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Constitutional Journal

By Jeffrey St. John / August 24, 1987



-Monday,Aug. 27, 1787

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Last Friday Roger Sherman of Connecticut warned against a presidential power to appoint military officers, because the President ``may set up an absolute Government; taking advantage of ... an army commanded by his creatures.''

POLITICAL expediency prevailed over moral righteousness last Saturday when the Convention defused the explosive slavery issue by agreeing to a compromise formula fashioned by the Committee of Eleven.

During last Friday's session the Committee report recommended that the importation of slaves be permitted until 1800 and the slave traffic be taxed ``at a rate not exceeding the average of the Duties laid on Imports.'' The current market value for a single slave is an average of $200.

On Saturday, Gen. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney of South Carolina proposed that the date for an end to the slave trade be extended from 1800 to 1808. The change was seconded by Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts. Unlike General Pinckney, Mr. Gorham does not own slaves, but he has ships that carry such human cargo.

The only delegate speaking against extending the slave trade for 20 years was James Madison of Virginia:

``Twenty years will produce all the mischief that can be apprehended from the liberty to import slaves. So long a term will be more dishonorable to the National character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution.''

Seven States against four voted for the compromise of extending the date to permit slave trade in exchange for levying duty on that cargo.

Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania, as a protest gesture, sought to have the word ``slaves'' inserted in place of the importation of ``persons'' along with the name of the slave-importing States of North Caroilina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Mr. Morris said such wording would make it clear the compromise on slavery was in compliance with those States. ``If the change of language however should be objected to by the members from those States, [I] should not urge it,'' Mr. Morris added.

Col. George Mason of Virginia said he was not against using the term ``slaves'' in the Constitution but opposed naming the three States, ``lest it should give offence to the people of those States.

This correspondent has learned that in return for the slavery compromise the South will agree to eliminate the two-thirds vote for the passage of any navigation acts by Congress. If accepted by the full Convention, this will be a victory for the Northern shipping States.

Gen. George Washington is reported to view last week's sessions as the most productive of the Convention. Clearly a deadlock and possible dissolution have been averted. Colonel Mason and Gov. Edmund Randolph, however, are reported to be infuriated with the compromise, principally since it involves regulation of commerce as well as slave importation. They may withhold their signatures from any final document as a demonstraton of deep discontent. A majority of delegates view the North-South compromise as one with all winners and no losers. Such a judgment remains to be vindicated by events.

These day-by-day reports on the Constitutional Convention will continue tomorrow.