July 12 in the Constitutional Convention: The South Throws Down the Gauntlet

It’s hard to tell on the basis of Madison’s Notes alone but one gets the sense from the text that tensions had grown high between the North and the South on this day. The Southern representatives continue to insist on a principle of representation that counts “both the white and the black people.” Insofar as “the black people” were essentially all slaves, this meant the Southern states were demanding a principle of full “representation” for their non-voting slaves; they were demanding that their votes count for more than their Northern compatriots. William Davies from North Carolina gives what one can only imagine was an impassioned speech accusing “some Gentlemen” of the North of aiming “to deprive the Southern States of any share of Representation for their blacks.” He then throws down the gauntlet:

“He was sure that N. Carola. would never confederate on any terms that did not rate them at least as 3/5 . If the Eastern States meant therefore to exclude them altogether the business was at an end.”

Davies has made explicit the implicit threat that had been informing the entire debate about representation: if the North wants the South to sign on to this national Union, then it must count their slaves.

Exemplifying his statesmanship once again at this Convention, Morris now responds to Davies by saying that he came here “to form a compact for the good of America.” Then he calls Davies’s bluff:

“He was ready to do so with all the States. He hoped & believed that all would enter into such a Compact. If they would not he was ready to join with any States that would.”

Having raised the tension, Morris then aims to quiet it some by appealing to the same principle of mollification that had been appealed to on July 10:

“But as the Compact was to be voluntary, it is in vain for the Eastern States to insist on what the Southn. States will never agree to. It is equally vain for the latter to require what the other States can never admit.”

To achieve the Union and the good of America, both sides must relent some in their insistence on their position. As I emphasized in my July 10 post, this principle of compromise permitted these two very different economies and moralities to live together for the next eighty years. The North was willing to accept this compromise partially because there was a general consensus at this point, even among some in the South, that slavery would at some point die out: hence the future permission in the Constitution to ban the slave trade.

Morris’s speech points to another principle that we have too oft-forgotten in recent years. For people to live together, they must be willing to accept that the other side has principles and interests that can’t be simply ignored by whichever side holds power. Since, as Morris says, “the Compact was to be voluntary,” neither the North nor the South can simply compel or coerce the other side. They must find a government with which they both can be satisfied.

In our current situation, both Democrats and Republicans see politics as much more of a zero-sum-game. If they win the presidential election and, if the stars really align, the Congress too, they get to pursue all of their policies without any concern for the other side. There isn’t mutual buy-in to the governing laws. In this situation, one party rules in a way that essentially coerces those of the other party. As Morris here emphasizes and as others also say during the Convention about the North-South divide, this coercive division is unhealthy for everyone. Compromise is good not just because it’s necessary to achieve some political goods, but also because it’s a political good in-and-of-itself.

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