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Some southern antifederalists like Patrick Henry, most concerned about local control, tried to argue that any stronger government would eventually threaten slavery, but the more persuasive voices in the South were those like Charles Pinckney, who testified upon returning to South Carolina that he couldn’t imagine a better bargain could have been made for the planters. Much of what we know of the Constitutional Convention comes from his notes—which, recent scholarship suggests, he carefully edited for a posthumous audience.He made sure, for example, that posterity would know that he objected to the slave trade being guaranteed for another 20 years—but this was a common Virginia position at the time, since Virginians were already net sellers of slavers rather than importers by 1787. When it came time to deal with the matter of slave representation in Federalist 54, Madison obliquely distanced himself from the three-fifths clause by saying that one had to admit that slaves were, irrefutably, both people and property.
It hardly could when the taxes had to emerge from the House, where the South was 60 percent overrepresented. Another clause in Article I allowed Congress to mobilize “the Militia” to “suppress insurrections”—again, the House with its disproportionate votes would decide whether a slave rebellion counted as an insurrection.
So the South gained political power, without having to surrender much of anything in exchange. Wilentz repeats the old saw that with the rise of the northwest, the slave power’s real bastion was the Senate.
This is well known; it’s astounding to see Wilentz try to pooh-pooh it.
No, it wasn’t counting five-fifths, but counting 60 percent of slaves added enormously to slave-state power in the formative years of the republic.
He actually argued that the three-fifths clause was a good example of how the Constitution would lead to good government—by protecting property.
He looked forward to the honest census that would result from slaves and other people being both taxed and represented.On Monday, Senator Bernie Sanders told his audience at Liberty University that the United States “in many ways was created” as a nation “from way back on racist principles.” Not everyone agreed.The historian Sean Wilentz took to to write that Bernie Sanders—and a lot of his colleagues—have it all wrong about the founding of the United States.But what it meant was embarrassment—and damage control.Domestic and foreign critics had lambasted Americans for their hypocrisy in calling themselves a beacon to human freedom while only a few states moved on the slavery question.He’s outdone original-intent jurisprudence in reducing history to a morality play of good founders, bad critics.He loses sight of what actually happened when the ambiguously worded but slavery-suffused Constitution was finally released to an anxious public.By 1800, northern critics called this phenomenon “the slave power” and called for its repeal.With the aid of the second article of the Constitution, which numbered presidential electors by adding the number of representatives in the House to the number of senators, the three-fifths clause enabled the elections of plantation masters Jefferson in 1800 and Polk in 1844.I give Madison credit for a kind of honesty about his ambivalence, at least for those who could read between the lines—but this is far from the bold antislavery stand Wilentz would have us see in Madison’s words.Wilentz is an astute student of politics, and has often praised pragmatism in the figures he admires.