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Federalist 54 Summary

Federalist Papers Summary 54Federalist Papers Summary 54

The Federalist Essays Summary No 54: James Madison February 12, 1788

James Madison, Federalist Papers Author
James Madison

This paper presumably about the number of representatives granted each State is much more than that. It is the discussion of the rationale for counting only three fifths of the total number of slaves in a State when determining the number of representatives in the House of Representatives from that State. In Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution three fifths of the total number of slaves is a compromise number of course and the clue to the compromise comes from the first part of the clause, namely “ Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States….”. If southern States counted all slaves their representation in congress would increase but so would their share of the government’s tax load. Northern States would argue if slaves are property they should be counted in estimates of taxation which are founded on property but excluded from representation based on census. We know how this was resolved in the Constitution so that the southern States would ratify it, but of interest is how did Madison, who we have seen, thought slavery an abomination, defend the document. He gives the arguments presented on the issue and then selects the argument he uses for the defense.

First he claims there is no argument that the number of representatives and share of taxes should be proportional to the number of people in a State. But what about slaves? Southerners believed slaves were both property and persons because their laws considered them in some respects persons and in others property. The property part is obvious but there were laws supposedly that protected his life and his limbs against violence of all others even the master and being punishable himself for his violence he was regarded by law as a member of society. Therefore Southerners proclaim that the Constitution is correct when it views slaves with a mix of characteristics of person and property because that is based on the laws under which they live.

He continues the discussion by offering a second way southerners might look at the issue. Would the convention that wrote the draft have been impartial or consistent when not counting slaves when considering the number of representatives but including them when the tax burden was considered. Essentially, would the southern States ratify the draft if this was the outcome? Could northerners who berate the southerners for this barbarous policy agree that the federal Government consisting of the States should also consider the slaves property? But how are they to be counted in the federal estimation of people for rejecting them entirely would support the principle of property.

It gets more complicated for the Constitution at that time gave the States the power to decide which inhabitants of the State to include or exclude from the census. States also decided qualifications for suffrage within their States. As a result every State excluded certain portions of their inhabitants from being counted in the census used to decide representatives. Southerners thereby ask that equal consideration be given to their side and that a compromise be accepted where slaves are included as inhabitants but debased by servitude below that of free inhabitants.

Madison states with regard to the a southerner’s argument to follow “that it fully reconciles me to the scale of representation which the Convention have established”. He questions whether this clause in the Constitution can be defended by considering property as well as persons when representation is being apportioned. Is not government instituted to protect property as well as people and should not those charged with the government represent both? In fact in New York one branch of government is intended more especially to be the guardian of property and is elected only by those with property interests. The federal Constitution does not consider property or wealth when electing the representatives but since their responsibilities includes protecting the rights of property should not attention be paid to property when choosing those representatives?

“For another reason the votes allowed in the Federal Legislature to the people of each State, ought to bear some proportion to the comparative wealth of the States.” Within a State people of wealth and property influence the votes of others so “through this imperceptible channel the rights of property are conveyed into the public representation”. A State possesses no such influence over another State. The representatives from richer States will possess no advantage over those from other States but they should be entitled to an advantage by a superior share of representation. In the Articles of Confederation the cooperation of wealthy States was important to the success of resolutions passed by the Congress as was true for some confederacies in Europe. Thus wealth should also influence the share of representation.

The summary of the argument that persuaded Madison to be reconciled to the three fifth number goes like this: property needs to be protected by government but there is no provision for doing so and property or wealth should have an advantage in representative government but it doesn’t so allowing southerners to include property at the three fifths scale for the purposes of representation helps correct these problems and if the property is considered equally for taxation then it is justified.

It is worthy to note that he is only reconciled to the scale of the number three fifths and he takes no responsibility for the argument by saying a southerner might employ it. In fact he takes no responsibility for any of the arguments in the entire paper which is a first. His task was to defend the indefensible which he did by being reconciled to the fraction employed but not to the concept requiring such a number nor to the policy of slavery itself.

Federalist Papers Summary 54 Written by Donald Mellon

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Federalist Papers Summaries


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