This was the third ‘Great Compromise’ of the Constitution.
Continuing The Constitutional Convention of the United States,
with a selection from The American Statesman by Andrew W. Young published in 1860. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages. This selection is presented in 6.5 easy 5 minute installments.
Previously in The Constitutional Convention of the United States
George Mason said: “Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. They prevent the immigration of whites, who really enrich and strengthen a country. They produce a pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of Heaven on a country. He lamented that some of our Eastern brethren, from a lust of gain, had embarked in this nefarious traffic. As to the States being in possession of the right to import, that was the case of many other rights now to be given up. He held it essential, in every point of view, that the General Government should have power to prevent the increase of slavery.”
Ellsworth, not well pleased with this thrust at his slave-trading friends at the North by a slaveholder, tartly replied: “As I have never owned a slave, I cannot judge of the effects of slavery on character; but if slavery is to be considered in a moral light, the convention ought to go further, and free those already in the country.” The opposition of Virginia and Maryland to the importation of slaves he attributed to the fact that, on account of their rapid increase in those States, “it was cheaper to raise them there than to import them, while in the sickly rice-swamps foreign supplies were necessary. If we stop short with prohibiting their importation, we shall be unjust to 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.”
Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia repeated the declaration that “if the slave trade were prohibited, these States would not adopt the Constitution.” “Virginia,” it was said, “would gain by stopping the importation, she having slaves to sell; but it would be unjust to South Carolina and Georgia to be deprived of the right of importing. Besides, the importation of slaves would be a benefit to the whole Union: The more slaves, the more produce, the greater carrying trade, the more consumption, the more revenue.”
The injustice of exempting slaves from duty, while every other import was subject to it, having been urged by several members in the course of the debate, Charles Pinckney expressed his consent to a tax not exceeding the same on other imports, and moved to refer the subject to a committee. The motion was seconded by John Rutledge, and, at the suggestion of Gouverneur Morris, was so modified as to include the clauses relating to navigation laws and taxes on exports. The commitment was opposed by Messrs. Sherman and Ellsworth; the former on the ground that taxes on slaves imported implied that they were property; the latter from the fear of losing two States. Edmund Randolph was in favor of the motion, hoping to find some middle ground upon which they could unite. The motion prevailed, and the subject was referred to a committee of one from each State. The committee retained the prohibition of duties on exports; struck out the restriction on the enactment of navigation laws; and left the importation of slaves unrestricted until the year 1800; permitting Congress, however, to impose a duty upon the importation.
The debate upon this report of the “grand committee” is condensed, by Hildreth, into the two following paragraphs:
Williamson declared himself, both in opinion and practice, against slavery; but he thought it more in favor of humanity, from a view of all circumstances, to let in South Carolina and Georgia on these terms, than to exclude them from the Union. Sherman again objected to the tax, as acknowledging men to be property. Gorham replied that the duty ought to be considered, not as implying that men are property, but as a discouragement to their importation. Sherman said the duty was too small to bear that character. Madison thought it ‘wrong to admit, in the Constitution, the idea that there could be property in man’; and the phraseology of one clause was subsequently altered to avoid any such implication. Gouverneur Morris objected that the clause gave Congress power to tax freemen imported; to which George Mason replied that such a power was necessary to prevent the importation of convicts. A motion to extend the time from 1800 to 1808, made by Pinckney, and seconded by Gorham, was carried against New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia; Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire voting this time with Georgia and South Carolina. That part of the report which struck out the restriction on the enactment of navigation acts was opposed by Charles Pinckney in a set speech, in which he enumerated five distinct commercial interests: the fisheries and West India trade, belonging to New England; the interest of New York in a free trade; wheat and flour, the staples of New Jersey and Pennsylvania; tobacco, the staple of Maryland and Virginia and partly of North Carolina; rice and indigo, the staples of South Carolina and Georgia. The same ground was taken by Williamson and Mason, and very warmly by Randolph, who declared that an unlimited power in Congress to enact navigation laws would complete the deformity of a system having already so many odious features that he hardly knew if he could agree to it. Any restriction of the power of Congress over commerce was warmly opposed by Gouverneur Morris, Wilson, and Gorham. Madison also took the same side. Charles C. Pinckney did not deny that it was the true interest of the South to have no regulation of commerce; but considering the commercial losses of the Eastern States during the Revolution, their liberal conduct toward the views of South Carolina — in the vote just taken, giving eight years’ further extension to the slave trade — and the interest of the weak Southern States in being united with the strong Eastern ones, he should go against any restriction on the power of commercial regulation. ‘He had himself prejudices against the Eastern States before he came here, but would acknowledge that he found them as liberal and candid as any men whatever.’ Butler and Rutledge took the same ground, and the same report was adopted, against the votes of Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.
Thus, by an understanding, or, as Gouverneur Morris called it, ‘a bargain,’ between the commercial representatives of the Northern States and the delegates of South Carolina and Georgia, and in spite of the opposition of Maryland and Virginia, the unrestricted power of Congress to pass navigation laws was conceded to the Northern merchants; and to the Carolina rice-planters, as an equivalent, twenty years’ continuance of the African slave trade. This was the third ‘Great Compromise’ of the Constitution. The other two were the concessions to the smaller States of an equal representation in the Senate, and, to the slaveholders, the counting of three-fifths of the slaves in determining the ratio of representation. If this third compromise differed from the other two by involving not only a political but a moral sacrifice, there was this partial compensation about it, that it was not permanent, like the others, but expired at the end of twenty years by its own limitation.”
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