Constitutional Journal

-Wednesday, Aug. 22, 1787

Yesterday Luther Martin of Maryland ignited a long-delayed debate over slavery by proposing a tax on the importation of slaves.

DEBATE over the regulation of commerce and the slavery issue continued today and grew so bitter that Convention leaders sought to smother passions by appointing a Committee of Eleven to devise a compromise before anger led to a permanent Convention deadlock.

One delegate from each State was appointed to the Committee, charged with finding a formula to resolve two inflammatory interrelated issues: one, whether Congress should be given the power to impose export duties; two, whether a tax should be imposed on the importation of slaves. The Committee of Detail had recently recommended a prohibition against such taxation and a ban on any regulation of navigation by the new government unless passed by two-thirds of both the House of Representatives and the Senate.

The critical issue is the Northern States' control (as a majority) of commerce, with the slavery importation trade complicating any Southern compromise. Roger Sherman of Connecticut said that, while he disapproved of the slave trade, he favored leaving matters as they stood. The States are now possessed of the right to import slaves, and the public good did not require that this right be denied, he said. The deeply religious Yankee from Connecticut added that ``the abolition of slavery seemed to be going on in the U. S. and ... the good sense of the several States would probably by degrees compleat it.''

Col. George Mason of Virginia delivered the most passionate denunciation of slavery. The ``infernal traffic'' was born in the avarice of British merchants, Colonel Mason charged, and the British government had prevented Virginia from putting a stop to it. Virginia, Maryland, and North Carolina have banned the importation of slaves. Yet, the author of the first Bill of Rights in America added, South Carolina and Georgia are to be permitted to import slaves who will be sold to the frontier West, clamoring for this ``nefarious traffic.'' The tall, white-haired Virginian, his black eyes burning, issued this warning: ``Every master of slaves is born a petty tyrant. They bring the judgment of heaven on a Country. As nations can not be rewarded or punished in the next world they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes & effects providence punishes national sins, by national calamities.''

Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut was apparently stung by Colonel Mason's charge that some Eastern delegates with shipping interests had a ``lust of gain'' by profiting from slavery. Mr. Ellsworth replied that, since he had never owned a slave, he could not judge the effects of slavery on character. An obvious reference to a fact every delegate knows: Colonel Mason owns slaves.

Charles Pinckney III of South Carolina offered the only defense of the South during today's session. ``If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world,'' Mr. Pinckney said, referring to slavery in other modern nations and in ancient Greece and Rome.

With Georgia and South Carolina threatening to oppose the Constitution, the Convention compromised by establishing the Committee of Eleven to take up the power of Congress to tax exports and impose duties on the importation of slaves. Despite weariness, continuing humidity, and long sessions, every delegate understands that, without a compromise between the shipping States of the North and the planter States of the deep South, the Constitution will be stillborn.

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

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