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The Federalist Papers: No. 54

On this day in 1788, Federalist Paper No. 54 is published. Publius is still dissecting the provisions regarding the House of Representatives. In this paper, he has the difficult task of defending one of the Constitution’s compromises regarding slavery.

This essay was most likely written by James Madison, who personally felt very conflicted by slavery. On the one hand, as he wrote elsewhere, he thought that “the magnitude of this evil among us is so deeply felt, and so universally acknowledged: that no merit could be greater than that of devising a satisfactory remedy for it.” On the other, he had concerns about how emancipation would work and how integration could be accomplished. And he had financial concerns.

For purposes of this essay, Madison is defending the provision regarding the apportionment of congressional representatives and direct taxes: The compromise reached at the Constitutional Convention was to count slaves as only “three fifths” of a person, for both purposes.

The objections to this provision were not always as admirable as you’d hope. Some people thought that slaves should be included in the taxation number (as property), but not in the congressional representation number (as persons). Including them in the latter number gave southern states more congressmen. But including them in the former would make these southern states liable for more taxes.

Madison observes that the new Constitution treats slaves “in the mixed character of persons and of property” because that is the “character bestowed on them by the laws under which they live.” Moreover, he asks, why would the southern states “concur in a system, which considered their slaves in some degree as men, when burdens were to be imposed, but refused to consider them in the same light, when advantages were to be conferred?” He concludes, “Government is instituted no less for protection of the property, than of the persons, of individuals. The one as well as the other, therefore, may be considered as represented by those who are charged with the government.”

This essay is a difficult one to read today because it reminds us of a black mark on our history. But if we are to study our history, we must study all of it. In this case, Madison, who personally felt that slavery was “evil,” set about defending a compromise on the subject to the American public. Many in the founding generation felt that it was most important to get the country up and running. The battle over slavery could be fought later, as provided by Article I, Section 9 of the U.S. Constitution.

Logistical note for those who care:

As with the last essay, the authorship of this paper is disputed, and it is included in both the Hamilton and the Madison papers. However, the editors of the Hamilton papers write that “Madison’s claim to the authorship of this essay outweighs” Hamilton’s claim. Thus, I have gone with Madison as the author in the attached picture.



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