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430

CONSEQUENCES OF THE ASSUMPTION.

[CHAP. V. unprovided for by the respective States, and had not been purchased up by speculators, injustice was done to many of the States by making them contribute more than their just proportions of the public debt. The burdens of the General government, already weighty, were greatly increased; an odious excise had been created; a popular insurrection excited; a heavy expense incurred to put it down; and jealousies and suspicions against the motives of those who administered the government were increased, and parties were thus created, and eventually acquired a bitterness which they probably would not have otherwise known.

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To the debt of twenty-one and a half millions of dollars, which was assumed, were added the balances due to creditor States, amounting to nearly two and a half millions, making the whole amount assumed nearly twenty-two and a half millions of dollars.

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Having followed this subject to its termination, which merited the more attention on account of the very lively interest it excited at the time, and because it contributed, more than any other question, to divide the country into two angry and hostile parties, let us now go back to the other principal measures which engaged the deliberations of Congress at this session.

The enumeration of the inhabitants, which was required by the Constitution to be periodically taken to determine the representation of the different States, was provided for at this session.

In February, a subject was brought before Congress, which, from that time to this, has never failed to excite the liveliest sensation in some of the States. This was the subject of negro slavery, which the Quakers brought to the notice of Congress in a petition to take measures for abolishing the slave-trade. The question of referring

1790.]

PETITION AGAINST NEGRO SLAVERY.

431

the memorial to a committee gave rise to a debate, in which the members from South Carolina and Georgia were opposed to a reference. The petition having been laid on the table, a memorial, on the following day the twelfth of February—for the abolition of slavery, from a society in Pennsylvania, of which Benjamin Franklin was President, was presented, asking the interposition of Congress for the purpose of putting an end to all traffic in the persons of their fellow-men. The question of referring this memorial to a committee was also debated with the same warmth as that from the Quakers; and on the question of the reference of both petitions, it was carried by forty-three votes to eleven-one member from New York, Sylvester, two members from Virginia, Bland and Coles, and one from Maryland, Stone, voting with all the members from South Carolina and Georgia.

The committee to whom the subject was referred made a report on the eighth of March, in which they declared that Congress had no power to prohibit the importation of slaves into any State permitting it, before 1808; nor could they interfere in the emancipation of any slaves, whether imported, or born in the United States; nor had they any authority to interfere in the internal regulations of the States concerning their slaves, or respecting the seizure, transportation, or sale of free negroes; and that they had confidence in the wisdom and humanity of the Legislature of those States. They at the same time declared that they might lay a tax on imported slaves within the limits prescribed by the Constitution; might interdict the slave-trade carried on by citizens of the United States for foreigners, and regulate that carried on for the United States, so far as to provide for the humane treatment of the slaves on their passages either to the United States or to foreign ports: that they might

432

REPORT ON NEGRO SLAVERY.

[CHAP. V. prohibit foreigners from fitting out vessels in the United States for the slave-trade. They add, in conclusion, that they will, in all cases, use the authority of Congress for the humane objects of the memorialists.

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The report was unsatisfactory to the members of South Carolina, and a motion was made to recommit it, which was negatived. The Quakers, as before, were assailed with bitterness and defended with spirit.

When the discussion was renewed, on the sixteenth of March, Mr. Tucker, after insisting on the injustice and unconstitutionality of the interposition of Congress on the subject, proposed to substitute for the whole report a resolution declaring such interposition unconstitutional, and tending to injure some of the States; when it was decided that the amendment was not in order.

The House then entered on the discussion of the report, taking each resolution in succession, in which the former heat and acrimony were renewed. The debate continued for several days, and it was at length agreed to amend the report of the committee, and to insert the amended report on the journal; which motion was carried by twenty-nine votes to twenty-five.

The amended report did not differ from the report first made, except in using language less likely to give offence to the Southern States. It was in these words:

"First. The migration or importation of such persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, cannot be prohibited by Congress, prior to the year 1808.

"Second. Congress has no authority to interfere in the emancipation of slaves, or in the treatment of them within any of the States, it remaining with the several States alone to provide any regulations therein which humanity and true policy may require.

1790.]

NEGRO SLAVERY DISCUSSED.

433

"Third. Congress has authority to restrain the citizens of the United States from carrying on the African trade for the purpose of supplying foreigners with slaves, and of providing, by proper regulations, for the humane treatment, during their passage, of slaves imported by the said citizens into the States admitting such importation."

In this early discussion of a subject which has since been so often renewed, and which has more than once seemed, from the irreconcilable contrariety of sentiment with which it is viewed by the two great divisions of the States, to endanger their political union, both parties were led, in the ardor of their feelings, to assume ground that would be now regarded by both as untenable. Thus the members from the only two States which then imported slaves, spoke of the memorial as unconstitutional; though, in asking Congress to go to the verge of their power to suppress the slave-trade, the memorialists recognise and respect the limits which the Constitution had set to that power: and those members reviled the Quakers for seeking to restrain a traffic which every State now condemns, and would be certain to interdict, if the Constitution had not made their interposition unnecessary.

On the other hand, Mr. Scott, of Pennsylvania, in his zeal to defend the memorialists, and to show his opposition to slavery, presented an instance as striking of the ascendency of feeling over reason, and professed himself inclined to overstep the restrictions imposed by the Constitution." "Perhaps," he says, "in our legislative capacity, we can go no further than to impose a duty of ten dollars; but I do not know how far I might go, if I was one of the Judges of the United States, and those

1 II. Gales & Seaton's Debates, page 1524. 2 Ibid. page 1242.

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434

RATIFICATION BY RHODE ISLAND.

[CHAP. V. people were to come before me and claim their emancipation; but I am sure I would go as far as I could:" and in a subsequent speech he seemed to regard the provision of the Constitution as controlled by the great law of necessity, and said: "I believe that if Congress should be, at any time, of opinion that a state of slavery attached to a person, is a quality altogether inadmissible into America, they would not be bound by the clause above cited (from the Constitution) from prohibiting that hateful quality." Which latitudinous and absurd view of the Constitution he enforced and illustrated at some length.

Neither party on this delicate question would venture to push their doctrines to such extremes at the present day, though it must be confessed that both of them have occasionally made nearer approaches towards such ultra views than either prudence or sound logic can justify.

This agitating discussion took place while the subject of providing for the public debt was under consideration, and since some of the States which were divided on one question were agreed on another, the local feelings and prejudices were probably thereby somewhat soothed. In this way, Messrs. Ames, Grout, and Thatcher, of Massachusetts, Trumbull of Connecticut, and Benson and Van Rensselaer of New York, might have been induced to vote with South Carolina, which State had voted with them for the assumption. On the question of recording the report of the committee, the ten members of Virginia were equally divided.

In May, Rhode Island adopted and ratified the Constitution of the United States, of which the President informed the two Houses in June that he had received official information; and the requisite alterations in the census law, and some other statutes, were accordingly made.

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