July 9 in the Constitutional Convention

On July 9, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention took up the question of the initial representation of each state in the lower House. The committee report on the floor consisted of two parts. The first apportioned representatives initially; the second provided a principle of growth. The principle of growth was apportionment according to wealth and population.

The issue simmering barely under the surface was enslavement, and William Paterson put it in the open. His argument would have echoes later in American history. According to Madison’s notes, Paterson “was also agst. such an indirect encouragemt. of the slave trade; observing that Congs. in their act relating to the change of the 8 art: of Confedn. had been ashamed to use the term ‘slaves’ & had substituted a description.”

Paterson’s reference was to the provision of the Articles of Confederation that apportioned taxes according to the value of land and improvements on it. Congress avoided the word “slavery” in assessing the value of property.

This reluctance to use the term, which the Constitution followed, was not merely a matter of embarrassment. It helped pave the wave for the end of enslavement. In his Peoria Address on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln emphasized the Constitution’s refusal to say “slave” or “slavery”: “Thus, the thing is hid away, in the constitution, just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or a cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death; with the promise, nevertheless, that the cutting may begin at the end of a given time.”

At Cooper Union, Lincoln used the Constitution’s silence to deride Dred Scott’s erroneous claim that the Framers endorsed enslavement:

If they had only pledged their judicial opinion that such right is affirmed in the instrument by implication, it would be open to others to show that neither the word “slave” nor “slavery” is to be found in the Constitution, nor the word “property” even, in any connection with language alluding to the things slave, or slavery; and that wherever in that instrument the slave is alluded to, he is called a “person”….

Enslavement remains the Constitution’s original sin. But Paterson and Lincoln remind us that the Framers also provided the rhetorical and institutional tools with which to end it.

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