Father of the Constitution
Madison soon abandoned "Quotas of contribution" and, with the support of Virginia and the other large states, embraced representation based on population alone. The small states objected bitterly, demanding that each state have an equal vote in a unicameral Congress, as was the case under the Articles of Confederation. Madison, in response, argued the small states had nothing to fear from a cabal of large states; he repeatedly asserted that the real division within the nation pitted slave states against free states. The small states were not persuaded, and on July 16, the delegates, to Madison's dismay, took a different approach, approving the Great Compromise, or Connecticut Compromise, in which seats in the House of Representatives would be allocated based on population while granting each state an equal vote in the Senate.
Slavery presented still other constitutional problems. Madison had initially believed that Congress should select the nation's chief executive, but in the course of the debates, he came to see the merits of a popular vote, in part because he wanted the president to be independent of Congress. On the other hand, he worried that a popular election would disadvantage the South "on the score of the Negroes," who could not vote. An electoral college, he ultimately concluded, partially answered that complaint and "seemed on the whole to be liable to the fewest objections. "Most of the other delegates agreed.
South Carolina and Georgia initially pressured the convention to allow the slave trade to continue until 1800 and then won a reprieve until 1808. Madison thought "so long a term will be more dishonorable to the national character than to say nothing about it in the Constitution." Indeed, Madison and the other delegates consistently avoided making any explicit reference to slavery in the text of the Constitution. Many of the delegates supported a tax on imported enslaved labor to discourage the trade, but Madison expressed qualms about appearing to treat enslaved persons as mere property. The convention, accordingly, included the ten-dollar tax but referred obliquely to the imported enslaved laborers as "such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit."
In Federalist No. 54, Madison defended the three-fifths compromise as best representing enslaved persons’ mixed status as property and persons. White southerners, he argued, could not have been expected to agree to count enslaved persons equally with free persons for the purpose of calculating a state's tax burden, as northerners wanted, and not count them for the purpose of representation. Slave states did not allow enslaved people to vote, he conceded, but laws regulating suffrage varied from state to state; the South could argue that if other nonvoters were counted for purposes of determining representation in the free states, why should enslaved individuals not be counted? Madison also argued that the three-fifths clause offered protection for property rights, somewhat comparable to New York's property requirement for voting. "Government is instituted no less for protection of the property of individuals, than of the persons of individuals," he wrote.
The Republican Legislator
The committee's report, submitted in March 1790, generally conformed to Madison's expectations, but it did criticize slavery, and one oddly written provision seemed to imply that Congress could free enslaved individuals born after 1808, which even the states of the Upper South would violently oppose. Madison brokered a compromise that deleted the controversial language and denied Congress's jurisdiction over slavery within a state, while recognizing congressional authority to bar Americans from selling enslaved persons to foreigners and to promote humane treatment of enslaved persons in transit across the Atlantic. The compromise favored slavery; for the time being, Congress would read the Constitution literally and avoid the issue. The amended report did not expressly acknowledge federal authority over slavery in the western territories, and Madison would never again support restrictions on its expansion internally. He also refused a later request to introduce an antislavery petition to Congress or to support a gradual emancipation bill in the Virginia General Assembly.
Slavery was not a major issue for Madison during his tenure as secretary of state from 1801 until 1809 or during his two terms as president from 1809 to 1817, although Congress did, as expected, ban the African slave trade in 1808. In his last annual message to Congress, Madison called for stricter laws against smuggling enslaved persons into the United States.
The Elder Statesman
Missouri's application for admission into the Union as a slave state in 1819 sparked the most bitter debate over slavery of Madison's post-presidential years. Madison took what was for all practical purposes a pro-slavery position. He denied that the Constitution's slave trade clause had ever been intended to empower Congress to regulate slavery internally or that the framers had intended to allow discrimination against new states in the matter of slavery. He denied, less plausibly, that Congress's power to govern federal territories included the ability to ban slavery in them. He argued that the Confederation Congress had no authority to outlaw slavery in the Northwest Territory and had done so only because it had no other way to discourage the African slave trade. Madison now embraced the theory of diffusion: that spreading slavery over a larger area would reduce the concentration of enslaved labor in any one state and expedite a gradual emancipation.
Madison continued to criticize slavery but refused to act decisively against it. He treated successful free Blacks respectfully, and he never suggested Blacks were innately inferior to whites, but he cited the woes of less prosperous formerly enslaved persons as an argument against immediate emancipation. He blamed their predicament on discrimination and on the failure of slavery to prepare them for freedom. Gentle by temperament, Madison acquired a reputation as a relatively benevolent enslaver, and he generally avoided selling the people he owned. However, faced with mounting financial pressure as farming income from Montpelier declined, he did sell sixteen enslaved persons to William Taylor, a cousin in Louisiana who owned a sugar and a cotton plantation.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Broadwater, J. James Madison and Slavery. (2020, October 6). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Madison_James_and_Slavery.
- MLA Citation:
Broadwater, Jeff. "James Madison and Slavery." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 6 Oct. 2020. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 1, 2020 | Last modified: October 6, 2020
Contributed by Jeff Broadwater, associate professor of history at Barton College in Wilson, North Carolina. He is the author of George Mason, Forgotten Founder (2006), James Madison: A Son of Virginia and a Founder of the Nation (2012), and Jefferson, Madison, and the Making of the Constitution (2019).