-Monday, July 9, 1787
Last Friday Colonel Mason of Virginia sought harmony by urging that ``some points must be yielded for the sake of accommodation.''
A POLITICAL chess game was played out at today's session, with slaves as pawns injecting an explosive new element into a convention already on the edge of exhaustion and the brink of breakup.
Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania presented a Committee of Five report proposing that the lower house of the national Legislature be temporarily composed of 56 members. The Legislature would be given the power to regulate the number of representatives from each State based on wealth and population. The proposal clearly favored the wealthier Southern States. When challenged, Mr. Morris admitted the report lacked firm figures for computing State inhabitants, including slaves.
``The Report is little more than a guess,'' Mr. Morris conceded. However, he sought to assure wary delegates that the report was designed to avoid the danger that new States formed in the West would eventually outvote the Atlantic States and dominate the new national government.
Sensing that counting slaves was a power play to inflate representation in favor of the large States, William Paterson of New Jersey protested the rule of wealth and population as too vague. Slaves were property, Mr. Paterson insisted, without liberty, without the means of acquiring property, and subject to the will of their masters, who could vote while slaves could not. The proposal would further encourage the slave trade since the slaveholding South would have incentive to increase their representation, the New Jersey attorney general argued. Besides, he demanded, since slaves are not represented in the States, why should they now be counted in the national government? He then went on to ask:
``What is the true principle of Representation? It is an expedient by which an assembly of certain individ[ua]ls, chosen by the people, is substituted in place of the inconvenient meeting of the people themselves. If such a meeting of the people was actually to take place, would the slaves vote? they would not. Why then shd [should] they be represented.''
James Madison of Virginia turned the argument on Mr. Paterson, instead of answering it. He reminded Mr. Paterson that his statement on representation ``must for ever silence the pretensions of the small States to an equality of votes with the large ones.'' Mr. Madison proposed that the lower house be represented according to the States' free inhabitants, while the upper house, conceived as the guardian of property, be represented according to all white and black inhabitants. One observer believes that Mr. Madison's proposal is really aimed at defeating the entire compromise now before the Convention, but it is likely to fail.
Although at least 30 delegates at this Convention own slaves, every State but South Carolina has now banned their importation. Seven out of the 13 States have either outlawed the institution or are in the process of doing so. Virginia delegates like George Washington, Edmund Randolph, and George Mason have called for its abolition in their State.
``Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant,'' Colonel Mason states. ``They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country.''
These day-by-day reports on the Constitutional Convention will continue tomorrow.