By ConSource Staff
The issues of the slave trade and import taxation were among the most divisive of the Convention, separating the delegates by region.[i] Delegates from South Carolina and Georgia were insistent that their states would never ratify a constitution that abolished the slave trade or placed burdensome tax disincentives on it.[ii]
No tax or duty shall be laid by the Legislature…on the migration or importation of such persons as the several States shall think proper to admit; nor shall such migration of importation be prohibited.
This proposal was very favorable to slave importing states, as it prevented Congress from prohibiting or taxing the importation of slaves. This resulted from demands of the North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia delegations, and was seen as a practical consideration for compromise, rather than an endorsement of the slave trade.
On August 8, Mr. Morris delivered a passionate speech condemning slavery as a “nefarious institution,” and saying that it brought, “the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed.” He maintained that slaves should not be counted in the apportionment of the legislature, asking,
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?
Mr. Morris found it quite perverse that,
The inhabitant of Georgia and South Carolina who goes to the Coast of Africa, and in defiance of the most sacred laws of humanity tears away his fellow creatures from their dearest connections & damns them to the most cruel bondage, shall have more votes in a Government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the citizen of Pa. or N. Jersey who views with laudable horror, so nefarious a practice.
Mr. Morris’ motion to remove the three-fifths clause and count only “free inhabitants” for apportionment failed, by a vote of 10-1, but his impassioned argument showed that the debate over the slave trade was not resolved by the report of the Committee of Detail.
On August 21, the Convention returned to the issue of slavery, and more specifically, to the Committee of Detail’s proposal concerning the slave trade. Luther Martin proposed to alter Article VII, Section 4 of the Committee’s report to allow for the prohibition or tax on the importation of slaves. He felt this was necessary because,
1. As five slaves are to be counted as 3 free men in the apportionment of Representatives, such a clause would leave an encouragement to this traffic. 2. slaves weakened one part of the Union which the other parts were bound to protect: the privilege of importing them was therefore unreasonable – 3. 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 disagreed, saying,
Religion and humanity had nothing to do with this question – Interest alone is the governing principle with Nations – The true question 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 will become the carriers.
Mr. Pinckney expressed that South Carolina would never agree to a plan if it prohibited the slave trade, and believed that every state should decide for themselves whether to allow the slave trade and the institution of slavery.
The next day, Mr. Sherman resumed the discussion for leaving the slave trade clause as it stood. He disapproved of the slave trade, but felt that the public good did not require it to be abolished, and that it would be more expedient to have as few objections to the proposed Government as possible. Mr. Mason found the slave trade to be evil and nefarious, and argued that it would lead to violent slave revolts, discouraging of immigration of Europeans, refusal of freemen to do manual labor, and a depression of manufacturing and arts. Mr. Pinckney countered this, saying that slavery was justified by the example of the world, and citing examples of modern states with slavery. He maintained that the continued importation of slaves in a few Southern States would benefit the economy of the entire Union. Mr. Pinckney also proposed, in order to make the clause more agreeable, to include a provision making the slave trade subject to equal taxation with other imports. Mr. Morris suggested that the whole subject be given to a committee to “form a bargain among the Northern and Southern states.” The motion to commit the question was approved 7-3-1, and the Committee of Eleven (also known as the Committee of Slave Trade) was formed.[iii]
strike out so much of the 4th section as was referred to the committee and insert – “The migration or importation of such persons as the several States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Legislature prior to the year 1800, but a tax or duty may be imposed on such migration or importation at a rate not exceeding the average of the duties laid on imports.”
The following day, the report of the Committee was taken up, and Mr. Pinckney moved to change the year allowing for the limitation or abolition of slave trade from 1800 to 1808. Mr. Madison believed that twenty years was too long, and would be “more dishonorable to the National character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.”
Mr. Pinckney’s motion passed 7-4, with New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Virginia voting against, because they believed 1808 to be too compromising.
[i] John R. Vile, The Critical Role of Committees at the U.S. Constitutional Convention of 1787, 48 Am. J. Legal Hist. 147, 167 (2006).
[iii] The Committee of Eleven was made up of Mr. Langdon, Mr. King, Mr. Johnson, Mr. Livingston, Mr. Clymer, Mr. Dickinson, Mr. Martin, Mr. Madison, Mr. Williamson, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, and Mr. Baldwin.