I just finished The Summer of 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution by David O. Stewart which details the debate over the writing of our Constitution.
Overall, this book gave a good detailing of the debate, without going into too much detail, with a good focus on the characters and personalities of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention. He writes crisply, and puts the politics behind the various debates in good context. (The John Dickinson quote in my last post was taken from this book.) He does let a bit of his own point of view creep into the documentation of the debate from time to time, especially towards the end. I would have preferred more of a strict narrative tone, but it’s not that distracting.
Two points I want to focus on: one positively and one negatively.
One source of contention during the debate over the Constitution was the question of admitting new states in to the Union. With the Northwest Territories still unorganized and areas like Vermont and Maine struggling to separate from existing states due to disputes over jurisdiction, this was a problem that needed to be solved. Some delegates argued that the 13 original states should maintain supremacy over newer states. In essence, in our current situation, the 13 original states would have at least as many representatives in Congress as the additional 37. This notion was defeated in favor of current system of all states being treated according to the same rules, regardless of admission date. Stewart observes:
The principle of equal treatment for new states – embraced unanimously by [the Continental] Congress in New York, and more reluctantly by the Philadelphia Convention – was novel. Beginning with Rome and continuing through Venice, republics had grown by conquest and colonization, but did not extend equal status to their new lands. America would take a different approach. New states would stand equal to their predecessors. On this issue, [George] Mason, [James] Wilson, and [James] Madison held the delegates to their republican ideals. The former colonial would not become colonizers. (p. 136)
This was a very interesting point. Two hundred years after the decision, it’s easy for us to take it for granted, but it was a novel concept at the time. It’s impossible to imagine how different things would have been if this rule had not been in effect, but it’s likely very different. Would Texas have wanted to join us had they not been considered an equal? Would that have prevented the Mexican War? If states were treated unequally, would regional differences have been more pronounced and bitter, threatening our unity?
The second point I wanted to bring up was the infamous “three-fifths” compromise, declaring that for purposes of apportioning representatives, slaves would be counted as three-fifths of a man. Stewart is very critical of anti-slavery delegates for accepting this decision. Given that he details all the “extra” representation this gave Southern slaveholders, it seems that he is arguing that slaves should not have been counted at all in when the time for apportionment came around. He is, unintentionally, arguing that slaves should not have been counted as people at all, however. Given that for representational purposes, other without the right to vote, such as women and children were counted as humans, were counted as persons, not counting slaves at would have resulted in a complete denial of their humanity.
On the other side, slave states were pushing for them counting as whole persons, so the imbalance Stewart decries would have been even larger. The primary concern of the delegates was to maintain the unity of the nation, and the Southern delegates were threatening to walk out of the Convention if they were not granted representation based on slave population. Stewart denies the slave states would have attempted to go it alone and so the anti-slavery forces should have stuck a tougher bargain on this and other slavery related issues, but I think he misses the chance of them forming their own Union, much as they did 75 years later.
In addition, the “three-fifths” rule gave a strong rhetorical point to abolitionist forces in the coming years. By counting them for apportionment purposes, the South was acknowledging their humanity, while treating them as sub-human. This kept the pro-slavery force on the defensive in the political battle, having to rely on political power alone since they couldn’t rely on intellectual defenses and therefore signaled that slavery would end eventually, albeit, not as bloodlessly as was hoped. (As a side note, this is one more thing the pro-slavery forces have in common with pro-abortion forces: in addition to denying the humanity of a segment of humanity, both are relying on political power to maintain their position since they’ve lost the rhetorical battle. Pro-lifers will win the battle against abortion eventually, much as anti-slavery forces defeated slavery eventually, but we won’t be using violent force to do so; our battlefield is the human conscience.)
It’s a good read; there are better ones on the same topic, but it’s worth the time.