From the beginning of the Convention’s deliberations, slavery has been relegated to the edges and shadows of debates designed to amend the Articles of Confederation, to render them “adequate to the exigencies of government and the preservation of the Union.” The word itself has seldom been uttered. Slavery has been hidden, almost invisible - until yesterday, when men who had risked their own “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” for freedom fiercely defended the enslavement of others. They are willing to risk the Union they are attempting to preserve if slavery is threatened.
The session had ended abruptly, as Charles Pinckney purported that slavery might be ended in time “if the States be all left at liberty on the subject.” There was irony in his use of the word “liberty.”
The debate resumed this morning when Roger Sherman rose to speak. “I disapprove of the slave trade,” he began. “Yet, as the States are now possessed of the right to import slaves, and the public good does not require it to be taken from them, and as it is expedient to have as few objections as possible to the proposed scheme of government, it is better to leave the matter as we find it.” The abolition of slavery seems to “be going on,” he said, and urged the Convention to get on “dispatching its business.”
George Mason of Virginia is a slaveowner. One of the largest in Virginia. When he rose to address the delegates, he hesitated, then turned to condemning slavery and assigning responsibility for it to Great Britain. “The infernal trade originated in the avarice of British merchants,” he said. “The British government constantly checked the attempts of Virginia to put a stop to it.” Slavery is evil, he charged. “Slavery discourages arts and manufactures. The poor despise labor when performed by slaves. Slavery produces the most pernicious effect on manners. Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a country. As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.” It is time to give it up, he concluded. “The general government should have power to prevent the increase in slavery.”
“I have never owned a slave,” responded Oliver Ellsworth, “and cannot judge of the effect of slavery on character.” However, if slavery is to be considered in a moral light,” he said, “we ought to go farther and free those already in the country.” But he is not ready to do that. Instead, “let us not intermeddle…slavery in time will not be a speck in our country.” His own State, Massachusetts, has already abolished it. Charles Pinckney picked up from where he left off yesterday, supported by his cousin, General Pinckney. Attempting to mount a rational defense, Charles argued, “If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world.” He cited Greece, Rome, and other ancient states as well as modern Holland, France, and England. “In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves.” Leave the States alone and they will “probably of themselves stop importations.” He would even vote for it. Gen. Pinckney was more direct. “South Carolina and Georgia cannot do without slaves,” he said. If importation of slaves is prohibited, they will not be part of the Union.
The General then appealed to the “interests” of the entire Union. “The more slaves, the more produce to employ the carrying trade; the more consumption also, and the more of this, the more revenue for the common treasury.” Contrary to the opinion that, in time, slavery will fade away, Gen. Pinckney felt himself “bound to declare candidly that he does not think South Carolina would stop importation of her slaves in any short time.” He attempted a compromise - tax slaves as imports equally with other imports. Edmund Randolph seconded the motion. “If the Convention thinks that N.C., S. C., and Georgia will ever agree to the plan, unless their right to import slaves be untouched, the expectation is in vain.”
The southern States have drawn a line in the sand over which they will not cross. For delegates from the northern and middle States, the issue was becoming clear – a choice between acceptance of slavery and the slave trade or union. Rufus King is anti-slavery, but today he did not base his opposition on moral grounds. Instead, he said, “the subject should be considered in a political light only.” Elbridge Gerry said little, except for a feeble attempt to keep slavery on the margins. “We have nothing to do with the conduct of the States as to slaves,” he observed, “but ought to be careful not to give any sanction to it.” John Dickinson agreed, but more adamantly. “It is inadmissible on every principle of honor and safety that the importation of slaves should be authorized to the States by the Constitution,” he posited, but “the true question is whether the national happiness would be promoted or impeded by the importation.” The decision would be better in the hands of the national government.
Gouverneur Morris moved the issue be referred to the committee to which export taxes had been referred. “These things may form a bargain among the northern and southern States.” Sherman had earlier engineered the compromise over representation in Congress, but this is different. “It is better to let the southern States import slaves than to part with them, if they made that a sine qua non,” he declared. “A tax on slaves imported makes the matter worse, because it implies they are property.” Randolph warmed to the idea of committing to a committee where “some middle ground, if possible, might be found.” If not, “two States might be lost to the Union.” The motion to commit passed narrowly by 7 – 3. Massachusetts was absent.
The issue of slavery now committed to committee, the Convention resumed consideration of Sections 6 and 7 of Article VII of the report of the Committee of Detail. Sect. 6 requires a two-thirds vote of both Houses of Congress to pass navigation acts. By a 9 – 2 vote, this was committed to the same committee as the slavery clauses. The committee was then appointed to include John Langdon, Rufus King, William Johnson, William Livingston, George Clymer, John Dickinson, Luther Martin, James Madison, Hugh Williamson, Alexander Baldwin, and General Pinckney.
The session adjourned after approving a prohibition against titles of nobility and Gerry’s motion to prohibit bills of attainder and ex post facto laws.