VIII. The Measure of a Man
Although America did not invent slavery, slavery did invent America. Slavery invented America by providing the delegates to the Constitutional Convention the frame within they considered each of the critical questions they sought to answer. This was already clear on May 29, 1787, barely two weeks into the convention, when Edmund Randolph introduced the resolutions, known as the Virginia Plan, out of which our constitution would emerge. For even those resolutions that did not mention slavery explicitly had slavery written all over them. Nor is it difficult for us to figure out why this was so. The answer is already right there in Aristotle’s definition of a slave: “Any human being that by nature belongs not to himself but to another is by nature a slave; and a human being belongs to another whenever, in spite of being a man, he is a piece of property, i.e., a tool having a separate existence and meant for action.”
“In spite of being a man. . . .” So, were slaves to be counted as property, in which case they should be taxed, but not represented; or should they be counted men, in which case they should be represented, but not taxed. Here, in a man—a human being who belonged not to himself but to another—was contained the very cause for the American Revolution itself: taxation without representation. And, yet, the problem does not end there.
On May 29, 1787, Edmund Randolph set out five defects to the Articles of Confederation, defects that in the judgment of all those present warranted the creation of “a more perfect Union.” To begin with, “the Confederation produced no security against foreign invasion.” Congress could not “prevent a war, nor . . . support it by their own authority.” Congress also had no authority, should any state violate a treaty, or “the law of nations,” to punish that state. More importantly, noted Randolph, “particular states might, by their conduct, provoke war without control.” And, should they do so, “neither militia nor drafts being fit for defence on such occasions, enlistments only could be successful, and these could not be executed without money.” In short, the federal government was entirely incapable of either defending itself or of raising revenues with which to do so. This suggested a strengthening of the federal government at the expense of the states.
The federal government needed revenue in order to raise an army. Southern delegates objected. They objected, first, because, unlike their colleagues to the north, their property consisted not in real estate, ships, merchandise, and fixed capital, but in men, women, and children—in slaves. However, they also objected because they had reason to believe that, were the federal government to use their taxes to raise an army, that army might well be used against the southern states themselves.
The second defect to which Randolph called the attention of his fellow delegates was the fact that the federal government lacked authority to “check the quarrel between states, nor a rebellion in any, not having constitutional power, nor means, to interpose according to the exigency.” Again, the federal government was too weak to prevent civil war. And, again, southern delegates feared that the next rebellion might not be launched by Daniel Shays and his men, but by southern slaves eager to join their free brothers and sisters in the north. On whose side would federal troops side, on the side of southern planters, or on the side of southern slaves?
The third defect was that the Confederation was unable to secure the “fruits of liberty,” which, in this case, meant chiefly the economic fruits. But, once again, the problem was the weakness of the center. Without the ability to regulate interstate commerce or to impose restrictions on the generation of currency, the federal government was powerless to take advantage of the abundance of wealth and labor enjoyed by the new republic. But, once again, as well, property and, hence, slavery was the underlying issue. This is because the southern states wanted slaves to be treated as men for purposes of representation, but treated as property when it came to law. This placed run-away slaves in the odd position of being charged with theft, in effect stealing themselves. Interstate commerce was jeopardized by the countless caveats and exceptions that states were forced to make on account of slavery.
Randolph’s fourth objection to the Articles of Confederation was that they left no means for the federal government to defend itself “against encroachments from the states.” But, fifthly, Randolph pointed out, there was no clause making the federal constitution “paramount to the state constitutions.”
In both of these cases, slavery was the underlying issue. Against whom would the federal government need to defend itself if not from troops charged with protecting the South’s most peculiar institution? Or, which states sought preemption of their state constitutions over the U.S. Constitution? Again, the answer was clear.
And, yet, the northern states knew that economically they needed the South just as much or even more than the South needed them. We often overlook the immense windfall slavery provided all of the states and not simply those in the south. Economically, slavery drove wages down not only for unskilled workers, who often competed for employment with slaves, but for all workers, both skilled and unskilled. But, for this reason, we also often overlook the tremendous boost to overall productivity slavery provided, not simply for the South, but for all of the United States. This helps to explain why, for all their moral posturing, delegates to the convention from northern states did not simply walk away from the table when their southern colleagues refused to budge. And this, in itself, points to what was truly unique about the debates over slavery at the Constitutional Convention.
Aristotle, we will recall, discussed slavery in the context of the household economy or private enterprise, the principle aim of which was to maintain the household. Indeed, Aristotle explicitly warned against those who would seek to expand their wealth indefinitely. The owners of such households were at risk, believed Aristotle, of mistaking life (bios) for creation (zoe) and so of substituting mere biological existence for living well. Such owners, Aristotle warned, would quickly lose their bearings and would begin to view all of human action as mere means for accumulating endless wealth. Soon they would see courage only another means for making money, instead of an indispensible component in winning battles. Or they would begin to see war as only another way of accumulating wealth. Or they would view health care as a means for making money rather than, as it should be, a means to care for the sick and make them healthy.
Clearly, the impact that endless accumulation of wealth would have upon the enslaved would be disastrous. For let us suppose that the owner of this form of property could increase his yield not by preserving or maintaining his human property, but by using, discarding, and purchasing another slave. Let us suppose that, like any commodity, this commodity too could carry a value that made its use and replacement more economical than its care and preservation. Here, in fact, was the ultimate perversion: that human beings would come to view other human beings not as a means to sustain a closed economy, i.e., a self-sustaining oikos or oikonomia, which is the case in every despotism; but, rather, that they would come to view other human beings as a means of unending accumulation of wealth. At this point, human beings, whose bodies and minds are not limitless, are made subject to a process that is. And the destruction of their finite bodies and minds for the sake of something limitless comes to be viewed as a price worth paying.
This, clearly, is what had happened in America, not only in the South, but also in the North. And it is what linked the fates of mere landless laborers in the North to the fates of enslaved Africans in the South. In both instances, their lives and labor had come to be viewed solely within the context of the private household economy. The natural condition of both was viewed as “the tool” of another human being within an overall despotic relationship.
But, since delegates from northern states shared this general outlook with their southern counterparts, northern delegates found it difficult to out-maneuver their southern colleagues in discussions about taxation, property, security,representation, and slavery. They wished—all of them, North and South—to be true republicans, true advocates and protectors of public life, the life we hold in common and where alone we are free and equal. And, yet, such was the nature of the despotism attached to the private household economy (oikonomia)—to which, in turn, the delegates were themselves attached—that this despotism could not help but seep through the cracks left open by the framers.
Initially, of course, it created but a trickle. Since it intersected every one of the resolutions named in the Virginia Plan, the topic of slavery came up almost every day the convention met. But, on most days, since it was always possible to reach consensus on whatever matter was explicitly on the table—length of term of service, direct or indirect election of representatives, interstate commerce, taxation—the treatment of slavery could be kicked down the road indefinitely, or so it seemed. But, then, beginning in July the matter of slavery could not be put off any longer. And by August it threatened to undo all that had thus far been accomplished. Would slavery wreck the convention? Would it deprive the new nation of what it most needed: a new constitution?
Republicanism presumes common wealth shared among political, economic, and intellectual equals. The men meeting in Philadelphia in 1787 to “form a more perfect Union” were under no illusions. They knew full well that this republican vision would not sit well with most of those who had actually picked up muskets, fought, and suffered hardship for their country. Most of their fellow countrymen lacked the wealth, education, and property they would have needed to actively participate in public life. And, although some of them might hope some day to own their own household (oikos) and thereby become the masters (despotes) of their own household economy (oikonomia), most of them were and would forever remain the doulos or “slaves” within some other man’s private household economy.
For those of European descent, there was a way out of such bondage. Hard work, saving, wise investment, and eventually land and education might earn them the right to actively participate in public life. For those of African descent, the same did not hold true. Hard work might earn them a transfer from work in the fields to work in the foundry or lumber mill or to the household itself. But no amount of labor would be enough to earn them their political freedom. They too remained doulos or slaves within some other man’s private household economy; but without any hope for redemption. They were bound to work for a master (despotes) for life.
Just as it was elsewhere in the Americas, despotism was thus an indispensible component of economic life in the United States as well. And this fact, in and of itself, made advocacy for republican values and institutions highly problematic. For, as the inhabitants on the Island of Hispanola (Haiti) would soon demonstrate, there was nothing to prevent slaves from embracing these same values and institutions. And, owing to the inherent conflict between republican institutions and values and despotic ones, this made the formation of a more perfect Union that explicitly included despotism a leading problem for those meeting in Philadelphia.
The topic of slavery came up nearly every day during the convention. It came up on July 11, because southern states wished to have their slaves counted (at least numerically) in the formula that would determine representation in the House. It came up on August 8, because Massachusetts’ Rufus King, an outspoken federalist, wished to revisit the matter of importing slaves, which he considered “a most grating circumstance.” King, who had just read a disturbing committee report on the matter, struck a despairing note:
In two great points, the hands of the legislature were absolutely tied. The importation of slaves could not be prohibited. Exports could not be taxed. Is this reasonable? What are the great objects of the general system? First, defence against foreign invasion; secondly, against internal sedition. Shall all the states, then, be bound to defend each, and shall each be at liberty to introduce a weakness which will render defence more difficult? Shall one part of the United States be bound to defend another part, and that other part be at liberty, not only to increase its own danger, but to withhold the compensation for the burden? If slaves are to be imported, shall not the exports produced by their labor supply a revenue the better to enable the general government to defend their masters? . . . Either slaves should not be represented, or exports should be taxable.
Here, again, questions of taxation, representation, and national defense are clearly bound together with the entire matter of slavery. Rufus had earned his wealth from manufacturing, shipping, and investing in public securities. He therefore well appreciated the intimate relationship between slave labor, manufacturing, and the export business. But, he also appreciated the expense the federal courts and magistrates had incurred and would continue to incur policing the slave trade and its issue.
At which point, Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania was recognized. The only thing striking about Morris’ human geography is the praise it earned from his colleagues.
Compare the free regions of the Middle States, where a rich and noble cultivation marks the prosperity and happiness of the people, with the misery and poverty which overspread the barren wastes of Virginia, Maryland, and the other states having slaves. Travel through the whole continent, and you behold the prospect continually varying with the appearance and disappearance of slavery. The moment you leave the Eastern States, and enter New York, the effects of the institution become visible. Passing through the Jersey’s and entering Pennsylvania, every criterion of superior improvement witnesses the change. Proceed southwardly, and every step you take, through the great regions of slaves, presents a desert increasing with the increasing proportion of these wretched beings. Upon what principle is it that the slaves shall be computed in the representation? Are they men? Then make them citizens, and had them vote. Are they property? Why, then, is no other property included?
What precisely Morris meant by referring to the human landscape as a “desert” is difficult to discern. Was he referring to the poverty, the hovels in which slaves were forced to live? Was he referring to the profound lack of commerce, when compared to the north? However, it is Morris’ aim that is truly astounding. Morris was not demanding representation for slaves. Far from it. Rather, he was pointing out that slaves could not and should not be represented (thus depriving the south of dozens of potential representatives in the House).
But, then Morris turns to the matter of property and therefore of taxation. Southern states wanted it both ways. When taxation was on the table, they wanted their slaves to be counted human beings and therefore not taxed. When representation was on the table, they also wanted their slaves to be counted human beings, at least for purposes of representation. But, then, when the matter of voting was on the table, all bets were off. Suddenly once again slaves became property. Which other form of property was thus exempted from taxation?
Morris then called attention to what all of the others had ignored. Slavery, he pointed out, is the foundation of aristocracy. “Domestic slavery is the most prominent feature in the aristocratic countenance of the proposed Constitution.” Of course he was right. But, he was not finished. “The vassalage of the poor,” he declared, “has ever been the favorite offspring of aristocracy.” Right again. But he was speaking to a room filled with men for whom “aristocracy” was not necessarily a term of derision. And, so, in conclusion Morris returned to the issues of security, revenue, and representation.
And what is the proposed compensation to the Northern States, for a sacrifice of every principle of right, of every impulse of humanity? They are to bind themselves to march their militia for the defence of the Southern States, for their defence against those very slaves of whom they complain. They must supply vessels and seamen, in case of foreign attack. The legislature will have indefinite power to tax them by excises, and duties on imports, both of which will fall heavier on them than on the southern inhabitants; for the bohea tea used by a northern freeman will pay more tax than the whole consumption of the miserable slave, which consists of nothing more than his physical subsistence and the rag that covers his nakedness. On the other side, the Southern States are not to be restrained from importing fresh supplies of wretched Africans, at once to increase the danger of attack and the difficulty of defence; nay, they are to be encouraged to it, by an assurance of having their votes in the national government increased in proportion; and are, at the same time, to have their exports and their slaves exempt from all contributions for the public service.
Here, finally, Morris tied all the themes together: despotism, security, revenue, and representation.
Aristotle, too, had recognized the interrelationship among these matters. Despotism—or, as we prefer to call it, private enterprise—was the very foundation for the freedom of the republic. Absent the household economy’s generation of wealth, there could be no revenue to share in common. And absent common wealth, there could be no freedom and independence for the citizens of the republic.
There was, however, a huge difference between fourth century Athens and eighteenth century North America. Where Aristotle had viewed the unending accumulation of wealth as a perversion of private enterprise, the framers of the constitution were inclined to praise this potentially endless source of wealth. Here, we cannot overlook the fact that, while the first Library of Congress gave Plato and Aristotle pride of place—first and second under the general heading of “Politics”—it grouped them together with Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, which, given its novelty, is quite impressive. Published a mere eleven years earlier, in 1776, Smith’s book had already made it onto the all-time best seller list alongside Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Politics.
Evidently the framers still believed that it would be possible to steer clear of the perversions Aristotle had mentioned. They would be able to prevent military courage from being leveraged for private financial gain. They would be able to prevent wars from being waged to accumulate wealth. And they would be able to prevent medicine from becoming a cash cow. But, mostly, they would be able to prevent the despotism of the private household economy from infecting the republic.
Yet, given their discussion of slavery, it already seems clear that republicanism itself was on the block. For, all of the delegates, not excluding Morris, were now entirely comfortable equating the value of human beings with the private labor they performed in one another’s households, as though a republic could possibly be based and built upon such a thoroughly despotic principle. Each of them had taken the measure of a man—a slave—and had made that measure the cornerstone of their so-called republic.
That cornerstone has a name and that name is Civil War.