him that three-fifths was pretty near the just proportion, and he should vote according to the same opinion now.
Mr. BUTLER insisted that the labor of a slave in South Carolina was as productive and valuable as that of a freeman in Massachusetts; that as wealth was the great means of defence and utility to the nation, they were equally valuable to it with freemen; and that consequently an equal representation ought to be allowed for them in a government which was instituted principally, for the protection of property, and was itself to be supported by property.
Mr. MASON could not agree to the motion, notwithstanding it was favorable to Virginia, because he thought it unjust. It was certain that the slaves were valuable, as they raised the value of land, increased the exports and imports, and of course the revenue, would supply the means of feeding and supporting an army, and might in cases of emergency become themselves soldiers. As in these important respects they were useful to the community at large, they ought not to be excluded from the estimate of representation. He could not, however, regard them as equal to freemen, and could not vote for them as such. He added, as worthy of remark, that the Southern States have this peculiar species of property over and above the other species of property common to all the States.
Mr. WILLIAMSON reminded Mr. GORHAM that if the Southern States contended for the inferiority of blacks to whites when taxation was in view, the Eastern States, on the same occasion, contended for their equality. He did not, however, either then or now, concur in either extreme, but approved of the ratio of three-fifths.
On Mr. BUTLER’S motion, for considering blacks as equal to whites in the apportionment of representation, — Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, aye — 3; Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, no — 7; New York, not on the floor.

In this discussion, it appears that the 3/5 principle was a response to the perceived value of blacks in comparison to white freemen. Mason’s description are especially appalling:

He added, as worthy of remark, that the Southern States have this peculiar species of property over and above the other species of property common to all the States.

Morris objected:

If slaves were to be considered as inhabitants, not as wealth, then the said Resolution would not be pursued; if as wealth, then why is no other wealth but slaves included? These objections may perhaps be removed by amendments. His great objection was, that the number of inhabitants was not a proper standard of wealth.

Morris wanted representation based on wealth and used the unequal representation of blacks to highlight the problem of considering blacks both property and inhabitants.
Lest we laud Morris too much, note that he also said:

Another objection with him, against admitting the blacks into the census, was, that the people of Pennsylvania would revolt at the idea of being put on a footing with slaves. They would reject any plan that was to have such an effect.

One Massachusetts delegate, Gorham, also seemed to consider blacks unequal to whites.

Mr. GORHAM supported the propriety of establishing numbers as the rule. He said that in Massachusetts estimates had been taken in the different towns, and that persons had been curious enough to compare these estimates with the respective numbers of people and it had been found, even including Boston, that the most exact proportion prevailed between numbers and property. He was aware that there might be some weight in what had fallen from his colleague, as to the umbrage which might be taken by the people of the Eastern States. But he recollected that when the proposition of Congress for changing the eighth Article of the Confederation was before the Legislature of Massachusetts, the only difficulty then was, to satisfy them that the negroes ought not to have been counted equally with the whites, instead of being counted in the ratio of three-fifths only.1

Morris’ fellow Pennsylvania delegate James Wilson objected to the three-fifths motion on the grounds that it mixed inhabitants with property.

Mr. WILSON did not well see, on what principle the admission of blacks in the proportion of three-fifths, could be explained. Are they admitted as citizens — then why are they not admitted on an equality with white citizens? Are they admitted as property — then why is not other property admitted into the computation? These were difficulties, however, which he thought must be overruled by the necessity of compromise. He had some apprehensions also, from the tendency of the blending of the blacks with the whites, to give disgust to the people of Pennsylvania, as had been intimated by his colleague (Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS). But he differed from him in thinking numbers of inhabitants so incorrect a measure of wealth. He had seen the western settlements of Pennsylvania, and on a comparison of them with the city of Philadelphia could discover little other difference, than that property was more unequally divided here than there. Taking the same number in the aggregate, in the two situations, he believed there would be little difference in their wealth and ability to contribute to the public wants.

Although Wilson had “some apprehensions also, from the tendency of the blending of the blacks with the whites, to give disgust to the people of Pennsylvania,” he did not believe the proportion of three-fifths of blacks to be fair.
Morris then stepped up with an argument linked to the slave trade:

Mr. GOUVERNEUR MORRIS was compelled to declare himself reduced to the dilemma of doing injustice to the Southern States, or to human nature; and he must therefore do it to the former. For he could never agree to give such encouragement to the slave trade, as would be given by allowing them a representation for their negroes; and he did not believe those States would ever confederate on terms that would deprive them of that trade.

At this point in the proceedings, the three-fifths proportion failed.

On the question for agreeing to include three-fifths of the blacks, — Connecticut, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, aye — 4; Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland,2 South Carolina, no — 6.

Madison Called Out Morris on Depravity

Although Morris spoke frequently and seemed influential, his fulminations against the checks on the legislature’s ability to regulate membership (i.e., a regular census combined with a set apportionment formula) struck Madison as inconsistent with Morris’ past remarks about depravity (see this entry).

Mr. MADISON was not a little surprised to hear this implicit confidence urged by a member who, on all occasions, had inculcated so strongly the political depravity of men, and the necessity of checking one vice and interest by opposing to them another vice and interest.

If the legislature could set membership without regard a Constitutionally set formula then the moneyed and powerful interests could act to keep themselves in power.  Madison’s belief was that power corrupts and used political examples rather than appeal to revelation.

The truth was, that all men having power ought to be distrusted, to a certain degree. The case of Pennsylvania had been mentioned, where it was admitted that those who were possessed of the power in the original settlement never admitted the new settlements to a due share of it. England was a still more striking example. The power there had long been in the hands of the boroughs — of the minority — who had opposed and defeated every reform which had been attempted. Virginia was, in a less degree, another example. With regard to the Western States, he was clear and firm in opinion that no unfavorable distinctions were admissible, either in point of justice or policy.

The Constitution Like a Religious Creed?

In light of my interest in the religious influences on the Constitution, this remark by Delaware delegate Read is interesting.

Mr. READ thought, the Legislature ought not to be too much shackled. It would make the Constitution like religious creeds, embarrassing to those bound to conform to them, and more likely to produce dissatisfaction and schism, than harmony and union.

I suspect Mr. Read was not one of the three or four delegates who agreed with Ben Franklin’s call to prayer.

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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