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Constitutional Journal

-Tuesday, Aug. 21, 1787

Yesterday delegates reached back to 14th-century England to fashion a definition of treason kept narrow to prevent it from becoming a weapon of tyranny.

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THE long-delayed debate over slavery erupted among delegates today, producing one of the angriest sessions of the entire Convention.

Debate began on a deceptive note of harmony when delegates agreed, with only one dissenting State, to authorize direct federal taxation. Delegates had earlier agreed that Congress could levy taxes, and today's provision is to ensure that the proposed national government will possess the resources and financial credit needed to maintain itself in an emergency.

Luther Martin of Maryland, perhaps mindful of the part direct taxation had played in the recent armed rebellion of farmers in Massachusetts, issued a warning to fellow delegates that the public would be hostile to the proposal. ``Direct taxation should not be used but in cases of absolute necessity; and then the States will be best Judges of the mode,'' he added.

Mr. Martin also sought, but failed to gain, adoption of a plan to impose revenue quotas on the States when direct taxation was imposed. The delegates then launched into a heated debate on taxing exports. Two New England States joined with the five most southern States to deny Congress power to tax exports.

Mr. Martin then lit the fuse of anger by proposing a tax on the importation of slaves. He gave three reasons for his proposal:

``1.As five slaves are to be counted as three free men in the apportionment of Representatives such a clause [of apportionment] wd. [would] leave an encouragement to this traffic. 2.Slaves [weaken] one part of the Union which the other parts [are] bound to protect: the privilege of importing them [is] therefore unreasonable. 3.It [is] inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character to have such a feature in the Constitution.''

John Rutledge of South Carolina in reply said that ``religion & humanity'' had nothing to do with the question. State interest was the only ``governing principle.'' ``The true question at present is whether the Southn. States shall or shall not be parties to the Union,'' Mr. Rutledge warned. ``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.''

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Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut insisted that ``the morality or wisdom'' of slavery should be left to the States. ``The old confederation had not meddled with this point,'' he added, and he did not ``see any greater necessity for bringing it within the policy of the new one.''

Today's stormy session was more a clash over the power to tax and to regulate commerce than over slavery. Northern delegates are reported alarmed that the Committee of Detail in its draft Constitution has granted concessions to the Southern States on matters of commerce.

``The States will never give up all power over trade,'' Roger Sherman of Connecticut warned.

But Col. George Mason of Virginia pointed out that the eight Northern States have different interests from the five Southern States, and the South could be outvoted in the House of Representatives on commercial and tax issues. ``The Southern States [have] therefore ground for their suspicions,'' he observed.

Thus the Convention is confronted with a new deadlock between North and South over the regulation of commerce, of which slaves are one component.

These day-by-day reports on the Constitutional Convention will continue tomorrow.

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