Debates about slavery in the United States went back many years before the American Civil War brought “slave” and “free” states into bloody conflict in the 1860s. A debate at the Constitutional Convention of 1787, for example, led to a strange compromise over slavery that had more to do with mathematics than the morality of slave ownership.
The issue was over the decision to establish a House of Representatives, of which each state’s membership would be decided by the size of its population. The greater the population of a state, the more representatives it would have in the lower house of Congress.
Slavery in the Late 18th Century
Slavery was not a particularly burning or divisive issue in the 1780s. Indeed, as an institution it had been in decline for some time. The northern states did not need huge numbers of slaves, although there were still as many as 10,000 slaves in New York State in 1820. Even in the states of Maryland and Virginia, tobacco production had exhausted the soils and large gangs of slave labour were impractical on the cereal farms that took the place of tobacco plantations. However, the production of rice and indigo in the swamps of Georgia and the Carolinas did require the use of slaves, and this was where the largest numbers were employed.
It was only when Eli Whitney’s cotton gin made production possible across a much wider sweep of territory, from the 1790s onward, that the plantation system really took hold in the South, and with it the development of slave labour on a much larger scale.
Slavery and Representation of the States
Of the 13 ex-colonies that were to become the first “United States”, only five regarded the institution of slavery to be essential to their economies (although this was a dubious claim in the cases of Virginia and Maryland, as noted above). With membership of the upper house of Congress, the Senate, being fixed at two members per state, these five states would always be in a minority. However, could they work out a way of achieving something like parity in the lower house?
On the face of it, this was also unlikely. Although industrialization had yet to take off in the northern states, that was where the larger cities were, such as Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Despite the larger geographical areas of states like Georgia as against Rhode Island and Connecticut, their populations were either smaller or disproportionate to their relative sizes.
Unless, that is, you counted the slaves.
The Constitutional Compromise over Slavery
There was no disagreement about the status of Native Americans. They did not count for purposes of representation, but then they were distributed across all the colonies at this time. However, if the southern states could count their slaves, they would quite easily be able to overcome their disadvantage in Congress.
The northern delegates at the Convention pointed out, with some justification, that it was strange that southern slave owners should regard their slaves as being mere items of property when it suited them to do so, but equal with them as human beings when the occasion so demanded.
However, it became clear that, for the Convention to succeed, a compromise would be needed, and this was that each slave would count as three-fifths of a free person. This allowed, for example, the Carolinas to have ten representatives between them, as against the eight from Massachusetts. Although the balance of representation was still tipped in favour of the free states against the slave states, at 33 to 29, it was much closer than it would have been otherwise.
The Illogical Nature of the Compromise
Many northerners were distinctly unhappy with this state of affairs. One wit even proposed that horses, being as useful as slaves, should surely count as being two-fifths of a person, and man’s best friend, the dog, had a good claim to count as one-fifth of his master, for purposes of representation.
This was just one example from history of how expediency can take precedence over justice and logic. It was not until the 14th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified in 1868 that this nonsense ceased to be part of the American Constitution.