The Corrupt Bargain and the Preservation of Slavery
[Chapter 19 of Rothbard’s newly edited and released Conceived in Liberty, vol. 5, The New Republic: 1784–1791.]
The most important battle of the August days of the Constitutional Convention was waged, as had been the battle over the three-fifths clause, between the North and South and had at its heart the institution of slavery. One of the small number of restrictions on Congress in the draft Constitution was a prohibition of any tax on exports, or of any tax or prohibition on the “migration or importation of such persons as the several States shall think proper to admit”; in short, there was to be no restrictions on the slave trade. Furthermore, no navigation act could be passed except by a two-thirds vote in each house of Congress: a hallmark of the southern distrust of the northern merchants, one of whose many goals in the drive for a Constitution was to privilege themselves through a navigation act that would cripple the competition of foreign shippers in the southern foreign trade. All of these provisions were friendly to the South: two (the export tax and navigation clauses) were designed to preserve freedom of southern trade against northern attempts to seize privileges or revenues from the South; one (on the importation of slaves) was designed to preserve the traffic in slaves.
Already, Gouverneur Morris in early August had made an unsuccessful attempt to rescind the three-fifths clause decided upon in July, and Mason and the South were joined by Massachusetts and Connecticut in opposing the prohibition of exploiting the (as existing) minority South through export taxation. Then, on August 21, the slavery issue burst forth once more. Luther Martin of Maryland began proceedings by demonstrating that he was interested in individual liberty as well as states’ rights. Martin flatly proposed a prohibition or a tax on the importation of any slaves, for the encouragement of slavery embodied in the three-fifths clause “was inconsistent with the principles of the revolution and dishonorable to the American character.” John Rutledge replied in an interesting and revealing manner: in defending the slave trade, Rutledge insisted that “Religion & humanity had nothing to do with this question—Interest alone is the governing principle with Nations.” In short, moral principle was to be turned over in favor of vested economic interest; or, rather, vested economic interest was to be elevated to the status of “moral” principle overriding all other considerations. Charles Pinckney used slightly different tactics and upheld empirical evidence and custom over moral principle: “If slavery be wrong, it is justified by the example of all the world…. In all ages one half of mankind have been slaves.” Pinckney, of course, was speaking from the vantage point of the slave-owning “half” rather than the enslaved. His second cousin, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, added flatly that “S. Carolina & Georgia cannot do without slaves” (i.e., the slave-owners, not the enslaved inhabitants, of these states could not make do). Pinckney also used a primitive Keynesian multiplier analysis to “demonstrate” the benefits of slavery and slave importation for the whole country: “The more slaves, the more produce to employ the carrying trade; The more consumption also, and the more of this, the more revenue for the common treasury.” Both Pinckney, Rutledge, and Abraham Baldwin of Georgia threatened dissolution of the convention if it should interfere in any way with the slave trade.1
One interesting aspect of the decision was George Mason’s eloquent speech denouncing the slave trade and even slavery itself. He insisted that only South Carolina and Georgia still permitted slave imports and denounced the immorality, tyranny, and sins of slavery. Mason denounced northern merchants who had engaged in this traffic and urged that Congress have the power to prevent the slave trade. Charles Cotesworth Pinckney and Oliver Ellsworth of Connecticut, in reply, staunchly pointed to the reason for Virginia’s eloquence in attacking the slave trade. Since the Virginians, despite the eloquence and depth of Mason’s attack, were not after all proposing to proceed against slavery itself, Ellsworth and Pinckney saw in the Virginians’ stand the new makings of a vested economic interest of this aim: slave breeding. As Ellsworth trenchantly pointed out:
If it [slavery] was to be considered in a moral light we ought to go farther and free those already in the Country.—As slaves also multiply so fast in Virginia & Maryland that it is cheaper to raise than import them, whilst in the sickly rice swamps [further South] foreign supplies are necessary, if we go no farther than is urged, we shall be unjust towards S. Carolina and Georgia.
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