The committee formed by the Constitutional Convention to produce a compromise on the poisonous issue of slavery did its work swiftly enough. Appointed on August 22, 1787, it was ready with a report at the opening of Friday’s session of August 24. Despite the high words spoken on the floor of the convention, the climate of the committee meeting itself was substantially cool. What other matters did the Constitutional Convention discuss?
The Debate over Slavery
Notwithstanding their aversion to slavery, recalled Luther Martin, sitting as one of the committee’s members, the delegates from the northern states who had spoken so fiercely against slavery proved very willing to indulge the Southern states, rather than, as Edmund Randolph put it, risk the constitution, especially if the Southern delegates were willing to allow the federal government to tax slave imports.
So, “after a very little time, the committee, by a very great majority, agreed on a report by which the general government was to be prohibited from preventing the importation of slaves for a limited time.” The limited time was only to last until 1800, a not entirely generous 13 years. So, when the committee report came up for a vote on Saturday, August 25, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney was once again ready with an objection, and demanded that the limited time for slave importation be extended to 1808, a full 20 years.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Objections of James Madison
Pickney’s objection provoked James Madison, who had been biting his tongue all through the slavery discussions. On the one hand, the Madisons of Montpelier were themselves the owners of 118 slaves, and Madison had been accompanied as an undergraduate at Princeton by a slave named Sawney, and arrived in Philadelphia in 1783 for the Confederation Congress with a slave named Billy in tow.
But as much as Madison relied on enslaved black labor, he also loathed it as an institution. Now, Pinckney’s amendment brought Madison to his feet: 20 more years of the slave trade?
Twenty years—he said—will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the National character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.
Learn more about the convention’s Grand Committee.
The Devil’s Bargain for South Carolinians
Pinckney’s amendment passed by a vote of 7–4, although at least Madison’s own Virginia delegation voted against it. The amendment did not disturb the committee’s tiptoe care in wrapping its reference to the slave trade in a euphemism—“the migration or importation of such persons as the several States now existing shall think proper to admit”— and Gouverneur Morris savagely proposed that the convention drop all pretense to embarrassment over slavery and simply rewrite the entire clause to call it “the importation of slaves”.
But the South Carolina delegation was not finished. On August 29, Pierce Butler moved yet another amendment, making the extradition of fugitive slaves a matter of federal responsibility, which in effect forced the northern states into legal cooperation with Southern slaveholders in hunting down runaway slaves.
It was a devil’s bargain, and Madison knew it. The South Carolinians had held the entire Constitution hostage, and they meant it. “Great as the evil is,” Madison sighed, “a dismemberment of the union would be worse,” and he would not have put it past South Carolina to disunite from the other states and solicit and obtain aid from foreign powers.
The Endless Deliberations of the Convention
The fact that one single objection to the Committee of Detail’s work had almost derailed the entire convention was not a good sign. It is easy to become weary in doing good, and with the end of August looming, and no conclusion to the wrangling over the Committee of Detail in sight, John Rutledge began complaining about “the length of the Session, the probable impatience of the public and the extreme anxiety of many members of the Convention to bring the business to an end”.
Madison was growing fearful that the convention might be spun out for months, and Washington archly remarked on August 19 that one thing the convention could never be faulted for in future was any “hurry with which the business has been conducted”.
Loran more about the dissonance between liberty and slavery in the new United States.
The Need For Another Committee
It is also easy, though, to lose sight of how great a service the Committee of Detail performed. The 23 articles, which the Committee of Detail drafted and presented on August 6, contained almost all of the constitution as we know it today. The committee established new terminology—president for the single executive, Senate and House of Representatives for the new National Legislature—and enumerated the limits of federal power, with the saving proviso that the new federal Congress would retain authority to make all laws that shall be necessary and proper to enforce those powers.
But by August 27, the convention had still not finished its deliberations over 12 of the Committee of Detail’s 23 articles, and it was clearly time to find some way of accelerating, which it did, by once again employing the tactic which had worked so well in breaking up logjams before. On August 31, on a motion from Roger Sherman, the 12 articles which had failed to generate a consensus thus far were referred to a Committee on Postponed Parts, to deal with such parts of the Constitution as have been postponed, with 11 members on the committee that included Madison, John Dickinson, Gouverneur Morris, and Sherman himself.
The members of this committee had their task cut out clearly and there was no end in sight to the proceedings of the Convention.
Common Questions about the Continuous Debates of Constitutional Convention
As much as James Madison relied on enslaved black labor, he loathed it as an institution.
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney demanded that the limited time for slave importation be extended to 1808, a full 20 years.
The Committee of Detail established new terminology—president for the single executive, Senate and House of Representatives for the new National Legislature—and enumerated the limits of federal power, with the saving proviso that the new federal Congress would retain authority to make all laws that shall be necessary and proper to enforce those powers.