Gouverneur Morris and Slavery: Part II

We now turn to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and Morris's part in crafting a document that preserved slavery while establishing a government intended to preserve freedom for everyone else. 

The origin of this can be a bit confusing, because so many issues in the debates affected each other. The issue of slavery came to the fore in the discussions concerning the mode of taxation, the census, and representation in the House and Senate. A direct tax was under discussion (rather than on duties on imports), to be based on the wealth of each state, including slaves, and the Southern states, arguing that slaves were "wealth," proposed that 3/5 of the slave population be counted for purposes of the census and thus the resulting number of seats in the House. This was a pretty obvious maneuver to protect the institution of slavery by increasing power of the slave holding states in the new government.

            At the same time, the smaller states wanted equal representation in the Senate to provide "security" for their interests against the larger states.  This was the basis of the trade-off: The South would keep their slaves by virtue of having more representatives in the House; the small states could keep their equal voice in the Senate. Morris vigorously opposed both provisions, but the 3/5 rule passed in committee. 
            However, when the census provision went to the floor, he tried to neutralize the 3/5 rule by moving to have the word "free" inserted in front of "inhabitants" to be counted. He had traveled in Virginia in early 1785 and his comments on the floor reflected his experience:

He never would concur in upholding domestic slavery. It was a nefarious institution. It was the curse of heaven on the States where it prevailed. Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich & noble cultivation marks the prosperity & happiness of the people, with the misery & poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Va. Maryd. & the other States having slaves. Travel thro' ye. whole Continent & you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance & disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave ye. E. Sts. & enter N. York, the effects of the institution become visible, passing thro' the Jerseys & entering Pa. every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed south wdly & every step you take thro' ye great region of slaves presents a desert increasing, with ye increasing proportion of these wretched beings.

Morris then began one of the greatest speeches of the Convention: “Upon what principle is it,” he asked,

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?   The Houses in this city are worth more than all the wretched slaves which cover the rice swamps of South Carolina.   The admission of slaves into the Representation when fairly explained comes to this: that the inhabitant of Georgia and S. C. 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 bondages, shall have more votes in a Govt. instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the Citizen of Pa. or N. Jersey who views with a laudable horror, so nefarious a practice. 

He continued:
Domestic slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution. The vassalage of the poor has ever been the favorite offspring of Aristocracy. And What is the proposed compensation to the Northern States for a sacrifice of every principle of right, of every impulse of humanity. They are to bind themselves to march their militia for the defence of the S. States; for their defence agst. those very slaves of whom they complain. They must supply vessels & seamen in case of foreign Attack. The Legislature will have indefinite power to tax them by excises, and duties on imports: both of which will fall heavier on them than on the Southern inhabitants; for the bohea tea used by a Northern freeman, will pay more tax than the whole consumption of the miserable slave, which consists of nothing more than his physical subsistence and the rag that covers his nakedness. On the other side the Southern States are not to be restrained from importing fresh supplies of wretched Africans, at once to increase the danger of attack [i.e., a slave uprising], and the difficulty of defence; nay they are to be encouraged to it by an assurance of having their votes in the Natl. Govt. increased in proportion, and are at the same time to have their exports & their slaves exempt from all contributions for the public service. Let it not be said that direct taxation is to be proportioned to representation. It is idle to suppose that the Genl. Govt. can stretch its hand directly into the pockets of the people scattered over so vast a Country. They can only do it through the medium of exports imports & excises. For what then are all these sacrifices to be made? He would sooner submit himself to a tax for paying for all the negroes in the U. States, than saddle posterity with such a Constitution.

This speech made Morris enemies in the southern states, like Charles Pinckney of South Carolina, who later declared “If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world.” 

In the end, of course, as Morris had feared, the smaller states, acting according to what one historian calls “realpolitik,” chose to protect their own particular interests through the Senate and agreed to the 3/5 rule for the House, and, later in the summer, a fugitive slave law.  Further protection for the South was contained in a provision prohibiting Congress from barring the importation of slaves until 1808.

  Morris did not renounce the Constitution despite this defeat. This might seem an abandonment of his principles. However, Morris was very much a pragmatist, and it was now clear that the Southern states would not accept any limitation on slaves, and that unless this shameful bargain was incorporated, the Constitution would not be completed and approved in Convention, much less ratified by the states.  His experience in the Continental Congress, in New York, and in Pennsylvania, had made him fully aware of the need for a unification of the states under a strong federal government. Without it, the country would disintegrate.  This was the impetus for the Constitution: and the other delegates who had variuos (and to them, serious) objections, also voted to approve it based on the same calculation.  

The questions regarding the apparent hypocritical disconnect between the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and the actions of their framers should really be directed at those Founding Fathers who denounced slavery but did not free their slaves. Jefferson, for example, spoke of slavery with revulsion, advocated some laws limiting the trade, and others that would have resulted in relocation of freed slaves outside of the United States, but he freed only a handful of slaves in his lifetime and died owning over 100.  Such a contradiction would have been no surprise to Morris, who had no illusions about human nature, and the abuses we are capable of. 
            


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