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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Saturday, August 25, 1787

August 25, 2020 - 5 minute read

James Madison

The Convention deferred part of the report of the Committee of Eleven until today. It reads:

“The migration or importation of such persons as the several States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Legislature prior to the year 1800 – but a Tax or Duty may be imposed on such migration or importation at a rate not exceeding the average of the Duties laid on Imports.”

General Pinckney immediately “moved to strike out the words “the year eighteen hundred” and insert “the year eighteen hundred and eight.” James Madison’s notes record explicitly what everyone knows but was not incorporated into the language of the report – “as the year limiting the importation of slaves.” Nathaniel Gorham seconded Pinckney’s motion.

Madison, like Pinckney, owns slaves, yet opposed the motion which would permit the importation of slaves for another twenty years. “Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves,” he warned. “So long a term will be more dishonorable to the national character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.” Apparently, with no further comments, the motion was agreed to 7 – 4. New Jersey, Delaware, Virginia, and Pennsylvania voted “no.”

Pennsylvania’s vote was not unexpected. Seven years ago, in 1780, it had passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery. Consisting of fourteen sections, it laid out a specific plan to assure that slavery “is utterly taken away, extinguished and forever abolished.” Portions of Section 1 are worth quoting at length:

It is not for us to enquire why, in the creation of mankind, the inhabitants of the several parts of the earth were distinguished by a difference in feature or complexion. It is sufficient to know that all are the work of an Almighty Hand. We find in the distribution of the human species, that the most fertile as well as the most barren parts of the earth are inhabited by men of complexions different from ours, and from each other, from whence we may reasonably, as well as religiously, infer, that He who placed them in their various situations, hath extended equally his care and protection to all, and that it becometh not us to counteract his mercies. We esteem it a peculiar blessing granted to us, that we are enabled this day to add one more step to universal civilization, by removing as much as possible the sorrows of those who have lived in undeserved bondage.

Virginia’s opposition to extending the importation of slaves to twenty years is less obvious. Virginia has more slaves than any other State; perhaps importation is simply not considered as necessary in Virginia; they have enough slaves. However, it is more likely that James Madison and George Mason were able to prevail in Virginia’s delegation, especially since two of its delegates, James McClurg, and George Wythe, had already gone home.

Before the vote was taken, Gouverneur Morris had jumped to his feet with a challenge aimed directly at the slave-owning States. The clause should read, he thundered, “importation of slaves into N. Carolina, S. Carolina and Georgia (shall not be prohibited, etc.).” Use the word “slave,” he insisted, and name the States that embrace it. He “wished it be known also that this part of the Constitution is a compliance with those States.” However, he paused, “if the change of language should be objected to by the members from those States, I will not urge it.”

Mason “was not against using the term ‘slaves,’ but is against naming N. Carolina, S. Carolina, and Georgia, lest it should give offence to the people of those States.” Roger Sherman reminded the delegates that such language “had been declined by the old Congress and were not pleasing to some people.” He preferred “a description better than the terms proposed,” but did not suggest one. Then Hugh Williamson weighed in and, like many of his fellow delegates, chose a middle path. “In both opinion and practice,” he began, “I am against slavery,” but “think it more in favor of humanity, from a view of all circumstances, to let in South Carolina and Georgia on those terms, than to exclude them from the Union.” Gouverneur Morris withdrew his motion but had made his point.

The first part of the report having been agreed to, including Pinckney’s amendment to extend until 1808 the prohibition against importation of “such persons as the several States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the second part of the report was taken up. It provided that any tax or duty imposed on “such migration or importation” not exceed “the average of the duties laid on imports.” Alexander Baldwin proposed to define “the average duty,” opening another ugly can of worms. Sherman was not interested in definitions; he was against the entire clause. It “acknowledges men to be property,” he protested, “by taxing them as such under the character of slaves.”

John Langdon, a member of the Committee, and Rufus King said this clause was “the price of the first part.” Part of the bargain. Nathaniel Gorham tried a different approach. Replying to Sherman, he urged Sherman to “consider the duty, not as implying that slaves are property, but as a discouragement to the importation of them.” An interesting argument, but Sherman did not buy it. “The smallness of the duty showed revenue to be the object,” he shot back, “not the discouragement of the importation,”

Although slaves work his own plantation, Madison has long been ambivalent about slavery, even as a young man. Later, during the Revolutionary War, he considered whether it might be well to liberate and make soldiers of them. “It would certainly be more consonant to the principles of liberty which ought never to be lost sight of in a contest for liberty,” he had written to a friend. Earlier this year in his “Vices of the Political System of the United States,” Madison wrote, “Where slavery exists, the republican theory becomes still more fallacious.” Today, he declared “it wrong to admit in the Constitution the idea that there could be property in men. The reason of duties did not hold, as slaves are not like merchandise, consumed, etc.”

Following the acrimonious debate, it was agreed that a tax or duty “on such importations” cannot exceed “ten dollars for each person.” The second clause was agreed to nem. con.

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