Round 2: North v. South
This is part of a continuing series of blog posts leading up to Constitution Day on September 17. Last time we looked at the conflict between large and small states; today, we will examine the dispute between the North and South over slavery and how that affects representation and taxation. Be sure to check back for more!
After determining the representational framework of the legislature under the Constitution, the Convention still had a major issue to confront: how to deal with the slaves. The delegates knew that the complex issue of slavery would be a “make-or-break” matter for the new republic. Indeed, it was a full three months into the Convention before the volatile issue was tackled with any level of depth, culminating in a series of compromises over the course of a week in late August 1787. 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?
As there was little presumption amongst the delegates that slavery could, or would, be prohibited outright, the first and easiest element of “the slavery question” was how slaves might be counted within a state’s population for purposes of representation and direct taxation. On Monday, August 21st, the Convention took up a piece of the Virginia Plan (introduced in late May) that would set proportional representation of slaves at three-fifths. The three-fifths proposal, known as the “federal ratio,” was not novel to most in attendance as it had been proposed as an amendment to the Articles of Confederation as early as 1783. Due to the near-impossible requirement of unanimous consent in the Articles, the three-fifths principle failed to be ratified. It did garner enough acceptance during the 1780s to be proposed as a solution during the Convention.
The delegates approved (6-2-2) the three-fifths ratio 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 three-fifths 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.
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