Saturday, May 18, 2013

Slavery and The US Constitution': The Three-Fifths Compromise

From the New York Times, on 27 February 2013, in an article entitled, "The Union Wasn’t Worth This Bargain," by Paul Finkelman, the President William McKinley Distinguished Professor of Law and Public Policy at Albany Law School. He is the author of "Slavery and the Founders: Race and Liberty in the Age of Jefferson.'' -- The three-fifths compromise was one of a number of proslavery provisions of the Constitution that antislavery Northerners could have resisted. The convention prohibited the end of the African slave trade until 1808 (allowing for the importation of more than 60,000 more Africans), but did not require it ever be ended. It adopted two clauses that guaranteed the federal government would suppress slave insurrections and one that required the return of fugitive slaves. Requiring a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress and ratification by three-fourths of the states to amend the Constitution essentially gave the slave states a perpetual veto over Constitutional change.

A separate Southern nation would have imported more slaves until the master class was overwhelmed by its bondsmen and destroyed by the very people it oppressed.

But by giving the South power disproportionate to its free population, the three-fifths clause set the stage for Southern control of the federal government and, in conjunction with a difficult amendment process, guaranteed a continuation of slavery. James Madison believed in the direct election of the president but created the Electoral College, which, with the three-fifths clause in place, gave the South great power in presidential elections. Without the three-fifths clause, Thomas Jefferson would have been defeated for the presidency in 1800.

Gouverneur Morris

Some Northerners opposed counting slaves for representation. Gouverneur Morris, a New Yorker who happened to represent Pennsylvania in the convention, declared that under the three-fifths clause “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 and damns them to the most cruel bondages, shall have more votes in a government instituted for protection of the rights of mankind, than the citizen of Pennsylvania or New Jersey who views with a laudable horror so nefarious a practice.”

Morris suggested that the nation should collectively buy all the slaves and free them. This was impractical. But Morris also suggested that “instead of attempting to blend incompatible things, let us at once take a friendly leave of each other. There can be no end of demands for security if every particular interest is to be entitled to it.” Pierce Butler of South Carolina responded that “the security the Southern states want is that their negroes may not be taken from them.”

Northerners might have stood their ground on liberty, and insisted on a stronger union, without counting slavery for representation, guaranteeing the slave trade or turning Northerners into slave catchers for Southern masters.

Without these proslavery provisions, the Southerners might have chosen to form their own nation, going it alone. The Southern nation would have been an agrarian, commodity-based country, with a slave majority in many places. Southerners would doubtless have imported more and more slaves until they were overwhelmed by their own bondsmen.

The Northern nation, free of bondage and southern hostility to internal improvements, would have used the national power to build canals, a national university system, banks, railroads and a powerful economic infrastructure. A great northern United States would have emerged, alongside a decadent slave-owning plantation culture economically dependent on its northern neighbor.

With no fugitive slave clause, bondage would be weakened in the upper South while slavery would be increasingly concentrated in the deep South.

There would have been no civil war between the United States and the slave states. Some 650,000 Americans would not have died to end slavery.

However, like their counterparts in Haiti, the southern masters might have eventually been destroyed by the very people they owned and oppressed. (source: The New York Times)


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  5. The article reflects an emotional based opinion. In my opinion, which is as plausible and valid as the author's, the slave trade would have died on its own simply due to economics. Mechanization was on its way and would have made slavery obsolete or at least to the point of greatly reducing its economic impact. To say that the south would have been overwhelmed with slaves is inaccurate as mechanization would have slowly but surely removed the slave as a primary revenue generator. Slaves were VERY expensive to both purchase and maintain. Like any capital investment, slave owners had great interest in getting a solid return on their investment thus, black slave mortality rates were comparable to their white slaveowners (discounting those lost in transit across the Atlantic Ocean...which was less and less as slaves were allowed to have children in the Americas as fewer and fewer were imported). Maintaining their health and well-being (even modestly) was quite expensive and never-ending thus creating a failing economic model as mechanization improved. Slavery was doomed.

    The reason slavery was accepted within the Constitution was created was that many a northern merchant was profiting from the slave trade across the seas. Only when the South began to greatly increase their slave population by allowing them to marry did the North truly begin to turn against slavery (their profit was virtually wiped out by the mid-1820s). The cotton gin (mechanization) provided the fuel to massively increase the slave population; therefore, it only is reasonable that mechanization would have eventually turned back the need for so many slaves.
    Southerners argued that they were saving tens of thousands of Negro lives by stopping the overseas slave trade. Killing the economic benefits to northern merchants stung the northern states hard. The south was benefitting and the north (due both to taxation laws and loss of trade revenue) was not happy.
    But the South never fought a war of independence for slavery alone. As Lee told Davis just before Appamattox, "...we should have freed the slaves first as history will forget our cause..." (rough quote). The south was already moving towards fewer slaves as a percentage of the population by 1860. Davis wanted to educate them first then free them. The North simply freed them and left them to their own devices...sink or swim. By today's analysis, they sank.



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