Front Page Titles (by Subject) Compromise and Consensus - Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government
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Compromise and Consensus - James McClellan, Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government 
Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed.) (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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Compromise and Consensus
With astonishing speed the Committee on Detail, headed by James Wilson, and the Committee on Style, headed by Gouverneur Morris, succeeded in putting together what we now know as the seven articles of the original Constitution of the United States. Wilson’s committee arrived at acceptable agreements concerning the election of the executive (the President), the length of his term, impeachment, appointment of Federal judges and the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, terms and functions of United States senators, and means of ratifying the proposed constitution.
Some subjects roused serious debate, particularly the matter of slavery, which greatly complicated questions concerning the basis of direct taxation and of representation. The system of requisitions—State contributions to the Federal treasury upon request—that prevailed under the Confederation might be continued, but how should those requisitions be allocated among the States? Oddly, there was no distinct recognition that the normal basis of representation ought to be persons, and that the normal basis of taxation ought to be wealth. It was finally decided, however, that both representatives and direct taxes should be apportioned among the several States according to population. The larger the population the greater the number of representatives. As a concession to the southern States, the population to be counted included three-fifths of the slave population, even though slaves were not entitled to vote.
The inclusion of three-fifths of the slaves constituted the so-called “Three-Fifths Compromise.” There was some objection to it in the Convention, but the issue was not vigorously challenged there or in the State ratifying conventions. This adjustment, in fact, had already been suggested in the Confederation Congress, and it was not altogether strange or novel to the delegates.
Although the question of slavery would later bring about disunion and civil war, in 1787 it was overshadowed by other considerations. Of paramount concern to the delegates was the desperate need to reach a compromise on a great variety of issues and to develop a consensus sufficient to persuade the delegates and the State ratifying conventions to endorse the final draft of the Constitution. Far more troublesome than slavery was the jealousy between the large States and the small States—a jealousy that reached back to the Revolutionary War period and that, had it been aroused by a prohibition against slavery, would probably have made Union impossible.
This jealousy was based not on differences between free States and slave States, as would later be the case, but upon political, cultural, and economic factors. Among the delegates, there were slaveholders from the North as well as the South. We noted earlier, in fact, that nearly all of the States in 1787 had slaves, and that the opponents of slavery were not confined to any particular State. Some of the New England delegates—Rufus King of Massachusetts, in particular—objected to having the Constitution recognize slavery, but no less an opponent of this practice was George Mason of Virginia.
On the other hand, some of the delegates from the lower South—the Carolinas and Georgia—thought slavery was economically necessary. The people of those States looked forward to expanding into the western lands that now form Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee. They believed that only by employing slave labor could they carry on their rural plantation economy.
General Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, speaking for those three southern States, feared that Congress, under the new Constitution, could forbid the importation of slaves into the United States—as, indeed, King, Mason, and other delegates wished to do as soon as possible. Pinckney and his colleagues therefore warned that these States might refuse to join the Union if some protections of their economic interests were not included in the Constitution. One of the most passionate debates of the Convention was brought on by this conflict of convictions. The matter was finally settled by a compromise that was arranged in part by Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut.
The antislavery delegates reluctantly agreed to a constitutional provision that would forbid Congress from interfering with the importation of slaves until the year 1808, and would permit a Federal tax on such importation of not more than ten dollars per slave. This compromise became part of Section 9 of Article I of the Constitution. Significantly, the exemption from Federal interference was limited to “the States now existing” and did not apply to territories or new States entering the Union. General Pinckney recognized that he could not obtain any better concession from the Convention but he had secured some time for the planters of North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to adjust to the new restriction. As for the domestic slave trade, the new Constitution provided merely (Article IV, Section 2) that slaves who might escape from one State into another must be returned to their owners.
If it was possible to compromise on the slave trade, it was clearly possible to compromise on other questions. By September 17, 1787, therefore, the delegates were ready to publicize the Constitution they had written. Only thirty-nine of the original fifty-five delegates put their signatures to the document because several had gone home, including some in dissent. Three gentlemen who were present declined, for various reasons, to sign the Constitution. They were George Mason and Edmund Randolph of Virginia, and Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts.
No signer of the Constitution considered the document to be perfect, but all were ready to explain it to citizens of the republic. In its final form, the Constitution gave far less power to the Federal government than James Madison had intended by his Virginia Plan. Indeed, the document that was presented for ratification followed moderate lines approved by that wise old man John Dickinson, even though Dickinson had not presented the Convention with a separate plan of his own.
As one looks back on these proceedings two hundred years later, it is easy to understand why historians have often referred to the Constitutional Convention as “the Miracle of Philadelphia.” It seems incredible nowadays that such an event could actually occur, and even then it was viewed by the American people and foreign observers as an extraordinary affair. Here were fifty-five individuals, all prominent leaders of their States, many traveling long distances under primitive means of transportation, gathered in one room for four months to forge a new system of government such as the world had never seen. At considerable personal sacrifice—and many had already suffered severe losses during the Revolution—they were away from their homes, their families, their businesses, and their farms for an entire summer. A deep sense of civic pride and virtue, and a feeling of moral responsibility for the welfare of the American people and future generations, explain only in part what motivated these gentlemen. They were also driven by a profound intellectual and emotional attachment to individual liberty. What is truly remarkable is that they all realized at the time the historic significance of what they were seeking to accomplish. For never in recorded history had a society had the opportunity, under the direction of its natural leaders and best minds, to deliberate at such length on the best form of government, to write a fundamental law for a whole nation, and to establish a constitutional republic for liberty, order, and justice.
In Philadelphia, the American people said their final good-bye to the baleful influences of arbitrary and unrestricted government, feudalism, class privilege, and other stultifying and corrupting Old World influences. The great German thinker and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spoke for many European onlookers when he congratulated the Americans on escaping the “ghosts” that had haunted Europe. The Framers had written not only a new Constitution but a new chapter in the history of mankind. The world would never be the same.