July 10 in the Constitutional Convention: The North/South Divide

In light of the subsequent history of the Union, July 10 is important insofar as it continues to indicate the key fault line that will divide the Union through the Civil War and even beyond. Much of the debate about representation in the legislature up to this point had concentrated on the apparent friction between the large and small states. The small states were worried that the large states would dominate the national government at their expense. Rufus King argues on this day, however, that this isn’t the true source of the tension. He say that he “was fully convinced that the question concerning a difference of interests did not lie where it had hitherto been discussed, between the great & small States; but between the Southern & Eastern.” He identifies that the deepest tension is between the slave-holding states of the South whose economies revolved around slavery and the Eastern commercial states. Identifying this division, he says that he is “ready to yield something in the proportion of representatives for the security of the Southern.” That is, identifying that the Southern interests were different than the Eastern or Northern interests, this Massachusetts representative is willing to give up some representation in order to mollify the Southern states and keep them in the Union.

This attitude of appeasement helps to explain the 3/5ths compromise that allowed the South to count 3/5ths of each slave as part of its numbers for the sake of representation in the House. King’s statement reflects well the attitude of the North both during the Convention and beyond. Rather than struggling with the South to maintain their interests over and against the South, the North was all-too-wiling to sacrifice its interests so as to maintain the Union. Knowing this, the South kept trying to extract more and more from the North. It’s one of the classic cases of what they call in rational choice theory the domination of the great by the small. Because the South was always threatening to leave and because the North was committed to the survival of the Union, the South could exercise a disproportionate amount of power and influence.

This compromising attitude of the North towards the South helps to explain why, despite an increasingly moralistic attitude toward the evils of slavery, Northerners weren’t willing to push the issue. Even during the Civil War, Lincoln only decides to issue the Emancipation Proclamation after it became clear that there was no way to restore the Union on any other basis than after the emancipation of the slaves. The North’s commitment to the Union above all else persisted through its unwillingness to pursue a stronger form of Reconstruction after the Civil War. It illustrates the ways in which compromise doesn’t always achieve the ends for which we’re making the concessions. I’m not sure, however, that insisting more aggressively on the slave issue earlier would have solved the problem either. More likely that the South left the Union and slavery became even more ineradicable because the North was no longer there to call it into question. So, on the one hand, an excess of compromise had deleterious effects, but, on the other, a refusal to compromise might have been worse.

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