By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph.D., Gettysburg College
The United States was home to about 800,000 Africans in 1787, most of them enslaved as the human property of their owners. Counting them as part of American population and getting represented in the General Government was met with both objections and support. Was the Committee eventually able to resolve how to calculate their representation?
In 1787, African-Americans made up a higher percentage of the American population—about 21 percent—than they ever would at any later time in American history. It was a population heavily skewed toward the Southern states—almost half of South Carolina’s population was black, and so was 40 percent of Virginia’s.
Yet slavery was by no means a robust institution in the United States.
One reason for slavery’s lack of health lay in how squarely it cut across the political philosophy of the Enlightenment. The American Declaration of Independence fixed that principle in its opening paragraph. So did the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which George Mason had drafted.
The other reason for slavery’s less than perfect health was pure economics.
This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding Fathers. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
The Economics of Slavery in the USA
Slave labor was introduced in Chesapeake in the 17th century largely as a labor mechanism for growing tobacco, which was a very labor intensive agricultural product. Many Virginia and Maryland fortunes had been built on the back of it.
But tobacco as a profitable cash crop had long been in trouble. Its price had been in steep decline from its 17th-century highs, with only a disappointingly modest recovery in the years just after the Revolution.
Another slave-grown crop, rice, flourished in the Carolina lowlands in the 1700s. But the price there, too, had gone flat in the 1770s, and per capita exports of rice peaked as early as 1740.
Slavery might have been necessary for growing tobacco and rice because it was so labor intensive, but these were ceasing to be the great cash crops as ordinary grains took their place. They were much less labor intensive, and much more of something that could be raised by single farmers on comparatively small patches of ground. In the long term, there seemed to be no need for slave labor.
In fact, every Southern state except Georgia had begun restraining the slave trade, and emancipation restrictions in Maryland and Virginia were loosened.
Learn more about Madison’s suggestions for a new frame of government.
Counting of Slaves: Panel’s Report
If slaves were going to be counted among the population which determined each state’s number of representatives, then for small states like New Jersey and Delaware, adding slaves, either in terms of their value as property or simply as noses to be counted in a census, would create an imbalance in the lower house.
On July 6, 1787, a five-member panel was created to specify how many representatives each state would receive, based on the 40,000 per representative rule.
The panel reported back on July 9, describing a House of Representatives to be composed of 56 representatives: Virginia would get 9; Pennsylvania 8; Massachusetts 7; New York, North Carolina, and South Carolina 5 each; Connecticut and Maryland 4 each; New Hampshire and Georgia 2; Rhode Island and Delaware 1.
Objections by Sherman and Paterson
These numbers struck Roger Sherman as odd. It did not appear to correspond with any rule of numbers he was familiar with, and he quizzed them hard for the basis of their calculations.
William Paterson argued that the slaves are no free agents, have no personal liberty, no faculty of acquiring property, but on the contrary are property themselves, and like other property entirely at the will of the Master. No one counted slaves as the basis for representation in the Virginia legislature.
And if they were not represented in the States to which they belonged, he questioned why they should be represented in the General Government. What this really came down to, Paterson suspected, was an indirect encouragement of the slave trade.
Learn more about William Paterson’s dissent.
The Three-fifths Formula
Paterson’s assault on including slaves in the formula for determining representation stung the slaveholders in the Convention, and especially those from the South, and on July 12, William Davie of North Carolina had had enough.
Davie saw it as a means by some gentlemen to deprive the Southern States of any share of representation for their blacks, and if that was their intention, he said, “North Carolina would never confederate on any terms that did not rate them”—meaning black slaves—“at least as three- fifths. If the Eastern States meant therefore to exclude them altogether, the business was at an end.”
Three-fifths was the formula which had been used under the Articles of Confederation for assessing contributions from the states, and no one less than Edmund Randolph rose to support Davie.
Again, tempers mounted, and Gouverneur Morris frankly declared that the people of Pennsylvania will never agree to a representation of slaves, by any fifths. Just as vehemently, Pierce Butler of South Carolina responded that a three-fifths representation of slaves was absolutely necessary.
Report of the Grand Committee
When the entire report of Gerry’s Grand Committee finally came to a vote on July 16, it still embodied the fundamental proposition that there would be an equality of votes in the second branch.
The number of representatives in the lower house was now set at 65, based strictly on population, with a census to be taken every 10 years to provide data for adjustments. It was far from unanimous.
In the voting, five states were in favor: Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and North Carolina. Four were against: Pennsylvania, Virginia, South Carolina, and Georgia. And the Massachusetts delegation split down the middle.
However, any determination of what fraction of the slave population—if any—would be used for calculating representation in the future was left unresolved.
Common Questions about Weightage of Slave Population in the Grand Committee’s Report
Slave labor was introduced in Chesapeake in the 17th century largely as a labor mechanism for growing tobacco, which was a very labor intensive agricultural product.
Paterson argued that no one counted slaves as the basis for representation in the Virginia legislature. And if they were not represented in the States to which they belonged, he questioned why they should be represented in the General Government.
The report of Gerry’s Grand Committee was supported by following five states: Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland, and North Carolina.