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They were selected by their States on account of this very experience, and in order that their counsels might be made available to the country. They saw that the mere grant of further powers, or the mere consent that the Congress should have jurisdiction over certain new subjects, would be of no avail while the government continued to rest upon the vicious principle of a naked federal league, leaving the question constantly to recur, whether the compact was not virtually dissolved by the refusal of individual States to discharge their federal obligations. These persons, consequently, came to the Convention feeling strongly the necessity for a radical change in the principles and structure of the national Union; but feeling also great embarrassment as to the mode in which that change was to be effected.
On the other hand, there were other members of the Convention who came with a disposition to adhere to the more literal meaning of their instructions, and who did not concur in the alleged necessity for a radical change of the principle of the government. Fearing that the power and consequence of their own States would be diminished by the introduction of numbers as a basis of representation, they adhered to the system of representation by States, and insisted that nothing was needed to cure the evils that pressed upon the country, but to enlarge the jurisdiction of the Congress under that system. They were naturally, therefore, the first
1 See the preamble to the act of Virginia, ante, Vol. I. p. 367, note.
to suggest and the last to surrender the objection, that the Convention had received no authority, either from the States or from the Congress, to do anything more than revise the Articles of Confederation, and recommend such further powers as might be engrafted upon the present system of the Union.
That the construction of their powers by the latter class of the members of the Convention comported with the mere terms of the acts of the States, and with the general expectation, I have more than once intimated ; but we shall see, as the experiment of framing the new system proceeded, that the views of the other class were equally correct; that the addition of further powers to the existing system of the Union would have left it as weak and inefficient as it had been before; and that what were universally regarded as the “ exigencies of the Union ” — which was but another name for the wants of the States could only be provided for by the creation of a different basis for the government.
Another fact which we are to remember is the presence, in five of the States represented in the Convention, of large numbers of a distinct race, held in the condition of slaves. Whatever mode of constituting a national system might be adopted, if it was to be a representative government, the existence of these persons must be recognized and provided for in some way. Whatever ratio of representation might be established, — whether the States were to be represented according to the numbers of their
inhabitants, or according to their wealth, of the population of the slave-holding States presented one of the great difficulties to be encountered. A change of their condition was not now, and never had been, one of the powers which those States proposed to confide to the Union. In no previous form of the confederacy had any State proposed to surrender its own control over the condition of
persons within its limits, or its power to determine what persons should share in the political rights of that community; and no State that now took part in the new effort to amend the present system of the Union proposed to surrender this control over its own inhabitants, or sought to acquire any control over the condition of persons within any of the other States.
The deliberations of the Convention were therefore begun with the necessary concession of the fact, that slavery existed in some of the States, and that the existence and continuance of that condition of large masses of its population was a matter exclusively belonging to the authority of each State in which they were found. Not only was this concession implied in the terms upon which the States had met for the revision of the national system, but the further concession of the right to have the slave populations included in the ratio of representation became equally unavoidable. They must be regarded either as persons or as chattels. were persons, and the basis of the new government was to be a representation of the inhabitants of the
States according to their numbers, — the only mode of representation consistent with republican government, their precise condition, their possession or want of political rights, could not affect the propriety of including them in some form in the census, unless the basis of the government should be composed exclusively of those inhabitants of the States who were acknowledged by the laws of the States as free. The large numbers of the slaves in some of the States would have made a government so constructed entirely unequal in its operation, and would have placed those States, if they had been willing to enter it, — as they never could have been, in a position of inferiority which their wealth and importance would have rendered unjustifiable. On the other hand, if the wealth of the States was to be the measure of their representation in the new government, the slaves must be included in that wealth, or they must be treated simply as persons. The slaves might or might not be persons, in the view of the law, where they were found; but they were certainly in one sense property under that law, and as such they were a very important part of the wealth of the State. The Confederation had already been obliged to regard them, in considering a rule by which the States should contribute to the national expenses. They had found it to be just, that a State should be required to include its slaves among its population, in a certain ratio, when it was called upon to sustain the national burdens in proportion to its numbers; and they had recommended
the adoption of this fundamental rule as an amendment of the federal Articles. Either in one capacity, therefore, or in the other, or in both, — either as persons or as property, or as both, the Union had already found it to be necessary to consider the slaves. In framing the new Union, it was equally necessary, as soon as the equality of representation by States should give place to a proportional and unequal representation, to regard these inhabitants in one or the other capacity, or in both capacities, or to leave the States in which they were found, and to which their position was a matter of grave importance, out of the Union.
This difficulty should be rightly appreciated and fairly stated by the historian who attempts to describe its adjustment, and it should be carefully regarded by the reader. What reflections may arise upon the facts that we have to consider, — what should be the judgment of an enlightened benevolence upon the whole matter of slavery, as it was dealt with or affected by the Constitution of the United States, may perhaps find an appropriate place in some future discussion.
Here, however, the reader must approach the threshold of the subject with the expectation of finding it surrounded by many and complex relations. History should undoubtedly concern itself
1 See the Resolve of Congress, gin of the proportion of three passed April 18, 1783, proposing fifths, in counting the slaves. See to amend the Articles of Confeder post, Chapter II. p. 48; ante, ation. This Resolve was the ori Vol. I. p. 213, note 2.