The Gerry Commission report gave form to the idea, which had been bubbling up in debate, of a union “partly national, partly federal”. Because this idea was gaining momentum, the Gerry Commission report might be seen as the “Nationalists’ Last Gasp.” The bloc of delegates – including James Madison, James Wilson, and Gouverneur Morris – who had hoped to create a new national government that would act on people as individuals (and virtually eliminate any vestiges of state sovereignty), saw the writing on the wall.
July 5 closed with Elbridge Gerry defending the compromise suggested by his committee from attacks by nationalists. “We were neither the same Nation nor different Nations,” he explained, but if the nationalists and the defenders of state sovereignty did not “come to some agreement among ourselves some foreign sword will probably do the work for us.” With this, and with George Mason telling the delegates, in effect, that they would leave over his dead body, debate about the Gerry Committee report began in earnest.
One provision of the report, which said money bills should originate in the lower house, was dealt with rather quickly. Gouverneur Morris – who was (next to Alexander Hamilton) the most vocal defender of aristocracy, and a powerful Senate, in the Convention – objected forcefully. Benjamin Franklin seems to have been more persuasive in stating that power over the purse strings should be lodged in the house that was most closely tied to the people.
The question of representation – of who should be heard, and how loudly – continued to be difficult. Smaller states were fearful of the proposed ratio of one representative for 40,000 inhabitants; tiny Delaware, it was noted, had just 35,000 inhabitants. In the first enumeration based on this ratio, there would only be 56 representatives in the lower house of Congress. All had to consider how the addition of new states would affect the balance of power. A later compromise fixed this number at 65. For some, even this was too small. George Mason observed that 38 members would make a quorum, and thus 20 votes could make a majority; Madison proposed (unsuccessfully) that the size of the lower house be doubled from 65. Roger Sherman (CT) and John Rutledge (SC) thought 65 too large, as it would be difficult to find enough individuals of a characters fit for public office.
Did the Delegates Count Slaves as Three-Fifths of a Person?
Nationalist James Wilson articulated the paradox facing the delegates over the issue of slavery and how it affected the current debate over the nature of the government. Were enslaved people citizens? If so, then why not count them towards state population counts? Or were they property? If so, then why were other forms of property not figured into the equation for determining taxation?
The delegates began to see their way clear once they tethered representation to taxation: direct taxes would be in proportion to representation.
But William Davie of North Carolina saw a conspiracy to ensure slave holding states would not be able to count any of their slave populations towards representation at the convention. It was “high time to speak out now,” he said. North Carolina would never agree to any terms of confederation unless black populations were counted at least by a ratio of at least 3/5ths. If black populations were going to be excluded altogether, “the business was at an end.” Many delegates balked at the the 3/5ths ratio. Morris answered Davie’s challenge by pointing out the voluntary nature of the compact the states would be entering. Morris summed up his position like this — he would have to offend either the Southern states or human nature himself, and given that choice, he would offend the Southern states.
The delegates approved (6-2-2) the 3/5ths ratio, settling that question, though pointed exchanges about slavery would continue. The arguments may have been nuanced, emotional, and even explosive, but reason for them was simple: Representation in Congress meant power. And part of that power might have been brought to bear against slavery itself. Had the 3/5ths clause, as it has become known, not been ratified, what might have been the alternative? If the less populous slave states had been able to count their entire slave populations towards representation, that would have meant much greater power in Congress for the South. If they had been able to count none of their slave populations, perhaps there would have been no Constitution.
Similar types of arguments surfaced in debates over representation in the national legislature: would states be represented (in other words, would the confederation still be a confederacy?) or would the people (establishing a national government that drew its power from and acted on individuals)?
Madison, architect of the Virginia Plan and still a promoter of a national system, argued against the idea that the government could be partly national and partly federal. When, he asked, would the central government be called upon to act in a way that did not impact individuals? “In all cases where the general government is to act on the people, let the people be represented and the votes be proportional. In all cases where the government is to act on the States as such, in like manner as Congress now act on them, let the States be represented and the votes be equal.”
After the weekend break, the delegates returned to approve (5 – 4 – 1) the Gerry Committee Report. Representation in the House of Representatives would be proportional and based on population; Senate representation would be equal for each State, and money bills would originate in the House and be un-amendable in the Senate. This is also known as the Connecticut Compromise, and is seen by many as a significant turning point in the Convention.
Posted in Countdown to the Constitution